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Rescue plan stirs hopes and worries

By Evan Allen
Globe Correspondent / September 18, 2011

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The developer who wants to build two new houses on the site of the historic Thomas Clark House in Belmont has decided to delay demolishing the oldest portion of the building for several months while a local architect works on a plan to save the 250-year-old structure.

Mark Barons said on Thursday that instead of razing the entire Clark House, he will just demolish an addition that was constructed around 1840 and a garage built in the mid-1900s. He will keep the portion built around 1760 intact.

Barons said he’ll begin construction on one new home about 10 feet from the oldest portion of the Clark House, which architect Erik Rhodin of Line Company Architects Inc. has proposed moving about 300 yards down the street from its current location at 59 Common St. to a spot on Royal Road.

The delay allows Rhodin more time to hammer out the details of his plan, which faces stiff opposition from local residents, and needs both approval from Belmont Special Town Meeting and state Legislative approval.

“The likeliness of this going through is good, but it’s going to be a challenge,’’ said Rhodin at a recent meeting with the town’s Conservation Commission.

Though the Historic District Commission has been trying to find a way to save the property for months, Rhodin’s plan is the first to gain any traction: Other plans to move the house sputtered and died because there was nowhere to put it and no money to do it. Rhodin’s plan is the first to answer both these questions - and it may be the Clark House’s last chance at survival.

The fate of the house has been a sore spot for history lovers since its owners, sisters Ann Callahan and Jean Sifneos, put it up for sale in November.

Barons, who reached agreement this summer on a deal to buy the property, intends to build two homes in its place. He applied for a demolition permit on Tuesday.

He said he decided to delay demolition of the oldest part of the Clark House and construct only one new home at a time in hopes that the historic structure can be saved, though it will add thousands of dollars to the cost of his own project.

“My hope is that it’s gonna help everyone,” said Barons. “Hopefully, this time is well spent.”

The Clark House is one of Belmont’s best-preserved examples of 18th-century Georgian architecture and has a long and colorful history. It was the home of Belmont’s oldest resident and first official voter when the town was incorporated in 1859. Legend holds that the original builder, Thomas Clark, watched the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775 from a hill behind the house; local lore maintains that later it was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Rhodin’s proposed new location for the house is on the one-way portion of Royal Road between the Lions Club and the World War I memorial. The plan calls for the town green to be extended to cover that portion of Royal Road. Rhodin wants to convert the Clark House to professional office space, build a parking lot behind it, and put a stone wall and a historic road in front of it.

It’s not an easy, or cheap, move.

Just picking it up from its foundation and wheeling it down the street will run at least $60,000 to $70,000, Rhodin said. Building a new foundation for the house to sit on, plus the cost of a police detail for the house’s roll down the road and cutting the tree limbs in its way, will push the price closer to $100,000.

And then the relocated house will need new electricity and plumbing systems, insulation, and general renovation- and Rhodin wants to rebuild the parts of the house that Barons is tearing down. Renovation and reconstruction, he says, could run anywhere from $200 to $400 per square foot. The Belmont assessors’ office lists the house as 3,854 square feet, not including the garage, which would bring the square footage to about 4,500 square feet, according to Rhodin. That could put the price tag as high as $1.8 million.

“It needs a lot of tender loving care that is usually very costly,’’ he said.

His solution to the funding issue lies a bit further down Royal Road, on town-owned land in the strip of woods between the road and the train tracks.

“To pay for this move, the renovation costs really do not make sense if you’re only moving the house. It’s a financial loss. So what we have proposed is to be able to do further development up the street,’’ said Rhodin. “We would be building houses.’’

Rhodin said he could not say how many units he would have to build.

Cost and time pressure are not the only hurdles he faces. The land he wants to move the house to belongs to the town, and was acquired as park land. To change its use, the town has to petition the state Legislature, a process that can only begin after Belmont’s Special Town Meeting, tentatively scheduled for Jan. 18 and 19, approves the new use.

Town officials would also need Town Meeting approval to sell or lease the lots on Royal Road, which would then be put up by the town for consideration by developers.

Rhodin is also facing a backlash from residents over his plan.

They oppose Rhodin’s project on the grounds that the street reconfiguration would worsen traffic, deprive local businesses of parking spots, and disabled residents living at a group home on Clark Street of a safe place to park or board a handicap van.

They also note the plan would entail burying old sewer lines and a storm drain, which they worry could leak or collapse and be difficult to reach.

They are concerned that the removal of a traffic island on Royal Road will speed up traffic, and that, combined with the newly narrowed road, will make a planned bike path on Royal Road impossible and endanger pedestrians, many of whom are high school students.

“He’s intending to turn the Clark House into a commercial office building with accompanying parking spots, not a museum,’’ said Royal Road resident Vincent Stanton Jr., who is spearheading the opposition. Stanton says that the project is a thinly veiled commercial enterprise, not a historical preservation effort.

“What’s the tail and what’s the dog here? The dog is a big commercial project for Line Architects,’’ he said. “The tail is that this is much to-do with the Clark House.’’

Rhodin maintains that the project is first and foremost one of preserving a piece of history.

“The primary goal is to save the house, but nobody in his right mind is going to come in and offer to do that at a loss,’’ he said. “Something has to cover the cost.’’

So far, he has met formally with the Board of Selectmen, the Conservation Commission, and Community Development Department, and informally with the Historic District Commission and the Planning Board, all of which, he says, have been tentatively supportive.

Michael Smith, cochairman of the Historic District Commission, said he was “cautiously optimistic’’ that Rhodin’s plan would work.

“There’s a long ways to go,’’ he said, “but we’re pleased with the progress he’s trying to make.’’

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