Friday, April 19, 2024

Somerville developer Mouhab Rizkallah, talks Wednesday at The Peabody School with neighbors of his future apartment building at 40 Norris St. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The development of a school into apartments on Norris Street continues to pop up around the city’s calendar this week, with neighbors appearing before the City Council Monday to address a proposed zoning change and the developer on the Planning Board agenda Tuesday.

While the developer moves ahead with a request for a special permit “to convert a nonresidential building to 38 units of housing with 35 parking spaces,” citing Section 5.28.2 of the zoning code, neighbors are hoping to alter that section of the code — in the direction of less density, setting them on a collision course with the developer. The proposed zoning changes aren’t entirely satisfactory.

On a third front, with the Historical Commission last week, the developer’s attorney in the matter foreshadowed the clash while discussing whether the building should be declared a historical landmark.

“We do not oppose landmarking. We agree it’s a historical building in need of restoration,” Sean Hope, the lawyer, said Thursday. “The only reason we would oppose it is if we felt the landmarking was trying to oppose the number of units.”

The seven members of the commission voted unanimously to begin a yearlong landmarking study, during which the 40 Norris St. building — the city’s former Ellis School and North Cambridge Catholic High School — will be protected as though it were already a historical landmark. The status protects the exterior, but does not necessarily end construction or even prevent all visible changes. The developer can still get a certificate of appropriateness for changes from the commission.

“The purpose of landmarking is not necessarily to freeze a structure in time, but to ensure changes are appropriate,” said Charles M. Sullivan, the commission’s executive director.

The 112-year-old, 47,000-square-foot building towers over a block of single-, two- and three-family homes. Somerville dentist and developer Mouhab Rizkallah, who bought it Sept. 15 from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston for $3.6 million, hopes to remake the insider to hold: 18 units with three or more bedrooms; 10 with two bedrooms; and nine studio or one-bedroom units, Hope says. Five or six of the units would be considered affordable housing and the rest would be market-rate — in fact, luxury, with a four-bedroom unit going for up to $3,000 a month, according to figures given Wednesday when the developer and neighbors met for a question-and-answer session.

Building from top to bottom

Those numbers would send construction into the peaked auditorium roof and call for up to 26 skylights to be carved into the black Munson slate roof, since the city’s code demands natural light for bedrooms.

This bothers the neighbors, but Sullivan warned them that it’s something they might have to live with.

“I don’t think the commission would rule out skylights, necessarily, if they’re not incongruous and not inappropriate,” Sullivan said. “One can imagine too many skylights or inappropriately sized or shaped skylights, but one can also imagine a skylight installation that might be felt appropriate.”

Neighbors also raised the issue of heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment, space for which would be limited by the tenants living from the very top of the building to the basement. They might rely largely on personal air conditioners, said neighborhood development watchdog Michael Brandon, suggesting there could be 88 of the noisy metal boxes poking out of windows all around the building. (One neighbor warned that heat living under her own building’s slate roof was intense — capable of literally melting lip balm in a medicine cabinet or even causing explosions in other household goods.)

No one has said how the 200 or so schoolchildren that might have occupied the school in any given year dealt with the extreme temperatures.

While this school graduated Thomas P. O’Neill III and pioneering black doctor Ruth Marguerite Easterling (who lived from 1898 to 1943, went on to Tufts and is still honored by a minority scholarship there), there is a remarkably similar building in Somerville — built in the same year by the same architect with largely the same footprint — to which the Norris Street neighbors look as an example of good and harmonious development.

“You guys might want to take a look at it,” neighbor Dan Bertko told the commissioners and Hope, referring to the Carr Schoolhouse condominiums on Atherton Street.

The Carr building has only 20 units, and no skylights on the roof’s sides.

Alternative models

At the question-and-answer session a day earlier, neighbors proposed alternative models for development of 40 Norris St. that seemed to take Rizkallah by surprise.

Mathew Schofield invited him to visit his home to see the possibilities for common space, rather than filling the building with bedrooms that add population density to the neighborhood. And attorney Kevin P. Crane, who lives directly across from the school, proposed that Rizkallah look into selling units as live/work space, since home offices, artists’ workshops and the like don’t require windows. It would allow a reconfiguration of the apartments, lower population density but justify higher rent, Crane said, without dissent from city planning officials who attended the meeting, Liza Paden and Stuart Dash.

The developer was noncommittal to the live/work proposal but agreed enthusiastically to visit Schofield’s home.

“I’ll take him at his word, but we’re still pursuing avenues that give us more power,” Schofield said after the meeting, hinting at the zoning change to be discussed Monday and a request, filed Nov. 30 by Crane, asking the city to “refrain from issuing a building permit to the present owner of the property until a variance” is issued — with the two forms of permission coming from different city agencies with different levels of difficulty.

Using a metaphor of a teen who wants to stay out later than family rules allow, Dash said a special permit is for a kid who wants to, just this once, stay out to 11 p.m. A variance, though, is for when the kid is pleading to stay out until 3 a.m.

Update: Corrections were made Dec. 7 to show two city planning officials attended a community-planned meeting between neighbors and Rizkallah and to better describe housing on Norris Street.