Downtown Height Limits Passed With Amendments

OCEAN CITY – The issue surrounding downtown height limits continued this week with the narrow decision by the City Council to accept the recommendation from the Ocean City Planning Commission and allow for certain buildings in the downtown area to be built to four stories and 45 feet.

The issue over the height limits in the DMX district from North Division to 3rd streets between Baltimore to Philadelphia avenues has been ongoing for several weeks now. The initial intentions of the Mayor and Council were to cap the height at three stories and 35 feet, but they had to rethink that vision when property owners voiced concerns over buildings becoming too small to house commercial space. As a result, the ordinance was put on hold prior to second reading and sent to the planning commission for review.

Jesse Houston, director of Planning and Zoning, presented the City Council with a recommendation from the planning commission this week. The amended ordinance would increase the permitted height in the DMX district from North Division to 3rd streets and between Baltimore Philadelphia avenues if commercial uses were provided along the first floor facing Baltimore Ave.

Houston explained that the amendment carries two parts.

Part A reads, “Between Baltimore Avenue and St. Louis Avenue from North Division Street to 3rd Street, the maximum building height shall be no more than 35 feet and shall be no more than 3 stories. Height shall be measured from grade as defined in Section 110-2.”

Section B calls for the change in height that will allow for four stories and 45 feet and measures from the base flood elevation, provided that, “on the first floor fronting Baltimore Avenue, at least 75 percent of the width of the parcel is dedicated to a commercial use permitted in Sec. 110-662, accessible to the general public, with the exception of residential uses including single family, multiple family, two family, hotel and motel units.”

“Basically what it does is give a taller first floor for commercial,” Houston said.

Houston also explained that the wording would be changed in the final ordinance from 75 percent of the “width” of the parcel to 75 percent of the “buildable” space.

“I think we should pass the ordinance as it was written on first reading,” said Councilman Jay Hancock.

The ordinance was passed on first reading in early October and called for three stories and 35 feet.

“I think its to the advantage of the downtown area not to have all that extra clutter down there,” Hancock said, pointing out there is a substantial amount of commercial space that is available downtown yet remains vacant.

Glenn Irwin, executive director of the Ocean City Development Corporation (OCDC), later explained the vacancies.

“There are several buildings that are not occupied, but for reasons going beyond market demand for retail space,” Irwin said after the meeting.

Irwin explained that some retail spots were waiting for certificates of occupancy and did not receive them in time to open for the summer season.

“However, as I mentioned at the council meeting, there are a number of retail spaces that are underutilized and sometimes even being used for storage space/inventory. If you drive through downtown now (in November), there are many vacancies and closed businesses.  But this, of course, is the norm for our seasonal economy,” Irwin said.

Irwin also pointed out that there are currently two projects being proposed for this district. One proposal calls for a hotel/bistro with the other calling for a hotel/restaurant. George Kouvonis, property owner with the hotel/restaurant proposal, has addressed the council on more than one occasion over his desire to create a mixed-use project in the area that would be four stories.

“This area is ripe for development to occur,” Irwin said.  

Councilwoman Nancy Howard believes the amended ordinance is an improvement.

“I like this idea and I don’t think we are going to get a ‘canyon effect’,” said Howard at the work session.

“What we’ve been asking for is mixed-use development,” agreed Council member Lloyd Martin.

Hancock maintained that the extra height proposal was not the solution for downtown.

“Empty businesses or more of the same is not going to save downtown,” he said.

Councilwoman Margaret Pillas also opposed the recommendation, saying, “You can’t pay your rents or your mortgages if you don’t have the demand.”

The recommendation and the amended ordinance passed with four in favor, Pillas and Hancock in opposition, and Councilman Jim Hall abstaining.