Zoning panel rejects Reservoir Hill gallery

Pair wanted to show, sell art from home

June 28, 2000|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

A West Baltimore couple who say they want to improve their Reservoir Hill neighborhood by turning their Victorian-style rowhouse into an art gallery and museum have been denied the right to do so by the city zoning board.

What's more, officials have ordered the couple to remove all artwork from their walls or risk being fined for selling or showing art out of the home.

Sulaymaan Muhammad, 37, and his wife, Sasha Natapoff, 34, say they spent a year and $150,000 to $200,000 renovating their three-story rowhouse in the 2500 block of Madison Ave. with plans to convert the basement and first-floor into a cultural museum, classroom and art gallery.

But last month, despite community support, the city's Zoning Board of Appeals voted 4-1 not to rezone the property from residential to commercial, thwarting plans for the museum and art gallery.

The board members who opposed the zoning change either declined to comment or did not return repeated telephone calls.

Board member Courtney McKeldin voted for the rezoning, but acknowledged the board could not legally allow an art gallery in a residential district.

"It seems as though it was a non-conforming use and the zoning board did not have the authority to grant the request," McKeldin said. "It seemed like a good use of the property, and that's why I voted for it ... but I don't think the zoning board had the authority to grant that use."

Couple files appeal

The couple filed an appeal in Baltimore Circuit Court on Friday and are awaiting a court date.

If the zoning board's decision is upheld, they can appeal to Court of Special Appeals, said Frank W. Legambi, executive director of the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals.

Muhammad and Natapoff said they moved from Washington to Baltimore in 1998 with plans to open the art gallery.

Muhammad has been an artist for 25 years, and incorporates recycled materials including rope, bark, rubber, straw and old clothes into his work.

Dozens of his paintings adorn the walls in the couple's home.

"We had planned to show local artists, hold cultural events and open our doors to creative uses to benefit the community," said Natapoff, a federal public defender. "We were working with other artists in Reservoir Hill. We thought that the museum would enhance the artistic quality and recognition for the neighborhood."

Reservoir Hill, a community dominated by a mix of crumbling and well-maintained residences just south of Druid Hill Park, has attracted a number of artists.

The gallery and museum would have been open on weekends and by appointment during the week, the couple said.

"We intended to make it available to public school children who could take field trips to see art," Natapoff said. "We also had two classroom spaces in the basement so that school children could have art activities as well. One of the reasons that we built the classroom spaces was because we knew that Baltimore City schools have experienced funding cuts in their arts program, and we wanted to be a resource for Baltimore's children."

Petition signed

The arts programs in city schools are limited, although the city hopes to begin rebuilding the curriculum in the fall.

Muhammad and Natapoff said many Reservoir Hill residents support their efforts -- about four dozen people have signed petitions supporting the museum and art gallery -- including Kim Tyson, curator at The Theater Project, an avant garde theater on West Preston Street.

"I think that the denial of Mr. Muhammad's gallery is definitely a setback," said Tyson, a Reservoir Hill resident for seven years. "Reservoir Hill needs to be able to revitalize, and we need positive attention to be paid to our neighborhood. I know that a gallery or museum brings nothing but good things to a neighborhood. I feel that Mr. Muhammad's gallery in the neighborhood would enhance our environment, especially for the children, as well as the adults."

Marcia Shropshire, an artist and entrepreneur who lives in Reservoir Hill, said the city made a mistake in denying the rezoning.

"In my community, there's a gentleman and his wife who are trying to make something very positive come to life," Shropshire said. "There are drug dealers around the corner, and I'd rather see a museum than the drug dealing that's going on around the corner."

But Robert Blackwell, the city housing inspector who issued a violation notice to Muhammad, said some people oppose the gallery. "There were very vocal opponents of that building," Blackwell said. "They did have some complaints about that. One (telephone) complaint was made way back in April."

He inspected the Madison Avenue house after the board denied the rezoning request.

"I saw the logbook. I saw evidence that people had been coming in there looking at his art," Blackwell said. "He's not supposed to be doing that. He knows he's not supposed to be doing that."

In the couple's foyer is a book with signatures from people who attended a showing on March 23 of Muhammad's work.

He said his paintings sell for $5,000 to $20,000 and prints go for $50.

Blackwell said city officials want to ensure that Muhammad isn't selling or showing art out of his home. If he does, he could be fined, Blackwell said.

Resistance planned

Muhammad and Natapoff say they are afraid he will lose his livelihood if city officials don't let them have the art gallery and museum.

And Muhammad said he doesn't plan to remove his art from the walls.

"We were upfront about what we were going to do," Muhammad said. "You're in a town where the new mayor's calling for change and reform, and you try to bring some change and then you get opposed. We got so much stuff, we can't just walk away now."

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