OC Downtown Park Complex Redesign Reviewed; Consultant’s Plan Would Close St. Louis Avenue

OC Downtown Park Complex Redesign Reviewed; Consultant’s Plan Would Close St. Louis Avenue
One of the two proposals to redevelop Ocean City’s downtown park is pictured. The other version leaves the basketball courts where they are currently with the tennis/pickleball courts in the southeast corner. Rendering by Mahan Rykeil Associates

OCEAN CITY — Resort officials last week got an early glimpse of an independent consultant’s vision for a redeveloped downtown recreation complex, including a potential closure of St. Louis Avenue.

During a Recreation and Parks Committee meeting on Friday, consultant Tom McGilloway of Mahan Rykeil Associates presented a pair of conceptual plans for the redevelopment of the vast downtown recreation complex between 3rd and 4th Streets along the bayside. The downtown park complex is bisected by St. Louis Avenue. The existing section to the east is fairly developed with the historic Ocean Bowl skate park, basketball courts, a playground and open space.

The section to the west currently includes largely open space with long-abandoned ballfields and a waterfront bulk-headed area popular for recreational fishing. The park area to the west has been utilized for special events in recent history, including visits from touring tall ships during the summer. In August, the wide-open area to the west was utilized as a satellite location for the White Marlin Open, for example.

On Friday, McGilloway presented a couple of options for the park’s redevelopment to the Recreation and Parks Committee.

A central feature in both options is retaining the Ocean Bowl skate park, the oldest and longest-running municipal skate park of its kind in the country. Though the skate park will not be relocated, the potential options laid out on Friday could move other fixtures in the park complex. For example, the basketball courts could be moved to the area along Philadelphia Avenue, or could remain where they are and tennis and pickleball courts could be added.

Both options presented on Friday call for retaining those existing amenities in an attractive and welcoming space with playgrounds and open areas for recreation and reflection with walking-biking paths to move visitors freely through the complex.

The vast section of open space between St. Louis Avenue and the bay would largely be retained as it is with a large, open lawn flexible enough to host pick-up soccer games or other sporting events surrounded by landscaped areas. The preliminary plans for that section also include a large, interactive playground with features for both adults and children. The waterfront area would remain open for recreational fishing with a bay-front boardwalk and fish-cleaning stations. That section of the park could include a temporary, portable stage capable of hosting modest concerts and other events, including future visits from tall ships and other attractions.

However, perhaps the biggest takeaway from Friday’s presentation was the potential closure of St. Louis Avenue between 3rd and 4th streets. The entire park complex is bisected by St. Louis Avenue, which somewhat limits the redevelopment concepts. St. Louis Avenue is an important north-south corridor in the downtown area that relieves pressure on the heavily-traveled Baltimore Avenue and Philadelphia Avenue during the peak summer season and is utilized by residents in the densely-populated downtown area on the bayside.

However, both options presented on Friday include part-time or even full-time closures of St. Louis Avenue between 3rd and 4th streets. The concept is to create a seamless park complex uninterrupted by a traffic thoroughfare. That section of St. Louis Avenue could be blocked off occasionally, for special events or farmer’s markets, for example, or it could be permanently blocked off, dramatically changing traffic patterns in the downtown area. The plan is to redevelop the entire recreation complex piecemeal as funding allows and grants become available.

“We have a great opportunity here,” said Councilman and committee member Mark Paddack. “It’s a beautiful space. It’s going to have to be done incrementally. It could take years.”

The potential St. Louis Avenue closure is just one element of a much larger plan for the complex, but it appeared to have the support of many on the committee, at least conceptually.

“I love the idea of closing St. Louis Avenue,” said Recreation and Parks Director Susan Petito. “I think that promenade has a lot of potential.”

City Engineer Terry McGean said he wasn’t too concerned about the potential pressure of closing one block of St. Louis Avenue would have on the downtown traffic patterns

“Do I think it would create a lot of problems on Baltimore Avenue and Philadelphia Avenue? No,” he said. “It’s used mostly by locals. They would figure it out.”

Others were less confident about the impact. Ocean City Development Corporation (OCDC) Executive Director Glenn Irwin said he could envision temporary closures of that section of St. Louis Avenue for certain special events, but was uncertain about a full-time closure.

“I like the St. Louis Avenue closure idea, but only for certain events,” he said. “I don’t think we can close it permanently. That’s an important traffic corridor in the downtown area.”

Special Events Director Frank Miller echoed those sentiments.

“I like the idea of closing St. Louis Avenue for events,” he said. “I’m not sure about closing it permanently. I think that would create a lot of traffic headaches in that area.”

It’s uncertain if the concept of closing St. Louis Avenue, temporarily or permanently, would have the broad support of the full Mayor and Council. The concept will likely be pitched to the Mayor and Council at some point because the thoroughfare bisecting the park complex is a key element of any redevelopment plan.

Another key element discussed on Friday was what to do with the old Dew Tour skate bowl that has been mothballed since the popular event pulled out of Ocean City several years ago. When the Dew Tour ended a three-year run in Ocean City in 2014, the town acquired the event’s iconic skate bowl and it remains in pieces at a maintenance yard in West Ocean City.

One of the options presented on Friday included the iconic Dew Tour bowl as a significant feature adjacent to the existing Ocean Bowl skate park. However, the Dew Tour bowl has fallen into disrepair over the years and the concept of rehabilitating it and installing at the downtown recreation complex was met with a lukewarm reception.

“I think we need to scrap the Dew Tour bowl idea,” said Paddack. “We tried, and we can’t even give it away. Leaving that out gives us a lot more flexibility.”

Instead, the area on one of the conceptual plans earmarked for the Dew Tour bowl could be repurposed for other uses, including some low impact skateboarding elements.

“I think we need elements for young skaters,” said Recreation Superintendent Kate Gaddis. “They need areas where they can learn. The skate park can be intimidating for young skaters, and then you add the Dew Tour bowl.”

McGean agreed installing the Dew Tour bowl in its entirety was likely not the best option, but he did say it was an asset with some historic value and maybe some elements could be implemented in the final redevelopment of the park complex

“It is a mammoth structure,” he said. “How many will actually use it? Maybe we can save some parts of it and incorporate it instead of this massive structure that dominates the park.”

The options presented on Friday are largely conceptual and there are a lot of moving parts to consider, but they represent a jumping-off point of sorts for the eventual redevelopment of the downtown recreation complex.

“I do like that it is not over-designed,” said Petito. “There is open flexible space throughout. We don’t need to put everything in the world into this space.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.