A former Catholic school on Norris Street in North Cambridge, proposed to be housing that could hugely expand the number of people on the small street, has inspired an update to zoning law that is set to be voted Monday.

Small neighborhoods that happen to host big business buildings, schools or churches should be riveted by a City Council vote coming Monday: whether those big buildings can be turned into very large amounts of housing when the businesses, government officials, students or parishioners move out.

It’s not allowed by city law. The vote Monday would change that, since some city officials say they approved of such a use all along and that the three pages of code in the so-called 5.28 zoning section forbids it by mistake.

The vote — which comes after nearly nine months of residents speaking out and city officials wrestling with zoning language — affects the whole city but was inspired by a situation in North Cambridge where a former Catholic school was proposed to become 38 apartments holding 88 bedrooms, doubling the number of people and very likely cars on a small and already crowded one-way street.

“This is a huge upzoning of the city,” said councillor Craig Kelley, an outspoken and likely outnumbered opponent of the change, at a June 15 meeting of the council’s ordinance committee.

Upzoning refers to changes that add density to a neighborhood. Development watchdogs around the city agree with Kelley and are eyeing the city’s remaining stock of nonresidential buildings in neighborhoods of single- or two-family homes, everything from a Brattle Street church complex that could become 15 to 29 homes (from the lowest number in a “proposed” zoning amendment to the highest in an “alternative” formula) to the former Middlesex County courthouse in East Cambridge, which the city manager estimated in estimated in November 2008 could become 511 units.

“If that’s not an upzoning, I don’t know what is,” said East Cambridge’s Mark Jaquith during public comment, using the church as an example. “To characterize it otherwise is deluding yourself and the public.”

The “existing buildings” argument

Stuart Dash, the city’s director of community planning, said some 10 conversions had been done in the past decade and guessed there might be five in the next decade — a figure questioned by the city’s citizen development watchdogs. He referred to a list made in 2006 on which most of the properties have been developed, but a list of possible properties has been elusive. “They’re in use now,” Dash said, referring to likely 5.28 properties, and when you put them on a list “the building owners get nervous.”

The original Norris Street proposal was rejected by the Planning Board, with one member saying the plan would create a building “worse than a tenement,” and changes to 5.28 — reached painstakingly over the months during meetings among Mayor David Maher, residents of the street and city planners — would decrease the allowed number of units to either 29 or 26 from the current 53.

“I’m confused as to how one could look this proposal, which dramatically cuts the number of units, as an upzoning,” Maher asked Dash during the June 15 meeting. “Do you in any way, shape or form see this as an upzoning?”

“No, it’s still only addressing the existing buildings,” Dash replied.

The answer cuts to the essence of disagreement between worried neighbors and confident city officials. As Dash and the mayor see it, they can’t be adding density if buildings already exist; as neighbors see it, adding 29 apartments and the several dozen residents and their cars to a street does add density — population density — where once there was a school used primarily for a few hours a day on weekdays. In becoming apartments, the building would house people 24 hours a day and on weekends, and Norris Street residents such as Dan Bertko wonder who would want to live in such a large building with so many people. “This is the ordinance to create ‘Animal House,’ ” he said. “It’s very attractive to single people and unattractive to families,” which could dramatically change a quiet neighborhood.

Still, this fits Dash’s definition of upzoning as “allowing more than current zoning allows” only if acknowledging that 5.28 doesn’t allow buildings such as the Norris Street school to be remade into housing. Officials such as Maher and City Manager Robert W. Healy don’t, since they blame the letter of the law on a mistake made during its drafting.

Flaws remain

It’s a big mistake, of course, but amending the law onto 12 pages from three allowed more mistakes to creep in. At the ordinance committee meeting, two errors were caught — by residents, rather than city officials — including a formula for calculating ground floor area that was missing a “0.5” in one place and figures defining the size of apartments that were different in two current documents.

“Is there someone within the department who will review for typos?” councillor Ken Reeves asked.

While the zoning is most likely to be taken up Monday, on the last council meeting before a summer break and before the amendment expires, it was first proposed to be voted at the council meeting coming only three business days after the committee hearing.

Typos aside, the residents of Norris Street who have been haunting city meetings for months said June 15 that the amended zoning is getting closer to what they wanted to see, kept suggesting changes (such as Bertko’s idea for a parking formula) and thanked city planners and the mayor for working with them. It was Kelley who, catching what seemed to be another inconsistency in the zoning, reacted with the most impatience — if not outright anger — to the process.

He spotted a reference that seemed to newly allow townhouses in “Residential A” zoning such as Avon Hill and asked Dash about it, but Dash wasn’t able to answer immediately.

“I don’t see why not, but I’d have to check,” he said.

“I’m not going to ask any more questions,” Kelley said. “If you can’t answer that simple question, we have no business voting on it … I share Mayor Maher’s appreciation for your efforts. I must admit I share none of his appreciation for the results. I think we ought to scrap this and start completely anew.”

The “not allowed” argument

“I take some exception to the thought that you have some numbers on Norris Street of [how many units] are allowed currently. Again, the table of uses is clear: They’re not allowed,” Kelley said.

Kelley left the meeting after Dash struggled to answer the townhouse question — Dash found an answer several minutes later — but has been consistent on pointing out that the law doesn’t allow nonresidential buildings to be converted to apartments in “Residential B” zoning such as on Norris Street. In a YouTube video of a Nov. 22 meeting confrontation between Kelley, Healy and city planners, he wonders whether a developer could apply for any use denied in the zoning, such as using a building for a freight terminal or motel, and says:

“I don’t understand how one can be clearer than saying no. When I talk to my kids and I say ‘No,’ it is a ‘No.’ When I say ‘No, maybe tomorrow,’ it’s a ‘No, maybe tomorrow.’ But ‘No’ in any reasonable discussion means ‘No’ unless it’s qualified, and here that ‘No’ is not qualified … and if you look at the development issues and the density issues, this is exactly why. What we’re seeing here on Norris Street is exactly why you wouldn’t grant this project by special permit, because it is going to swamp this street. It is simply too big for this street.”

“That may well be the end result,” Healy said, insisting that the intent of the zoning was the opposite of what the zoning says and ultimately walking out on the conversation.

It’s the result neighbors fear despite a cap on the number of units that can go into a building. It’s a paradox that’s worried Norris Street residents since the beginning of the project — that if you have fewer units, the units can be larger and hold more people — because neither the developer nor city planners are willing to talk about population density and because the city’s Inspectional Services Department is considered toothless. A building at the Cambridge Crossing development, another former Catholic school turned into housing in North Cambridge via a 5.28 special permit, lacks a certificate of occupancy and has been occupied illegally for years by renters. To neighbors, such examples make it worrisome when Dash assures that the law limits the number of unrelated people who can live together.

When asked June 15 whether there was a cap on the number of people that could be added to Norris Street, Assistant City Manager for Community Development Susan Glazer said simply, “No. It’s the number of units.” When asked how many people might be added to the street, she said, “It’s impossible to determine.”

Neighbors, eight of whom spoke at the ordinance committee’s public hearing alongside three people from other areas, remain unsettled.

“They reduce the number of units, but they still fill every square foot. Norris Street wants to see [the building] developed, and we’re willing to put up with twice the number of people as the rest of the street average. But according to your plan, we’re going to wind up with five times as many because every square foot can be turned into an apartment,” Bertko said to Dash after the meeting. “You’ve reduced the number of units, but you haven’t reduced the amount of space.”

“This is a density bomb,” Bertko said.

The city’s latest proposed zoning language is here.

This post was updated June 28, 2011, to remove an incorrect statement that flaws in the current 5.28 proposal were all caught by Norris Street residents.