OCEAN CITY — A major change to the downtown skyline inched closer to becoming reality this week after resort planners signed off on a heavily-conditioned zoning change for the historic Cropper concrete plant property to accommodate a vast hotel and restaurant complex.
After considerable debate about the potential impact on the neighborhood, the Planning and Zoning Commission on Tuesday voted to forward a favorable recommendation to the Mayor and Council for a zoning change for the historic George Burt Cropper concrete plant along the bay just north of the Route 50 Bridge and just south of 1st Street.
Attorney Joe Moore, representing Ropewalk Bel Air Properties LLC, which has a contract to purchase the property, presented a request for a zoning change of the property from M-1 manufacturing to Inlet-1, or I-1, a fairly unique zoning designation reserved for a handful of properties along the downtown waterfront.
Moore told resort planners the conceptual plan for the redevelopment includes a mixed-use facility including another location for the popular Ropewalk restaurant along with a hotel situated on the north end of the property. Moore said the site, which is situated prominently along the main entrance to the resort at Route 50, might be the largest undeveloped commercial property in the resort.
“This property at 4.4 acres is one of the largest undeveloped properties in town,” he said. “The very purpose of its manufacturing zoning was to recognize the existing concrete plant. But for the fact the concrete plant was on the property, this too would have been changed just as other properties were rezoned.”
The concept plan calls for a Ropewalk restaurant and an eight-and-a-half story hotel situated on the north corner of the old concrete plant property. The eight-and-a-half story hotel would be allowed by the zoning change to I-1 and has been endorsed by the Ocean City Development Corporation (OCDC) because the design complies with the approved downtown design standards.
The current zoning allows only for a five-story facility, but Moore pointed out because of the size of the property, a building as high as 12 stories could be appropriate. However, his client is only seeking an eight-and-a-half story facility in order to best maximize the use of the property and lessen the impact on the surrounding neighborhood.
“This substantial four-acre property has a five-story height limit,” he said. “Our property, which is uniquely large, would allow for 12 stories. The OCDC support hinges on only an eight-and-a-half story facility.”
Moore pointed out limiting the allowable height to five stories could lead to a project that sprawled across the entire property from lot line to lot line, but the project as proposed would limit the buildings on the site to the waterfront areas with parking and significant buffers between the property and the neighborhoods. In fact, graphics were presented to illustrate what a five-story facility would look like on the property from all angles.
“We had a choice to design a five-story building or design a building that fits the downtown standards,” he said. “The five-story design would have a 10-foot front yard setback, but this proposed building is 163 feet west of St. Louis Avenue.”
Moore also said the developer has proffered a 10-foot easement to accommodate a future bayside boardwalk and a condition of approval.
“We are able to create a wonderful amount of open space with eight-and-a-half stories,” he said. “The downtown goal is to extend a bayside boardwalk and we have stipulated a 10-foot wide easement dedicated to a bayside boardwalk to connect the property to the north with our proposed restaurant.”
The I-1 zoning designation allows for a wide variety of commercial uses including, of course, a restaurant and hotel. When asked if a marine district designation for the site would be more appropriate, Moore said the property’s juxtaposition to the bridge would make developing a waterfront marina-type project similar to those on the south side of the bridge more challenging.
“The downtown marine district is not appropriate because the surge of the tide there would preclude any use of this property as a marina use,” he said.
Complicating the issue somewhat is the State Highway Association (SHA) plan to eventually replace the Route 50 Bridge, although that could still be decades away. After a considerable review and a public hearing process, the preferred alternative is an entirely new draw span immediately north of the existing bridge, which would enter the resort somewhere in the vicinity of the old concrete plant property.
Moore said, although likely decades away, a new Route 50 Bridge would likely clip a portion of the southern end of the property, which is why the buildings in the concept plan are positioned as they are.
The sticking point for the Planning Commission, and the residents in the area who attended Tuesday’s public hearing was the proposed height of the hotel. At eight-and-a-half stories, the hotel would be the tallest building along the bayside in the downtown area and was characterized as being similar to the Belmont Towers on Talbot Street and the Boardwalk.
Planning Commissioner Lauren Taylor said she was somewhat concerned about the proposed height of the hotel, but the tradeoff was the large amount of open space in the project design. Still, Taylor voiced concern about the property’s significance along the gateway to the south end of the resort.
“I’m normally for more height because you get more open space, but this is a special property in an area that still resembles a small, coastal town,” she said.
For their part, the residents who attended the public hearing in opposition to the zoning change also had concern about the proposed hotel’s height and the overall impact on the neighborhood. It’s important to note the zoning change would apply to the property and any future use, so if the current owner sold the property and the new owners came in with a different plan, the same types of uses would apply.
“We’re not opposed to change and we would welcome any vibrant addition to the neighborhood,” said resident Linda O’Day. “We have nothing against this applicant. We’re just not sure what they are proposing to build is what could be allowed if the zoning is changed.”
O’Day said approving the requested zoning change for the old concrete plant could set a dangerous precedent for future redevelopment in the historic downtown area.
“If you approve this one, you’ll have to approve the next and the next and the next,” she said. “Do we really want some giant behemoth looming over the gateway to Ocean City and this charming residential area?”
Resident Dolores Rubinic agreed an approved zoning change for the concrete plant property could set in motion dramatic changes not foreseen.
“The concern I have is the change in the neighborhood has come about by the greed of the developers,” she said. “Since 1991, there has been an incredible amount of change and not all of it has been good. I’m not in favor of downtown becoming like high-rise row in north Ocean City.”
Resident Sean O’Day said he has an extensive background in development and said the zoning change could lead to something that was never intended for the property.
“I’ve seen this before,” he said. “What would prevent this from changing hands tomorrow? As far as the testimony, they could actually build a 14-story building. A 14-story hotel on that site would be quite interesting from the bridge. You wouldn’t see the water tower, that’s for sure.”
With the public hearing portion closed, the Planning Commission took up its own debate on the proposed zoning change request. While they liked the proposal before them, they too voiced concern about a future change in ownership of the property.
“We’re trying to prevent the idea of flipping the property,” said Taylor. “This plan is probably better than a lot of things it could be.”
Moore emphasized the current owner has no intention of flipping the property and is committed to developing the project as proposed. He said a favorable recommendation from the Planning Commission could include conditions that would prevent something significantly different from being built on the property.
“The OCDC is not going to support a substantial variance of this site plan,” he said. “We can have it conditioned on what concerns these folks.”
Planning Commission attorney Will Esham agreed the board could put conditions on the approval that would protect against something significantly different in the future.
“Whoever they sold it to would be encumbered by the same restrictions you impose on it through the rezoning,” he said.
Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville said the plan as proposed represented a good use of the old concrete property.
“Not only is it a matter of height and bulk and density, but the location of the buildings,” he said. “They’ve located the buildings far away from the neighborhood and far away from the bridge and that’s a win-win.”
Neville suggested a proposal that would allow for a favorable recommendation while protecting against a major change in the use in the future.
“You could recommend the concept plan as a condition of approval,” he said. “Whatever is built there would have to substantially conform to the concept plan. I think that would accomplish a lot of what you’re concerned with.”
Therefore, the Planning Commission’s favorable recommendation to the Mayor and Council for the zoning change came with several stipulations, including any project would have to substantially conform to the concept plan, the height would be capped at eight-and-a-half stories, the 10-foot easement for the bayside boardwalk would have to be included and the project would have to conform to the OCDC’s recommendations for the downtown design standards among others.