OCEAN CITY — Closing a block of St. Louis Avenue, permanently or even temporarily, to accommodate the redevelopment of the downtown recreation complex, appeared to get little traction among the majority of resort officials this week.
Two weeks ago, the Recreation and Parks Committee reviewed 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, a popular north-south corridor.
The complex is essentially two parks. The section to the east is fairly developed with the historic Ocean Bowl skate park, basketball courts, a playground and other amenities. The section to the west is largely open space with long-abandoned ballfields and waterfront bulk-headed popular for recreational fishing.
The two park areas are bisected by St. Louis Avenue, which somewhat limits the redevelopment concepts. St. Louis Avenue is a popular north-south route that relieves pressure on heavily-traveled Baltimore and Philadelphia avenues and is utilized by residents in the densely-populated bayside areas downtown.
However, both park redevelopment concepts call for a part-time or even full-time closure 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. Councilman John Gehrig, who chairs the Recreation and Parks Committee, explained the consultant’s concept to the full Mayor and Council on Tuesday.
“The consultant presented two design concepts,” he said. “There were a lot of ideas discussed including possibly closing that area of St. Louis Avenue. We can decide whether or not to consider that at a later date.”
Since the consultant’s vision, including the potential closure of St. Louis Avenue, has been made public, there has been considerable consternation in the community about the potential plan and the future of the popular corridor. Council Secretary Mary Knight said she has been hearing concerns from her constituents who are largely opposed to any consideration of closing off St. Louis Avenue to vehicles.
“I’m getting many calls and emails and it doesn’t seem like a popular idea,” she said. “Could we do a traffic study? I’d like to see how much of that traffic would end up on Philadelphia and Baltimore avenues.”
Gehrig said the consultant’s vision, including the St. Louis Avenue component, was merely conceptual at this point.
“It’s definitely outside the box,” he said. “We could not do it at all or do it just temporarily during events. That decision is not an integral part of the first part of the plan. We know that will be a big topic of discussion going forward.”
Councilman and committee member Mark Paddack said the entire park complex would be redeveloped piecemeal as funding becomes available and acknowledged the St. Louis Avenue component would raise eyebrows.
“We’re looking at multiple considerations for that park and how it can best serve the downtown area,” he said. “The concept is to redevelop it incrementally piece by piece and it will largely be done through grants when they become available. We knew it could be controversial. It can be discussed at a later date.”
Councilman Dennis Dare said when St. Louis Avenue was last redesigned, the on-street parking was eliminated, the sidewalks were widened and the existing speed hump was added to calm traffic and provide a walking path across the roadway between the two distinct components of the park. Dare said he couldn’t envision closing that block of St. Louis Avenue to accommodate an element of the redesigned park.
“I just can’t imagine what recreational amenity could outweigh the public’s use of St. Louis Avenue on a permanent basis,” he said. “If you had a special event that required a temporary closure, maybe. I just think that defies common sense.”
Mayor Rick Meehan, who lives in the downtown bayside area pointed out the importance of the St. Louis Avenue corridor.
“I drive that roadway every day, sometimes multiple times a day,” he said. “Most locals take that loop under the bridge to access those vast residential areas.”
Gehrig reminded his colleagues the plans were merely conceptual at this point. It said there would be plenty of opportunity for the Mayor and Council to review and debate the merits along with ample opportunity for the public to weigh in.
“It’s just conceptual,” he said. “We’ll have plenty of time to review this and get public input.”