Irish developers plan to build Cold War museum at Checkpoint Charlie
AFTER A TENSE six-month standoff, the Irish developers who control Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie have launched de-escalation measures at the notorious Cold War site.
Mayo brothers Michael and Cathal Cannon have controlled the two vacant lots on Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse with Dundalk developer Owen Kirk since 2007.
The only sign of life on the historic site came last April when a series of fast-food kiosks popped up, earning the ire of Berliners and city authorities.
The kiosks were a regrettable misunderstanding, the investors said in Berlin yesterday. They were in town for the opening of a temporary “BlackBox” museum that puts Checkpoint Charlie in its Cold War context.
A second attraction opens this morning: a massive 360-degree panorama by artist Yadegar Asisi, showing the former checkpoint in the mid-1980s Berlin cityscape.
The Irish investors said yesterday they were unaware fast-food kiosks were operating on their site until the controversy blew up in April.
The temporary tenants failed to apply for building permits and pay property tax as agreed, the investors said, and their leases had since been terminated.
“It has been a feck-up by all concerned,” said Owen Kirk. “Nobody meant any harm and everyone’s out to resolve it.”
Further bad publicity followed when Berlin’s tax authorities announced a foreclosure auction over an unpaid land tax bill of €400,000. Though the bill dated from before the Irish developers came on board, they were forced to pay it to cancel the auction.
It was just another twist in the history of this contested strip of land.
The third border crossing set up between East and West Berlin was christened “Charlie” in military parlance by the army personnel who mainly used it. The name stuck. The checkpoint earned Cold War notoriety in October 1961, two months after the Berlin Wall was built, as it became the site of a tense stand-off between Soviet and US tanks.
After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the border installation was removed and the site sold. It was partially developed until the owner went into liquidation.
In 2007 the Irish developers spent €29 million to purchase the site’s outstanding debt from the liquidator. Though they still do not technically own the site, the Irishmen say they have an agreement with the liquidator to take over in due course.
With the collapse of the Irish property market, the Irishmen’s debt on the site passed from the control of AIB to Nama.
“We had Nama over a while back and we showed them what we intended to do,” said Owen Kirk. “They are very conscious that it is a politically sensitive site. Anything we do has to be done in a sensitive way. They wouldn’t like bad publicity either.”
With development potential of more than 40,000sq m on two sites divided by the Friedrichstrasse, the eastern development is planned as a commercial block with a 3,000sq m city-run Cold War museum. The western site will be residential, and planning permission is still outstanding.
With Berlin’s booming property market, the Irish developers say they are getting phone calls every day from would-be partners. “When we bought this site it was a desert, with tourists and little else,” said Mr Kirk. “The only thing you would get on it was a three-star hotel. Now the way the market has gone it could accommodate a hotel-residential-retail complex.”
The tanks have long gone and the recent rows have been resolved, but the site remains contested territory. The Irish developers said yesterday they are “piggies in the middle” of a long-running feud between Berlin authorities and the adjacent Checkpoint Charlie House, whose owner, Alexandra Hildebrandt, is furious at the idea of publicly funded Cold War museum next door to her own privately run institution.
“We try to avoid politics and deal with executive officers,” said Michael Cannon. “We tell them to sort out their politicians and to tell us what they want.”
Berlin authorities, anxious to see progress on the site, blame the global financial crisis – not the Irish developers – for delays.
“The Irish understood immediately that a museum draws in people, helps them market the rest of the development,” said André Schmitz, culture manager for Berlin’s city government.
“I’m hoping for ambitious architecture – with that, the Irish could make us very happy.”