OCEAN CITY — A significant change proposed for the downtown landscape moved a little closer to becoming a reality this week when the Mayor and Council approved a heavily-conditioned zoning map amendment for the Cropper concrete property adjacent to the Route 50 Bridge to accommodate a major hotel and restaurant complex.
The Mayor and Council on Tuesday voted 5-1, with Councilmember Mary Knight opposed, to change the zoning of the property to accommodate a significant eight-and-a-half story hotel and restaurant complex. Ropewalk Bel Air Properties LLC, which has other successful businesses in the resort area, requested the change from the current M-1 manufacturing zoning to Inlet-1, or I-1, a fairly unique zoning designation reserved for a handful of properties along the downtown waterfront.
Attorney Joe Moore, who represents the developer, told the Mayor and Council the conceptual plan calls of a mixed-use facility including another Ropewalk-style restaurant and other recreational amenities along with an eight-and-a-half story hotel situated on the northwest corner of the roughly four-acre property that for decades housed the old concrete plant.
Moore pointed out the old concrete plant site is perhaps the only holdout in an area that was historically used as a working waterfront with more industrial uses. For decades, the site was home to the Cropper concrete plant and zoned M-1 manufacturing, a bit of a zoning aberration in an area that has flourished with commercial and residential redevelopment. Moore said the prospective owners are seeking the I-1 zoning designation, which if approved would allow them to move forward with the restaurant and hotel redevelopment plan for the site.
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.
The Planning Commission reviewed the zoning amendment request late last month and after considerable debate forwarded a favorable recommendation loaded with conditions 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.
During the June public hearing, the planning commission along with several neighbors of the downtown property beat up the proposed eight-plus story hotel in an area in which the largest current buildings are around four stories. After considerable debate, however, town planners agreed the project as proposed represents a marked improvement over the current abandoned concrete plant use and the hotel, restaurant and other facilities were situated in such a way to diminish the impact on the neighborhood.
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.
When the council got their chance to weigh in on the zoning change on Tuesday, Knight said she was concerned about potential “spot zoning” and the height of the proposed hotel.
“It’s appropriate to put an eight-story building in an area where the tallest other building is four stories?” she said. “Why is this different? Why the height? A five-story building looks like it fits the neighborhood.”
Mayor Rick Meehan explained allowing the taller hotel limited the sprawl across the entire property that might come to fruition if only a five-story building was allowed.
“When you look at the impact, it’s going to be the same whether is five stories or eight stories,” he said. “When you see just 50 percent lot coverage, that’s what you get when you allow it to go up a few stories.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman said he supported the zoning change for the project as proposed.
“Knowing it’s an entrance to Ocean City and how long it has been vacant, I think it’s a great project and I hope it comes to fruition,” he said.
The council voted 5-1, with Knight opposed and Councilman Tony DeLuca absent, to move the zoning change forward. It will now come before the council in the form of an ordinance.