The City Council prepares to vote on a zoning ordinance Monday at Cambridge City Hall. (Photo: Lauren Adhav)

A change in citywide zoning was approved 7-1-1 by the City Council on Monday, with Craig Kelley voting against and Ken Reeves abstaining.

Leland Cheung looked like a “no” vote as recently as June 27, but he said after the roughly five-hour council meeting that he changed his mind, and vote, when revisions to the proposed zoning got “to the point that the neighbors were happy” — a reference to the residents of Norris Street in North Cambridge, which are most immediately affected by the change.

The so-called 5.28 zoning laws describe how large, nonresidential buildings can become apartments in neighborhoods of single- and two-family homes. The Norris Street residents faced the former North Cambridge Catholic High School, now owned by Somerville dentist and developer Mouhab Rizkallah, being filled with so many residents it could have doubled the population of the blocklong, one-way street. Parking was also a concern.

Under the revised zoning law, the 36,352-square-foot building that could have held 53 units is now allowed only 26. While in late June officials from the Community Development Department were still unwilling to talk about population density and how many people might be added to the area regardless of the number of units allowed — because limiting the number of units doesn’t limit the number of bedrooms that can be put in them — on Monday councillor Sam Seidel phrased the effect of the zoning as: “If there are going to be people in that building, what’s the right number of people, and in how many units?”

An amendment from Mayor David Maher helped shrink the amount of space that can be taken up by apartments. He proposed increasing the amount of nonresidential or common space dictated by the zoning to 30 percent from 25 percent, and the councillors adopted the idea by a voice vote.

“Unintended consequences”

During a public comment period before the vote, residents said they continued to worry about unintended consequences resulting from the complexity of the language; they’d spotted errors in previous recent versions that city officials were able to follow up on and fix. As a result, they urged the city to review the language carefully, including a full legal review, before a vote was taken.

At least one mistake has seemingly sneaked through. At a July 18 meeting of the council’s Ordinance Committee run by Seidel, council candidate Charles Marquardt pointed out that such uses as artist studios weren’t allowed in the building. During the Monday vote, though, Mayor David Maher specifically mentioned artists studios as an allowed “light nonresidential use.”

Late Wednesday, Marquardt said he’d contacted the mayor’s office about the slip and was assured staffers were looking into the issue.

“We asked CDD about their review process and they told us they have done a thorough review of the language,” Seidel said. “That’s part of their job, so I take them at their word that they’ve done that work. It’s a reasonable expectation that as a professional department they have done that … Will some [mistake] emerge six months from now? It’s possible. The federal tax code is filled with loopholes.”

“Clear intent”

The reason for the residents’ worry was that city code in place from Jan. 24, 2001, said a “Residence B” zone, which Norris Street is in, didn’t allow apartments to be made out of nonresidential buildings. The Monday vote that changed that, meaning Rizkallah can fulfill the use for which he bought the former school, was justified by councillors in part because it had always been their “intent” to allow such uses — the actual law just didn’t say so.

“Their clear intent was to make it possible. The intent was such and has been interpreted as such since its creation,” Seidel said. “Norris Street triggered a much broader re-evaluation of the whole [zoning] section and its related pieces … and so that provided the opportunity to look at many different sections and try to address all of them at once.”

Henrietta Davis, who was on the council when 5.28 was voted, criticized “misinformation” that had been disseminated by opponents of the zoning change, noting especially that “this is not upzoning, it’s a downzoning” — meaning the law decreases possible density when a nonresidential building becomes apartments.

But some continued to argue the vote was an upzoning because it allows apartments where none had been allowed by the letter of the law. “This scary word tripped up Stuart Dash, one of my very favorite people in the Community Development Department,” said East Cambridge resident Heather Hoffman during public comment. “He said the proposal of course couldn’t be upzoning because we were dealing with existing buildings.”

“He couldn’t possibly mean anything that ridiculous. If that were the case why would we have use restrictions or limit the number of dwelling units a person can put in a building? Does anyone really think that changing the zoning ordinance to let a steel mill or rendering plant or nuclear power plant in an otherwise residential neighborhood — as long as it was put in an existing building — wouldn’t be upzoning?”

This story was updated Aug. 4, 2011, to correct the percentages of space set aside for nonresidential or common use in a 5.28 building.