Jul 302014
 
A black iron fence surrounds a green space at Constance and Harmony owned by Ruppert Kohlmaier. (Robert Morris, UptownMessenger.com)

A black iron fence surrounds a green space at Constance and Harmony owned by Ruppert Kohlmaier. (Robert Morris, UptownMessenger.com)

Approximate area of green space highlighted. (map by Uptown Messenger via Google Maps)

Approximate area of green space highlighted. (map by Uptown Messenger via Google Maps)

From the front window of the woodworking shop just off Magazine Street his father bought in 1930, Ruppert Kohlmaier can see a little wedge-shaped green space he also owns, and what he sees is a problem. Over the years, he has been threatened with lawsuits by people who claimed to be injured playing under its shady oaks, and now that he wants to build on it, his neighbors are angry at him.

When the neighbors around Constance and Harmony see the same space, they see a beloved pocket park, a crucial buffer between the modest homes of the Irish Channel and the busy commercial activity on Magazine Street. If Kohlmaier replaces the open area with a large building, they say, it will mean the removal of one of the few remaining green spaces in a neighborhood already under heavy redevelopment pressure.

Those conflicting viewpoints — simmering for weeks since Kohlmaier closed off the property with a sturdy iron fence — came to a head Tuesday afternoon at an unusually contentious meeting of the city’s architectural review committee.

The panel — known as the Historic District Landmarks Commission’s Architectural Review Committee — does not make judgments of use or zoning, but is charged with evaluating proposals to build in designated historic districts around the city. Even so, architect Kenneth Gowland of Metro Studio began by discussing the history of the property — it formerly held a large McDonogh school building, though that was apparently torn down some time in the 1960s.

Further, the property — a shady parcel at Constance and Harmony just behind Magazine Street’s Design Within Reach store — is technically not a park at all, city officials acknowledged on Tuesday — though that perception is so pervasive that it is mistakenly marked as such on the new Master Plan. Instead, it has been privately owned by the Kohlmaier’s family for several years, and it is currently zoned for a “neighborhood business district,” within which Kohlmaier’s proposal for a residential development is allowed.

The conversation, Gowland said, was a preliminary one, intended to help the design team get a feel for what the city’s panel of architects would deem appropriate for the site. Because so many different architectural styles surround the property — neoclassical and art deco, shotguns and galleries — Gowland said he is still deciding how to match the building to the neighborhood. In particular, he said, the block is a sort of gateway between the commerce on Magazine and the rest of the neighborhood.

“We see a lot of opportunities. We see a lot of context. But we’re trying to understand, where is the emphasis?” Gowland asked the panel of architects. “What’s important? What are we going to respond to? Any one of these buildings is a great thing to respond to, but they’re all so varied.”

The group of nearly two dozen Irish Channel residents who filled the small conference room at City Hall to standing-room-only capacity, however, said that any development of the space will be a loss for the neighborhood.

“We need an open spot,” said nearby resident Patti Henn. “The Irish Channel is already a very tight community, very tight 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.”

Resident Scott Pentzer criticized the notion that the block is any sort of gateway. The green space signals to Magazine Street shoppers that the neighborhood has already begun, he said.

“It creates a nice buffer and a sense that ‘I’m transitioning from the Rendezvous bar, the Rum House, and I’m going to a neighborhood where people live,’” Pentzer said.

The HDLC architects focused their comments primarily on the design presented by Gowland itself. Magazine Street is unusual in that its commercial activity typically does not extend back into the neighborhoods behind it, they said — so any new structure should strive for a lower impact.

“Your site has no connection to Magazine Street,” said architect John Klingman. “That’s not a good way to think about it.”

“Part of the Irish Channel character is that it’s single-family houses almost completely, and the large buildings that break that mold are public buildings. A church, a school -– those are the big buildings, not multi-family housing,” said architect John Wettermark. “I think it’s inappropriate to make a grand gesture out of an apartment building.”

Further, Klingman noted that as the city becomes more aware of the need for water-retention strategies, placing a large building on the site will increase rainwater runoff, whereas the green space currently absorbs it. Historically, before being a school, the site was a market, he said.

“My sense is that, over the history of the city, is that this thing was open space more than it was occupied by an architectural object,” Klingman said.

A way to soften the impact of the building, the architects and city planners said, would be for it to have recessed areas back from the street. That would keep a sense of green space, Gowland agreed — because New Orleans has many green spaces that people can see without being able to enter them personally.

Architect Rick Fifield suggested that, if the Irish Channel residents are so committed to the idea of a park at that location, they should try to bring that to fruition. There are foundations and public land trusts that 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.

The panel voted unanimously to defer the item, which essentially sends it back to the owner for further review. After the meeting, Gowland said that he and the owners will take all the opinions under consideration as they move forward. They do not plan to build anything that would exceed the limits of “neighborhood business district” zoning, Gowland said, and will likely meet with the architectural panel at least twice more to continue discussing the details.

Kohlmaier did not attend the meeting, but back at his woodworking shop afterward, he said he realizes his neighbors are angry, pointing to a flyer 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 and kept it open, Kohlmaier said, he has been threatened with lawsuits from people who said they got hurt on the property. Once it was someone playing on a makeshift rope swing, another time it was someone tripping on the tree roots, and he first had to get liability insurance on the property, and then fenced it in two months ago.

“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.”

Now, Kohlmaier said, his mind is made up to build on the land — not to sell it, and not to keep the property open any longer.

“I thought I was doing a nice thing, but evidently I wasn’t,” Kohlmaier said. “I’m all in my rights to build it. … I understand that they’re mad right now. If I lived there, I probably wouldn’t want a building there either — but somebody else owns it.”

Ruppert Kohlmaier, a well-known New Orleans woodworker, gestures to the inlay he is designing on a custom chest of drawers in his shop next to the controversial green space. (Robert Morris, UptownMessenger.com)

Ruppert Kohlmaier, a well-known New Orleans woodworker, gestures to the inlay he is designing on a custom chest of drawers in his shop next to the controversial green space. (Robert Morris, UptownMessenger.com)

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  • pfvayda

    it is his privately owned land. not a park. get it?

    • meh

      He acknowledges he wouldn’t want a new construction building with a first floor parking garage in front of his house.

      Your right, but i dont “get it.’ This whats zoning is for…

      If I owned the land in front of your house, what stops me from opening a strip joint there? Its my land – its not a house – get it?

      • pfvayda

        no need to be rude, meh. That was a rhetorical question … not a call to fight.

        • meh

          I guess you have won the race to the moral high ground – have fun up there.

          I was commenting that your post was an overly simplistic view of the situation that didn’t take much into account and that you might feel differently if this issue was more of an actual concern to you.

          “Its my land – its not a house – get it?” OR Your right, but I don’t “get it.”

          I guess you took this as rude? I don’t really see it that way.

          I took your little haiku there as more of a snap judgement jab. “Get it?” is something you usually say when you consider someone stupid. Rhetorical questions are usually made when the answer is obvious to everyone – no just the person who wrote it.

          Feel free to chime in for another one liner, if you have the time.

        • meh

          So, this is nazi Germany?

  • joan garvey

    I don’t get the conflict. It’s his land to do what he sees fit. He was gracious enough to let people use it and in the end they took advantage of his kindness. He should be able to do whatever zoning allows. If the neighborhood wants to make it a park they can buy it from him.

  • disqus_Ypfj4iFvbW

    I agree, it seems they want the land, that doesn’t belong to them, to be for use by them, at no costs. It was; until somebody ruined it for everybody, by trying to sue the owner of the property. Is it fair, for this man to be open to lawsuits because you like the aesthetic of an open lot? In some neighborhoods this would be considered blighted property. I hope this man build a large condo development. If the neighbors don’t like it, take your money and buy land and then leave it open as a park. Or easier than that just tear down your house and leave the lot for people to walk their dogs. It is always easier to complain and whine, when it’s someone else’s dollar. Thank the man for what he has done over the years. Hell buy him a Drink, I know I sure would. Don’t beat him up over something he was forced to do.

  • BobB

    The neighbors should put their money where their mouth is… Buy the land and make it a doggie outhouse. That would be special.
    I really like all the newcomers moving in uptown but they need to get a clue. Instead of trying to change the neighborhoods try adapting to our NOLA lifestyle. You may actually like it.

    • meh

      “Now, Kohlmaier said, his mind is made up to build on the land — not to sell it, and not to keep the property open any longer.”

      Not possible – The lease is already signed to the developer.

  • Owen Courrèges

    >>Further, the property — a shady parcel at Constance and Harmony just behind Magazine Street’s Design Within Reach store — is technically not a park at all, city officials acknowledged on Tuesday — though that perception is so pervasive that it is mistakenly marked as such on the new Master Plan.<<

    Oh, but we mustn't ever depart from the Master Plan, ever, because it has the force of law — even though it includes glaring mistakes like this for which there is no real excuse. They weren't checking real estate records? Seriously?

    • Owen Courrèges

      One more thing — they actually had to advocate to CHANGE the zoning designation in the new proposed zoning maps. So somebody had to look at a lot zoned B-1A and say: “Hey, let’s pretend the government owns this and change it to a ‘park.’” Stupid doesn’t begin to describe it.

  • Biff Sarin

    Once again, the many get ‘shafted’ by the entitlement crowd. That small group of people who either fail to take personal responsibility for their own actions, instead looking to blame someone else for their own carelessness and stupidity, or are intentionally looking for any opportunity to get an easy ‘pay day’ from generous citizens. Citizens like Kohlmaier, who have already generously sacrificed to provide a much needed public service with no request for thanks or recognition. This man was so humble and unpretentious that most people had no idea he even owned this land for decades. Even once the suggestion was made to erect a building, people talked of ‘saving the park’, STILL not realizing that they had been enjoying the benefits of private property for so many years.

    • IntheChannel

      I agree with you. I live in the Irish Channel and I personally wish the green space to remain as it is even if it is fenced off. But it’s not my personal property.

      But as a homeowner in the neighborhood I have to abide by the regulations of the HDLC. Those regulations, while sometimes a pain in the ass, ARE meant to preserve the character and consistency of an historic district. So if the owner of the property wants to cut down the trees and build over his green space I can’t disagree with his right to do so. But I can and I will insist that follow the same HDLC guidelines everyone else has to follow. Considering that homeowners in the same block have to get a special dispensation install K-style rather than half-round gutters I think it is safe to hope that a four story multi-family housing complex is infinitely inconsistent with what is reasonable for the area. What happens on that property affects the personal property of everyone in the area.

      • Owen Courrèges

        IntheChannel,

        Perhaps a four-story building is too large, but you’re not going to elicit much support by appealing to consistency in enforcing unreasonable and stupid HDLC policies. The fact that the HDLC has a bizarre fetish for half-round gutters is exactly the reason why I don’t want anybody to have to go through them.

        • IntheChannel

          My point wasn’t to elicit support by the comparison so much as it was to highlight the obviousness of the contrast. I doubt any reasonable person who has chosen to live in any historic district would dispute that there is a line beyond which things are reasonable. To those who would support a four story multi-family unit in a densely populated historic neighborhood comprised almost exclusively of single and double units considered to have ANY architectural significance I ask: What is your view of a reasonable limit? 5 stories? 7 stories? No limit? To hell with guidelines and welcome to Houston? What? As Mr. Kohlmaier (who lives in Metairie) stated in the article – “If I lived there I probably wouldn’t want a building there either”. Or are we disregarding that point of view for the sake of argument?

  • IntheChannel

    Looks like a few people posting here are confused and looks like a few neighbors are confused. It IS private property and (as I understand) is zoned so that the owner CAN build on it. However, the owner cannot build WHATEVER HE WANTS TO BUILD on the property. The HDLC will determine if the proposed monstrosity which is NOT on Magazine Streeet is suitable to the Irish Channel Neighborhood. The zoning commission and the lawyers can figure out the rest.

    “If I lived there, I probably wouldn’t want a building there either” – spoken by the resident of Metairie

    • Owen Courrèges

      IntheChannel,

      The HDLC can make determinations about the aesthetics of the designs, but it can’t effectively add zoning restrictions that don’t already exist. There’s a height requirement for the lot. It’s 45 feet, which is about at tall as the building to the immediate north. You might wish the zoning were more strict, but it’s not.

      • IntheChannel

        The building to the immediate north faces Magazine Street. The difference is profound and blatantly obvious. I stated the HDLC will determine if the proposed plans are suitable. I did not refer to zoning. Also please don’t misunderstand. I do not dislike Mr. Kohlmaier. I believe him to be a good man. He has been the victim of litigious bottom-feeders (by the way, if he wasn’t in attendance yesterday who spoke on his behalf?) which led to him blocking access to the “park” at the center of this debate. Per his statements in this article he only closed access after some dumbass failed to walk upright and chose to sue. THERE’S an issue around which might consider rallying. Or maybe you could just find a mirror.

        • Owen Courrèges

          IntheChannel,

          What I’m saying is that the HDLC can’t make up a new height restriction off the top of its head. If it does, Kohlmaier can sue and he’d win. The lot has the same zoning as the building facing Magazine and can be equally tall. I don’t want this to turn into something where the rules are effectively changed after the proposal is made. The height limit is 45 feet. He has the right to build up to that.

          • IntheChannel

            I understand what you’re saying and I don’t argue your point. I’m but a layman on these things but it seems to me the goals of the HDLC and those of the zoning commission might be at odds on this one. A short decade ago there were many things that were deemed acceptable in the area (chain link fences, aluminum awnings, etc). But post-K if you lost your chain link or your awning you were SOL on replacing with same. I seriously respect the rights of property owners. But considering the potential adverse affects a four story multi-family housing unit might have on the property values and quality of life in an area so densely populated and given the measures to which all others have complied to improve the area I sincerely believe that the rights of others should be considered. Maybe that is all irrelevant.

          • banks mcclintock

            I know I’m completely late to the party but this lot does NOT have the “same zoning as the Magazine street side” DWR building side. It is zoned residential as opposed to the commercial on magazine street. This is common all along the length of Magazine. It is subject to vastly different massing and percentage of lot usage. It will also have front ,side, and rear setback requirements that will play into all of this restricting quit a bit of size here.

  • will_k2

    Ah, the Uptown “no!”-bots. Any proposed changes of any kind – regardless of how blatantly within the rights of all vested parties – are sure to be met with a blizzard of “No!” yard signs. So tiresome.

    That being said, if the neighborhood makes an offer that’s comparable to what Mr. Kohlmaier could realize from developing the land it’s not really helpful to be intransigent about it, even if they are acting like spoiled children at the moment.

    • IntheChannel

      While understanding that most Irish Channel homeowners and residents respect the property owner’s right to develop his property within zoned and historically significant parameters and while expecting that the HDLC not allow a variance which is so wildly inconsistent with what is permissible to everyone else in an historic district, I can see how one might confuse neighboring homeowners (who actually LIVE in the Irish Channel/New Orleans/ Orleans Parish ) with spoiled children. Although in my experience those who pour their funds and sweat and lives into this neighborhood usually seem anything but spoiled children. Maybe one day you can drive into town and meet them. They seem like good people.

      • pfvayda

        he owns the property. does not matter where he lives.

        • meh

          Where someone lives describes their attachment and investment to the community – that’s what IntheChannel is saying.

          But hey, lets boil this down to a singular issue that is easy to argue without considering the entirety of it.

          “States rights! I pay to much taxes! I dont like big gov’ment. My money, my choice”

  • ImJustTheMom

    No, it’s not just about a green space and the residents being “greedy”. Mr Kohlmaier is being disingenuous. He wants to put a 4 story, 21 unit apartment building on a small 9,000 lot. It’s a historic district, where residents have to get permission to change their windows, front doors, screens, roofs, siding and other improvements non-historic homeowners take for granted. Nothing, absolutely nothing in the Irish Channel remotely resembles what Mr Kohlmaier is proposing. 4 stories will tower over even the neighboring school and businesses. Most of the residents have no objection to the man using his land— we object to building something that is completely out of character with our neighborhood.

    • Owen Courrèges

      ImJustTheMom,

      The building to the immediate north of the lot is relatively tall, and the zoning allows structures of up to 45 feet. It’s a historic district, sure, but the owner has the right to build something consistent with the zoning.

      • ImJustTheMom

        I appreciate your point, but the building to the immediate north is only two stories and fronts Magazine, which is half the size of the proposed site. All the homes on Harmony and 9th facing the property and extending to the River are one or two story homes. The homes on Constance, including townhouses a number of blocks away and even the elementary school, are one, two, or at most two and a half stories. I’m not saying Mr Kohlmaier needs to build something that looks exactly like what exists already in the Channel. But if I wanted to add new construction to my Channel home, it would need to “work to preserve the cohesive ambiance of historic resources with compatible, sympathetic construction,” examples of which are “compatible siting, proportion, scale, form, and materials.” I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that new construction, even with a contemporary design, works to preserve the ambiance of the neighborhood.

        • Owen Courrèges

          ImJustTheMom,

          Sure, but he can still build up to 45 feet. Period.

      • IntheChannel

        Historic with allowed zoning and within the guidelines of the Historic District Landmark Commission. He’s been around a while and he owns many properties in the same historic district. It is highly unlikely (and irrelevant) that he is unaware of the restrictions and privileges of owning property in the area. While I understand that he inherited the property and realize that a few believe that relieves him of any responsibility to the neighbors who have since made the neighborhood their homes, those facts are facts nonetheless. Let him build. Let him build what is consistent to the residential area of Constance Street on which the property is located. Otherwise let’s chalk it up to zoning and encourage him to throw up a Motel 6 for the neighborhood. We’ll leave the light on.

    • joan garvey

      That’s not what the article said. It states that the 2 dozen residents who showed up are against any development of the property as it will be a loss for the neighborhood.

  • Ryan P

    No good deed goes unpunished!

  • Cmb6091

    As someone who lives not too far from this location, I would like to see him build up to what ever height he wants to, if it means we get to keep the trees and the building remains setback from the sidewalk to keep some green space. Why not support a 45 foot or 60 foot luxury condo complex that will raise your home values and increase foot traffic and safety in your neighborhood? Especially, if it means you get to keep large sections of green space and these trees? If you fight the height requirements, all that means is that less green space will be available to be left in the design and create an even harder parking situation.

  • Cmb6091

    As someone who lives not too far from this location, I would like to see him build up to what ever height he wants to, if it means we get to keep the trees and the building remains setback from the sidewalk to keep some green space. Why not support a 45 foot or 60 foot luxury condo complex that will raise your home values and increase foot traffic and safety in your neighborhood? Especially, if it means you get to keep large sections of green space and these trees? If you fight the height requirements, all that means is that less green space will be available to be left in the design and create an even harder parking situation. The lack of leadership from city council members in assisting neighbors and developers to come to compromises is a real issue in NOLA. Let the guy build up as high as he wants, and in turn ensure that the design fits in with the surrounding area and request that he sell or donate to the city the green space that is left available from incorporating a more vertical design.

    • IntheChannel

      You won’t have four story multi-family development with a first level for parking and and it set back from the street and keep the trees. That won’t happen in a space that small. Unless he builds with Legos.

  • Roland Solinski

    Oh, I agree – the incompetence is stunning. But the accusations that planners didn’t consider input from locals are just wrong. It turns out that they did consider input from locals, and in several cases ignored the long-standing zoning codes that property owners have relied on.

    I think we need a rule that any proposed zoning changes have to be less restrictive than the previous zoning, except in the case of legitimate public safety concerns (heavy industry, chemicals, etc).