Thursday, June 20, 2024

The Planning Board went beyond turning down a special permit request Tuesday to create 38 apartments on Norris Street, also delivering a sweeping rejection of the planned building as “worse than a tenement,” afflicted with “so many issues” that members were left “speechless.” The developer will have to come back with a new proposal under the same special permit.

The rejected one would have allowed Somerville dentist and developer Mouhab Rizkallah to transform the stately, 112-year-old former Ellis School and North Cambridge Catholic High School into apartments that, by some counts, would have literally doubled the number of people living on the small North Cambridge Street.

The seven members of the board were unanimous in rejecting it.

Neighbors have been horrified by the plans, citing everything from invasion of privacy — the 77-foot building towers over the block — to the impossibilities presented by the parking lot plan, since the 88-bedroom building would have had fewer than 40 parking spaces, none for visitors, off a narrow one-way street frequently further crowded with cars of people visiting Massachusetts Avenue businesses.

As a result, meetings about the proposal have been crowded and public comment periods long, and Tuesday’s meeting was no exception. There was nearly two hours of public comment from more than two dozen speakers, after which the Planning Board’s chairman, Hugh Russell, gave his opinion of the project to Rizkallah.

“I think you really need to go back to the drawing board,” Russell told him, citing several ways he felt the plans were unacceptable, including the lack of screening between 40 Norris St. and neighboring properties, parking that came too close to the building, lack of access to the rear and only entrance for people with disabilities and the proposal to build bedrooms that were windowless save for skylights far overheard. “It’s a demonstration the project is not sensible in terms of housing, and the suggestion the kind of tenants who would live there are substantially different than the people who are living in the [neighbors’] two- and three-family houses is, I think, absolutely true.”

“You’re building something that’s actually worse than a tenement,” Russell said. “Tenements were reform structures, they were built to prevent things like this from happening.”

The most important thing

The most important thing was to bring the number of units down dramatically, Russell said, sketching out a plan at Rizkallah’s request that called for 23 units — roughly the same as in a Somerville condo building, also once a schoolhouse put up the same year by the same architect, that neighbors have pointed to as a model of good development.

Board member Pamela Winters actually suggested condominiums for this building as well as a way to ensure lower population density for the neighborhood, but Rizkallah resisted mildly, looking to the future in a Cambridge where thinking dominates and wondering “What rental space is going to be available? There is a place for apartments in Cambridge. Whether or not this is the place, maybe it’s not.”

In every other regard he was pliant and agreeable, positively unflappable in the face of criticism and hopelessly universal opposition (it was Winters who said the plan had so many issues “I don’t even know where to begin”) that froze his plans utterly for a building that cost him $3.6 million less than three months ago, and which he hoped to be filling with tenants in less than a year.

“To some extent, I really think I got a bit of an unfair evaluation. To some degree I think I’ve been seen as sort of some carpetbagging developer. For your information, this is going to be in my family for many generations. I’m going to love this building,” he said of the former schoolhouse. “At the end of any project I do, I would like people to be able to say, ‘That Mo Rizkallah, he’s a pretty nice guy. And he really did his best.’”

“You’d be surprised how open-minded I can be about this,” he told the board, asking for help in crafting the next set of plans.

“I’ll take that challenge,” Russell said, but the chairman was careful to remind the crowd during the meeting that there was another track being pursued as an answer to Rizkallah’s plans: zoning changes that would define further what’s allowed in a residential area such as Norris Street. The developer wanted a special permit because what he proposed wasn’t allowed; neighbors wanted his request rejected because, they say, city law doesn’t allow it, period, which means there shouldn’t be a special permit.

Zoning changes

The zoning changes lie largely with the city’s lawyers and the City Council, which voted 9-0 the previous night to accept “placeholder” legislation indicating a permanent law is on the way. The issue, shepherded by Mayor David Maher, is headed to the council’s Ordinance Committee for a hearing and report.

In the meantime, residents urged board members repeatedly Tuesday to let the matter pass to the Board of Zoning Appeal, where Rizkallah was expected to have an even tougher time winning a variance — prompting member Thomas Anninger to say, “I’m a little puzzled why everyone wants to take it to the zoning board. I’m not quite sure what they have that we don’t have. Unless you think you’re going to get a ‘no’ from them, and that’s what you really want. I can’t imagine why a ‘no’ is in your interest — because to have this building lie fallow for a number of years is not what you want, and I think that’s where you would end up at the zoning board.

“We are also capable of saying no,” Anninger said, rare as it may have been in his 10 years on the board. This case was special, though. “I’ve never seen a project where my idea of what ought to be here and what we have before us, where the gap between us, is so wide. Here I’m almost speechless … I really don’t know where to begin.”

Rizkallah said something similar after the meeting, although he went away with Russell’s description of a proposal likely to win approval and the suggestion of hiring new designers to work with.

A meeting date for the council’s Ordinance Committee hasn’t been posted.

This post has been updated Jan. 8 to clarify that the special permit discussed here, to change a school into homes, goes on. It is only one proposal under the special permit that the board rejected. The Ordinance Committee meeting was later scheduled for Jan. 19.