Neighbors, property owner at odds over development
Ruppert Kohlmaier looks at the little wedge-shaped piece of green space that he owns near Magazine Street and sees trouble.
Over the years, he’s been threatened with lawsuits from people who claim to have been injured playing in the shade of some oak trees on the property, so he is planning to build on the site.
But when neighbors look at the same patch of ground, they see something else: a beloved pocket park, serving as a crucial buffer between the modest homes of the Irish Channel and the busy commercial activity on Magazine Street.
If Kohlmaier throws up a new residential building on the property, they argue, it will mean losing one of the few remaining green spaces in a neighborhood already under heavy development pressure.
“We need an open spot,” said Patti Henn, who lives nearby. “The Irish Channel is already a very tight community, with very little green space, and to take it away is taking a lot away from the Irish Channel. This park is very important to every single neighbor that lives there.”
The conflict — simmering since Kohlmaier closed off the property with a sturdy iron fence a few weeks ago — came to a head Tuesday afternoon at an unusually contentious meeting of the Architectural Review Committee of the Historic District Landmarks Commission.
Nearly two dozen Irish Channel residents filled a small conference room at City Hall to capacity, arguing that any development of the space will be a loss for the neighborhood.
Yet there does not seem to be much stopping Kohlmaier from moving ahead with some type of building project, unless residents can persuade him to sell.
The property — a shady parcel at Constance and Harmony streets just behind Magazine Street’s Design Within Reach store — is technically not a park at all, city officials acknowledged, although that perception is so pervasive that it is mistakenly marked as such on the city’s master plan.
Once the site of a McDonogh school building, it has been owned by Kohlmaier’s family for years and is zoned as a “neighborhood business district,” which means Kohlmaier’s proposal for a residential development is allowed.
Still, members of the Architectural Review Committee did not seem particularly taken with the plans outlined by Kohlmaier’s architect, Kenneth Gowland, of Metro Studio.
Gowland said the plans are only preliminary, noting that various architectural styles in the area offer different options for trying to blend in.
But the idea of a big, multifamily housing complex struck the HDLC architects as out of place, and they raised concerns about creating more runoff by taking away a patch of green space that absorbs water.
“Part of the Irish Channel character is that it’s single-family houses almost completely,” said architect John Wettermark. “And the large buildings that break that mold are public buildings — a church, a school, not multifamily housing.”
The architects and city planners suggested softening the building’s impact by leaving more green space between the building and the street.
But that suggestion did not appease neighbors, who argued for keeping the lot as it is, worried that any new construction would represent an encroachment of Magazine Street bustle into a quiet, residential area.
“It creates a nice buffer,” Scott Pintzer said. “I’m transitioning from the Rendezvous bar, the Rum House, and I’m going to a nice neighborhood where people live.”
Architect Rick Fifield suggested that, if the Irish Channel residents are so committed to the idea of a park at that location, they should act. Various foundations and public land trusts could help them attempt to acquire the land from the owner, he said.
“Since you have such a fine showing here in favor of open space, you need to act,” Fifield told the crowd.
Kohlmaier did not attend the meeting, but back at the woodworking shop he owns nearby, he ruled out the idea of selling and vented frustration at neighbors, pointing to a flier posted on neighborhood street posts rallying people to “save the park.”
“ ‘Save the park.’ What park?” Kohlmaier said. “There’s no park. It’s Mr. Kohlmaier’s personally owned piece of ground. Everybody went with this because I let everybody walk their dogs, and I left it open.”
In the years since his father purchased the land from the School Board, Kohlmaier said, he has been threatened more than once with lawsuits. Once it was someone playing on a makeshift rope swing; another time it was someone tripping on the tree roots. First he had to get liability insurance, then put up the fence.
“They said I closed the park. There is no park,” Kohlmaier said. “I was just nice and kind enough to let them use it. I’m never going to do that again. If I own a piece of ground, I don’t want anybody on that ground. It’s not fair for people to go in there and get hurt and then blame me for it.”