The fate of a former firehouse that anchors the west end of Canton's O'Donnell Square has ignited a frenzy among residents and merchants.
In an area dominated by taverns, everyone seems to harbor a notion for the century-old brick fire station.
One dreams of eating Szechwan dinners where ladder trucks once idled. Another fancies lazy Sundays spent browsing the racks of a bookstore. Others imagine it could house a nursery school or a Soho-style coffeehouse.
Few people beside Marc McFaul daydream that it will become a bar. McFaul, who runs Ropewalk Tavern out of a 19th-century cask-and-barrel warehouse in Federal Hill, wants to open a historic tavern across the harbor on the ground floor of the Canton firehouse.
"I'd name it Fire Horse Tavern, in tribute to the city's history of heroic fire horses," McFaul said. "And there's lots of people who say they want us."
McFaul needs at least half of the building's nearest neighbors to approve his plan to clear the way for liquor board consideration.
But banners outside Father Kolbe School behind the fire station list the names of local groups opposed to the tavern, and if a recent vote by business owners and residents at a Canton Community Association meeting is a sign of things to come, McFaul's plan may fizzle.
McFaul is taking the offensive, hanging his own banner from the windows of the two-story brick building, blaming "Fear? Jealousy? Or simply unfair trade?" for the strident, well-organized opposition.
"What are they so afraid of?" he said. "We're a yuppie bar."
Up and down the two-block square, people opine that the scale of the 4,800-square-foot space is out of sync with mom-and-pop-size storefronts. Drivers dread what even a hundred additional patrons could do to chronic parking problems along the popular square.
"It's like putting a Kmart in Fells Point," said association President Kim W. Stallwood. "It's just inappropriate."
Perched at a table inside Coburn's Tavern and Grill, facing the snowy statue of Canton founder Capt. John O'Donnell, Patrick "Scunny" McCuster, owner of Nacho Mama's, tried to find a polite way to say that he wouldn't open a business where he wasn't wanted.
"They have an absolute right to try this ... ," McCuster said, searching for the right words.
"But the neighborhood has a right to say enough's enough," finished Coburn's owner, George Platis. Of the three dozen properties in the 2800 and 2900 blocks of O'Donnell St., about a quarter are pubs, package stores or restaurants.
Orrin Yesko, owner of 2910 On The Square, an eclectic arts and jewelry boutique, favors a business in the firehouse that would bring more balance to a tavern-saturated neighborhood.
"Something family-oriented, not party-oriented," he said, petting one of three terrier mixes that roam his airy shop. Yesko's ideal tenant for the fire station: a Chinese restaurant.
It's a fine idea, said Steve Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers' Union Local No. 964. The problem is that neighbors seem to think the 1901 firehouse is city owned -- and that they can decide how it is used.
"Truth is, we bought the building from the city for $25,000 in 1983," said Fugate. "It's a prime spot for a very successful business."
In the past, the union rented the space to members as a banquet hall to offset the property's $11,000 annual taxes until residents complained that such use violated city zoning laws. For years, the property sat largely vacant. The union found a solution to its cash-flow problem in McFaul's proposal to lease the first floor and an eight-car parking pad out back.
"We're trying to be good guys and we're not trying to run grandma out with drunks at 2 o'clock in the morning," Fugate said, "but Canton Square is a bar area and [McFaul runs] a very nice establishment."
If the union leased to any business, Fugate said, "parking would still be a problem."
McFaul is trying to transfer a Class BD-7 liquor license from another location to the firehouse. The designation, which wouldn't obligate him to sell food at the tavern, is one of the reasons members of a nearby Catholic parish have deluged the liquor board with letters of opposition.
Jane Schroeder, deputy executive secretary of the liquor board, said the community invoked a "51 percent protest" with the board. That means if more than 50 percent of the property owners located within 200 feet of the firehouse formally contest McFaul's request for a license at a public hearing, the application would be summarily denied.
Schroeder expects to set a date for the hearing late next month.
Not everyone is against McFaul. Wayne Allen, owner of Electronics Plus, for one, won't fight him.
"Like it matters," said Allen, referring to parking problems. "It's already terrible out here, it can't get any worse."