OCEAN CITY — Ocean City planners this week approved a preliminary site plan for a major downtown hotel redevelopment project, but not before sending the developer back to the drawing board to make a considerable number of changes in the project.
On Tuesday, the Ocean City Planning and Zoning Commission gave a rather reluctant preliminary approval for a planned redevelopment of the old Royalton Hotel on the Boardwalk at 11th Street. The plan calls for a major renovation of the old Boardwalk hotel with an expansion from the existing 38 units to 57 total units, including four units for on-site employee housing. Plans for the five-and-a-half story hotel include a top level indoor pool amenity along with continued mixed-use commercial on the Boardwalk level.
The planning commission had before it on Tuesday two separate components for approval including a subdivision from a neighboring property. For decades, the old Royalton and the adjacent Boardwalk Terrace have existed as condominiums and have a shared facilities agreement. Ocean City Zoning Administrator Blaine Smith explained the two entities had reached a settlement in a civil suit to separate the two entities, allowing the Royalton to be redeveloped as a hotel. Smith said the planning commission first had to dispense with the requested subdivision before considering the site plan for the Royalton project.
“The intent is to make the two properties independent of each other,” he said. “It’s a fee-simple lot line adjustment, but it will allow the Royalton to move forward with its redevelopment plan. It’s basically a separation of the two buildings with two separate walls and no setbacks. There are some life-safety issues with some of the windows and separate areas, but those will be taken care of during the building permit phase.”
Smith explained each property would then have its own water and sewer connections. In addition, the Royalton would be required to put in a new fire hydrant on 11th Street. The planning commission approved the subdivision of the two properties and turned their attention to the site plan review.
Smith explained the Royalton redevelopment represents a modified existing building allowed by code in the upper downtown overlay district from 3rd to 17th streets. There are some issues with the on-site parking and the changing ratio of spaces to planned units, but Smith explained the property owners also own the Senator Apartments on the opposite side of Wilmington Lane that is used primarily as employee housing. Smith said the Senator Apartments could provide as many as 24 deed-restricted parking spots to the Royalton, bringing the redevelopment project closer to the required number of parking spaces.
“The only way they could do any better is maybe tear down the Senator apartments,” he said. “However, they feel strongly about retaining those employee housing units.”
Planning Commission Chair Pam Buckley said she was satisfied with the plan to incorporate parking from the Senator to bring the Royalton into compliance, but raised concerns about the increased size of units in general in new projects and the impact on parking in the neighborhoods.
“The code says one-to-one on units to parking spaces, but the size of the units has grown dramatically in many cases,” she said. “We’re getting a new hotel, which is what we need on the Boardwalk to replace some of those old facilities. The employee housing and commercial doesn’t bother me in terms of parking.”
Of greater concern for Buckley was the on-site employee housing in the Royalton, which calls for one unit in the same location on each of the four floors to be set aside as housing for employees. She questioned if there were any guarantees the employee housing units, which would be windowless, would not be rented as hotel units.
“Why can’t we eliminate that issue at the onset,” she said. “I have an issue with that. I’d like to see at least two of the employee housing units together and preferably all four. I don’t care where they are in the building.”
From a design standpoint, the Ocean City Development Corporation (OCDC) has signed off on the project and vowed to work closely with the developer and architects on certain design elements including color schemes, for example.
“There have been a number of different renderings and each seems to be getting better and better,” said OCDC Executive Director Glenn Irwin. “From a design perspective, it’s a really nice project.”
In terms of the added parking from the Senator, Irwin said the OCDC would prefer to see the old apartment building remain where it is.
“We would much rather see the Senator than another full parking lot on Philadelphia Avenue,” he said. “There’s been some talk about knocking down the Senator, but I think we’re almost there with the parking.”
Resident Eddie Conklin, speaking on behalf of his neighbors on 11th Street, raised concerns about the impact on the neighborhood.
“I have to explain a little about the culture and tradition on 11th Street,” he said. “Everybody on the street is like family members. Most of the properties are owner-occupied and even the renters come back year after year. I’m here on behalf of them because we have concerns about the parking and the traffic.”
Conklin said if the Royalton redevelopment was inevitable, he hoped the planners would hold the developers’ feet to the fire on the anticipated traffic, parking, noise and pollution issues.
“We know it’s necessary to rebuild the hotel, but the traffic and parking right now are unbearable,” he said. “Hopefully, you can come up with something to alleviate that with this project.”
A letter from the Boardwalk Terrace condominium was read into the record outlining the neighboring property’s concerns with the redevelopment of the Royalton, including details about the litigation between the parties and the issues with compliance with the settlement.
Planning Commission attorney Will Esham, Jr. explained the planning body could only make determinations on the site plan and could not consider the ongoing litigation.
“The board has heard your issues and respects them, but this commission is not the judge and jury for your litigation,” he said. “We’re going to look at the site plan as it is presented to us.”
After considerable debate, there were still issues with the parking requirements, the undersized drop-off and pick-up area for the Royalton, the shared facilities agreement with the Senator and compliance with the settlement with the Boardwalk Terrace. None of the issues were deemed insurmountable, and the planning commission voted to approve the preliminary site plan and have the developers return after working out the issues for final site plan approval.
“There are a lot of issues here that I think we can work out,” said Planning Commissioner Peck Miller. “All of these things need to be reworked a little bit before I am comfortable with it. It can be done, I’m just not sure how at this point.”