Mouhab Rizkallah, in the left foreground, presents plans for apartments to neighbors of 40 Norris St., a former school, on Dec. 1. His plans to convert the building have run into some difficulties. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The city has responded fiercely to a developer’s assertion that an order for him to stop work was the result of “political forces.”

Somerville dentist and developer Mouhab Rizkallah spent $3.6 million in September on the 112-year-old former Ellis School and North Cambridge Catholic High School at 40 Norris St., aiming to turn the 77-foot building into 38 apartments — or 88 bedrooms — and possibly doubling the number of people living on the small North Cambridge Street.

The city’s Inspectional Services Department issued Rizkallah a stop-work order Nov. 1, though, while neighbors expressed alarm to Rizkallah and public officials about the proposal and, on Dec. 7, the Planning Board rejected it as “worse than a tenement.”

He can come back with a revised plan, but the stop-work order remains in place, with a letter from the department dated Thursday outlining the reasons in detail and using a paragraph to forcefully knock down Rizkallah’s combination of plea and ultimatum.

Rizkallah’s letter to the department Jan. 22 warns he would be appealing the stop-work order to the state, calling it an “abuse of power” resulting from neighbors’ political pressure.

“I have lost confidence ISD has the autonomy from the political forces to resist this abuse of power and lift my stop-work order. As such, in order to liberate ISD from these abusive external forces, I will be appealing,” Rizkallah wrote. “[The state] ruling should free you from the control that I know you do not want.”

The way he saw it, the stop-work order resulted from the “trivial” removal of a five-foot square piece of concrete that “I still believe did not exceed my permit scope” and a few other details that have been resolved.

He was unhappy, then, that a Dec. 20 letter from the department said the stoppage was because plans for the building were under review by the Planning Board for Rizkallah’s attempted “change of use” — meaning he was taking a school and turning it into apartments. The flooring and “nonstructural demolition” his contractors were doing fell within existing permits, the developer argued.

“The work that I am doing does not narrow the use of the property to residential use by any means,” Rizkallah told the department. “Where does it indicate that an existing building permit can be stopped for ‘use-unspecific’ work if the property owner is exploring ‘change of use’ options?”

“Of course I genuinely believe that the Cambridge ISD is a TERRIFIC group of professionals,” he wrote. “While I have been disappointed by the strangeness of the process to date, I do not see your staff or the many wonderful administrative departments that I have interacted with as culprits for what I feel is a true abuse of power.”

The city’s response

Neither his reasoning or expressions of warm feelings for the department won over Ranjit Singanayagam, commissioner of the department, who used most of a three-page response to describe what Rizkallah’s contractors were doing as “work far in excess of the work you described in your building permit application” and too extensive to be “diagnostic demolition.”

In addition, Singanayagam noted, on that application Rizkallah had marked the “no change of use” box, then made a presentation to the Planning Board to change the school into apartments — permission that “to the best of my knowledge” is pending.

Inspection of the site showed demolition of boys’ and girls’ bathrooms, school lab classrooms, administration offices and a cafeteria, as well as creation of wall openings to create new layouts, Singanayagam said to Rizkallah.

“You have failed to provide ISD with an entire set of plans showing how you intend to refit the building for the pre-existing nonconforming use as a school that you indicated the building would be used for,” Singanayagam said.

An opening carved into a concrete slab corresponds to a proposed elevator shaft in Rizkallah’s proposed apartment design, Singanayagam said, and the demolition that’s been done and installation of hardwood floors follow proposed apartment layouts.

It’s an “unmistakable correlation,” Singanayagam said, for a use “not permitted in the zoning district where your property is located.”

“The veracity of aspects of your building permit have been called into question. After your presentation to the Planning Board of your plans to convert the building to residential use,” he said, “it has become evident that you are attempting to perform work to create a residential use.”

Then the letter veers into territory that suggests complications in the developer’s working relationship with the city as well as his possible appeal to the state:

As to the other allegations in your Jan. 22 letter, I would like to make it very clear that ISD has absolute “autonomy from the political forces.” Neither I nor any inspector or employee of ISD “abuses” our “powers” because of the “intense pressure” you think has been put upon us. I want it to be understood that ISD absolutely denies any wrongdoing with respect to your property and the current stop-work order issued by ISD. It is disappointing and absolutely incorrect that you believe ISD or the City of Cambridge would act in such a way.