OCEAN CITY — Plans for a complete redesign of the Baltimore Avenue corridor from North Division Street to 15th Street could be derailed by the sudden emergence of a State Highway Administration (SHA) plan to repave the roadway and replace the sidewalks along the corridor.
Resort officials were blindsided somewhat when it was learned a major rehabilitation of the Baltimore Avenue corridor from North Division Street to 15th Street could begin as soon as this fall.
Ocean City officials were about to embark on the planning process for the streetscape improvements on Baltimore Avenue, which have been under consideration for years. The first step would be a design charrette wherein city officials and other stakeholders would brainstorm and begin the planning process. Before that important first step could be taken, however, the Mayor and Council learned on Tuesday SHA intends to mill and repave Baltimore Avenue and replace the sidewalks to make them Americans with Disabilities (ADA) compliant.
“We’ve been thrown a tad bit of a curve ball,” Public Works Director Hal Adkins said. “State Highway wants to mill and overlay Baltimore Avenue and also plans to replace the sidewalks to make the ADA compliant. They want to put that project out to bid almost immediately.”
Baltimore Avenue is somewhat unique in a variety of ways. For example, the original deeds show the right-of-way as 75 feet wide, but the current roadway only utilizes about 45 feet from curb to curb. Included in the cursory discussion of the streetscape plans was a review of the ancient deeds for Baltimore Avenue that create a no man’s land of about 30 feet in some areas that could ultimately be deeded back to the property owners along the corridor or used to widen the roadway and its sidewalks.
Before any of those discussions can take place, however, the city has to work with SHA on an effort to get the state’s plans for repaving Baltimore Avenue delayed a few years to allow Ocean City to move forward with its design process.
“We could ask State Highway to move their project back several fiscal years and allow us to finish our visioning process for Baltimore Avenue,” said Adkins. “We could have the city engineer do some cursory overlay designs that would allow us to continue with our process, or we could simply stand back and allow them to do their project.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman questioned the timing of SHA’s apparent unknown decision to repave the corridor just when the city was about to embark on its streetscape visioning process.
“About a year ago, I made a request to start talking about Baltimore Avenue,” he said. “Now, we’re in a situation where, for lack of planning, we have to quickly create a vision for Baltimore Avenue. I hate it when a lack of planning creates an emergency, but that’s where we are right now with this.”
Adkins explained Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville got an email from SHA in mid-May asking for comment on any historical properties along the corridor that might be impacted by the project, which was the first time anyone in Ocean City government heard about it.
“We had no idea what project they were even talking about,” he said. “I immediately reached out to my contacts in SHA’s district office and they didn’t even know what I was talking about. I reached out to SHA headquarters and asked them to enlighten me about the scope of the project, when it was being put out for bid and if it was federally-mandated. I finally had to search the SHA website’s projects page and found the 400-page planning document.”
Adkins said the milling and paving of Baltimore Avenue was only one aspect of the project, which would also include tearing up and replacing, and perhaps moving, the majority of the sidewalks along the corridor to bring them into ADA compliance.
“About 95 percent of the sidewalks will be ripped up and replaced,” he said. “Only a few sections would be left alone. If they move forward with this as planned, we will have a substantial number of issues including removing utility poles and trees, moving back fences along private property and a host of other issues. There’s a cascading effect from this. As unfortunate as it may be, I don’t know how you can stop this freight train.”
Councilman Dennis Dare said the town has been considering a streetscape renewal project along that section of Baltimore Avenue for years. He said similar streetscape projects had been completed along Philadelphia Avenue south of the Route 50 Bridge, along Baltimore Avenue from 15th to 33rd streets and along St. Louis Avenue.
“When we did those, the city did the projects,” he said. “There was not one state dollar invested. The idea was to underground the utilities and create attractive streetscapes. The concept is, if we dress it up, the private property owners will follow suit. We’ve seen it happen, especially on that section of Baltimore Avenue from 15th Street to 33rd Street where we’ve seen new development. The increase in property tax from new construction paid for the bond. It did what it was intended to do.”
Dare said the section of Baltimore Avenue from North Division Street to 15th Street was the last piece of the streetscape puzzle, but perhaps the most important.
“When visitors enter Ocean City from Route 50, they see that nice marlin fountain, then they see the Boardwalk arch,” Dare said. “Then they look north along Baltimore Avenue and it looks like an alleyway with utility poles and power lines everywhere. This project will improve that first impression, which is what the town wants.”
Dare said he was also frustrated about the apparent lack of communication.
“I’m really disappointed in State Highway,” he said. “Baltimore Avenue is a state highway, but it’s in Ocean City. For them not to let us know about this project is unacceptable. If they had contacted us, they would have known our plans. It’s just so frustrating.”
Adkins said he polled some property owners along Baltimore Avenue to see if they had been advised by SHA about the pending repaving and sidewalk replacement project. He said, “they have no idea this project is coming.”
Adkins agreed the complete overhaul of the streetscape along Baltimore Avenue including the undergrounding of utility lines could take several years.
“With my level of understanding of this corridor, just the planning effort will take at least a year,” he said. “That doesn’t include any potential legal challenges about the right-of-way or what level of impact it might have on the property owners.”
Dare made a motion to reach out to SHA through a letter or phone call from Mayor Rick Meehan asking the agency to consider postponing the repaving and sidewalk project until Ocean City has an opportunity to follow through on its ultimate streetscape design for the Baltimore Avenue corridor.
However, Adkins pointed out SHA’s proposed project also includes repaving and replacing sidewalks along a section of Philadelphia Avenue and the section of Baltimore Avenue to North Division Street. The area of Baltimore Avenue slated for streetscape rehabilitation runs from North Division to 15th streets, and Adkins suggested asking SHA to reconsider postponing that section while allowing the other sections to move forward.
Dare said it was important for Ocean City to finish its streetscape planning for Baltimore Avenue before SHA comes in and does its major repaving and sidewalk replacement project.
“If the state comes in and mills and overlays Baltimore Avenue and replaces the sidewalks and we tear them out in three years, what does that make us look like?” he said. “That would be a big waste of taxpayer money.”
City Engineer Terry McGean agreed, saying, “We’d have egg on our faces if we came back and ripped out all of those new sidewalks just a couple years after SHA replaced them,” he said.
The council voted 4-1, with Councilman Tony DeLuca opposed and Council President Lloyd Martin absent, to have Meehan reach out SHA officials about moving the section of Baltimore Avenue from North Division Street to 15th Street back a few years to allow Ocean City to move forward with its streetscape designs while leaving the other sections of the project in place.
“The last time we asked SHA for a delay was when they were doing the center median on Coastal Highway,” Meehan said. “They started at the north end and worked their way south, so for several years there was a maze of orange barrels in the offseason. When they had reached the last section from 26th Street to 9th Street, we asked them to delay that phase for a year because our residents were so tired of those orange barrels every winter and 15 years later it was finally finished.”