OCEAN CITY — Resort officials have approved on first reading a zoning map amendment that will likely pave the way for a vast hotel and restaurant complex north of the Route 50 bridge, but not before a last-ditch effort by a former councilman to halt the change.
On Monday, the Mayor and Council had before them an ordinance allowing a zoning change for the historic Cropper concrete plant site just north of the Route 50 Bridge to accommodate a proposed eight-and-a-half story hotel and restaurant complex. Ropewalk Bel Air LLC has requested the zoning change from the existing M-1 manufacturing zone to Inlet-1, or I-1, a fairly unique zoning designation reserved for a handful of properties along the downtown waterfront.
However, before a vote, former long-time Ocean City Councilman Vince Gisriel weighed in on the proposed project, evoking epic battles over height and density from decades ago.
“This is déjà vu for me,” he said. “Thirty years ago, we were involved in a height and density issue and there was a petition for referendum voted on two-to-one against the proliferation of high-rise buildings. The last few years, height has started creeping in again, especially on the bayside.”
The project’s conceptual plan calls for a mixed-use facility including another Ropewalk restaurant and other recreational amenities along with an eight-and-a-half story hotel situated on the northwest corner of the roughly four-acre parcel that for decades housed the old concrete plant. Under the strictest interpretation of the zoning designation, a 12-story hotel could be built on the property.
In addition, a five-story hotel complex could be built on the site, but a project designed as a five-story hotel would sprawl across nearly the entire parcel and right up to the required setbacks, moving the hotel and restaurant closer to the existing neighborhood. As currently proposed, the eight-and-half story hotel is a tradeoff of sorts for the vast amount of open space preserved in the conceptual plan and the significant buffers from the neighboring properties. However, Gisriel urged the council to reconsider the pending approval of the zoning change.
“The comprehensive plan calls for keeping density on the ocean side,” he said. “Vacationers have a desire to be closer to the beach and having lower density on the bayside reduces the level of pedestrian traffic crossing Coastal Highway.”
Gisriel said years ago the five-story standard was tacitly set for new projects on the bayside waterfront, but those recommendations had eroded over time.
“Somewhere along the line, the five-story recommendation was pushed to eight,” he said. “This one is eight-and-a-half. I have real concern you are forever changing the character of the gateway to Ocean City. One gateway is already destroyed. It will forever change the character of downtown.”
The Ocean City Development Corporation (OCDC) has endorsed the conceptual plan for the project because it largely complies with the approved downtown design standards. However, Gisriel suggested the project as proposed runs counter to the OCDC’s position on height on the bayside.
“Whatever happened to the OCDC preserving the historical character of downtown?” he said. “The skyline will be forever changed and the quality of the neighborhood will be forever changed.”
OCDC Executive Director Glenn Irwin defended the agency’s endorsement, which is based on the conceptual plan meeting its downtown design standards and the OCDC will carefully review other aesthetic components of the project at the site plan approval level. The OCDC’s recommendations include limiting the hotel’s height at eight-and-a-half stories with the half-story included as an incentive to create an improved roof line and add desired design features.
Attorney Joe Moore, who represents the developer, recalled former battles over height and density with Gisriel and former councils. He said the proposed Ropewalk project’s offer of a considerable amount of open space justified the hotel height.
“It’s déjà vu all over again for me, too,” he said. “I remind the council what the Planning Commission found is that the project as proposed is only using 34 percent of the allowable density. Their recommendation is conditioned on it not exceeding 50 percent.”
Councilmember Mary Knight questioned if the property was flipped or the developer came in with an entirely new plan, could the allowable building height change.
“As I understand it, we’re allowing an eight-and-a-half story building in the I-1 zoning district,” she said. “If something happened, could it revert to the 12-story building allowed in the I-1?”
Zoning Administrator Blaine Smith said the planning commission’s recommendation, like the Mayor and Council’s pending approval, was conditioned on the proposed project adhering closely to the conceptual plan before them.
“This will encumber the property based on the conceptual plan,” he said. “If anything changed substantially, it would have to come back to the Mayor and Council.”
The council voted 5-1 with Knight opposed and Council President Lloyd Martin absent to approve the requested zoning amendment on first reading. Knight, who saw the writing on the wall with the vote, wasn’t entirely happy with the zoning change but hoped for a positive outcome for the project.
“I have to agree with Mr. Gisriel,” she said. “I just hope it’s as beautiful as it can be.”