OCEAN CITY — Resort planners this week approved a five-story mixed-use project on a prominent downtown street corner that could become the “poster child” for seasonal employee housing.
The Planning and Zoning Commission on Tuesday approved the significant redevelopment of the existing Alibi Room property on the corner of Baltimore Avenue and Wicomico Street. The project includes the demolition of the old Alibi Room bar and restaurant, which has had different occupants over its long history, and replacing it with a new and improved 3,200-square-foot restaurant and bar on the first floor.
The second, third and fourth floors will hold seasonal employee housing capable of hosting as many as 75 summer workers, many of which will be J-1 summer work and travel students. The top floor will hold an apartment for the property manager, who will oversee the seasonal worker tenants. The project applicant is Shannon Tippett, who owns and operates the existing Alibi Room and the Mug and Mallet restaurant on the Boardwalk and most of the tenants in the new facilities will be her employees including many J-1 student workers.
The five-story facility is allowable under the zoning for the property, which is in the downtown mixed-use zone. Under the town code, a project of its size would require as many as 50 parking spaces, but the property already has a non-conforming exemption for 38 spaces and the developer gained approval for the exemption of the additional 12 spaces from the Board of Zoning Appeals. The presumption is the summer employees, again mostly J-1 students, would not have vehicles and the parking would not be needed.
The housing component of the project includes large common areas, balconies, tables with umbrellas along the sidewalk and larger living spaces then many of the traditional seasonal housing facilities in the resort. Zoning Administrator Frank Hall said the project represents a significant improvement over some of the other proposed employee housing projects that have come before the planning commission recently.
“When you have a project of this significance, it’s really important to have the applicant do their due diligence and they have done that with this,” he said. “In contrast to some of the other employee housing projects we’ve seen, you see significant common areas, windows, balconies, space for recreation. It really is a significant difference. This designer took extra steps to make more appropriate living quarters for students. This is a well-designed project compared to some of the other employee housing projects.”
Attorney Joe Moore, who represented Tippett at the site plan approval hearing on Tuesday, agreed the project represented a significant upgrade on some of the existing seasonal housing.
“It’s a virtual poster child for employee housing,” he said. “Ms. Tippett is a large contributor to the J-1 student situation. They are excellent employees and they are essential to the summer workforce. This is a comfortable, habitable property where employees will be housed. We’re going to fulfill a need.”
The planning commission agreed for the most part, but had a few issues to resolve before approving the plan. For example, Planning Commission Chair Pam Buckley made a stipulation of the approval ensuring the top floor manager’s apartment, which would include three bedrooms, remained as proposed. Buckley said she could envision the apartment being converted to more seasonal housing that could host as many as 17 employees if its use changed in the future.
“There has to be a manager’s apartment there, and we have to stipulate that it remains a manager’s apartment,” she said. “Our concern here is health safety for our citizens and those that come here to work. Seventy-five employees is an awful lot of employees. We also understand the J-1 situation where they work different jobs almost 24 hours a day.”
Hall assured the planners any change in the use in the future would require a return to the planning commission for approval.
“If they ever convert that top floor to something other than a single-family residence, they would have to come back and ask for another parking waiver and there is just no way they would get it,” he said. “I feel confident that they’re locked with the manager’s apartment.”
Hall said he was also confident in Tippett’s dedication to the project as seasonal employee housing.
“I know Ms. Tippett from the get-go only has a desire to create employee housing,” he said. “It’s well documented she wants this for employee housing. If you are worried she might sell it to someone in the future, certainly a condition can be placed on the approval that any change in use would have to come back here.”
For her part, Tippett said she was compelled to create safe, clean affordable housing for her employees after witnessing some of the conditions they have lived in.
“All summer long I’ve been dealing with problems with employee housing,” she said. “Honestly, I wouldn’t be taking this project on at all if I didn’t feel some sort of responsibility for the kids that come over. I’m tired of putting them in substandard living conditions. This is my way of making sure my employees are taken care of.”
Moore reinforced Tippett’s dedication to her employees.
“She had an opportunity to place some employees in West Ocean City housing but she refused to let them go,” he said. “She was very concerned they had comfortable, good clean housing. This is going to be the poster child for that.”
The Ocean City Development Corporation (OCDC) has reviewed the plans and endorsed the project with a memo from Executive Director Glenn Irwin read into the record on Tuesday. Irwin’s memo praised the project and said the OCDC has applied for a grant from the state to cover the cost of the demolition of the existing facility and some of the cost of construction.
“It has a number of good attributes including first-floor commercial uses to promote pedestrian activity, employee housing which is in demand in Ocean City and the compactness of the project fits in well with a downtown setting,” the OCDC memo reads. “The bike rack is a good addition for this project that will house many seasonal employees who will not have a vehicle. This five-story structure is allowed per this zoning district.”
Satisfied the project met the code and the stipulations of the staff and the OCDC, the Planning Commission unanimously approved the site plan.
“This is a great design,” said Planning Commissioner Palmer Gillis. “You’ve done an unbelievable job with this project.”