OCEAN CITY — An iconic Boardwalk hotel property that changed hands earlier this year could be redeveloped as a hotel and conference center, but it will likely take the reconfiguration of an existing alley to make it possible.
The Mayor and Council had before them this week a preliminary request to transfer ownership of Washington Lane, essentially an existing alley, between 13th and 14th streets to the developer of the old Phillips Beach Plaza Hotel property. The developer, who purchased the historic property earlier this year, has preliminary plans to redevelop the entire block between 13th and 14th streets and the Boardwalk and Baltimore Avenue, with a resort hotel and conference center.
However, the existing town-owned Washington Lane between 13th and 14th streets bisects the property, complicating the major city block redevelopment plan. The developer intends to propose a single master plan for the redevelopment of the block under a planned overlay district (POD).
However, under the town’s existing code, a POD must encompass 90,000 square feet at a minimum to qualify. Currently, the two big parcels the developer owns on the block encompass 85,200 square feet, which falls just short of the minimum requirement to qualify for a POD.
To that end, the developer has proposed to include the existing alley along Washington Lane between 13th and 14th streets in the square footage calculation for the POD. In order for that to happen, the town has been asked to essentially abandon the existing alley and convey it to the developer in order to meet his square footage needs for the major redevelopment project.
Under the proposal, the developer would then convey the alley back to the town as a public easement open for motor vehicle, pedestrian and bicycle traffic just as it is now. Essentially, the proposal is a land swap that allows the developer to meet the square footage needs for a POD.
While no formal plans have been submitted in what will likely be a lengthy approval process, ostensibly the developer could connect the two parcels with a structure, while allowing regular pedestrian and bicycle traffic in the alley below.
Tuesday’s presentation was essentially just a feeling-out of sorts to gage if Mayor and Council members were at least receptive to the idea, according to Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville.
“It’s in the pre-application process,” he said. “It’s really a great opportunity to redevelop an entire city block with a hotel-restaurant complex at the old Phillips Beach Plaza. The challenge is, Washington Lane bisects the property.”
Neville explained the developer needed the alley easement to meet the calculations for the POD.
“We’re partly there for consolidating it into a single parcel,” he said. “It could be as simple as approval from the Mayor and Council to move forward with an application. It’s a procedural issue at this point.”
Councilman John Gehrig made a motion to allow the process to move forward, a motion seconded by Councilman Mark Paddack with a condition.
“We are willing to allow this proposal to move forward, but that alley would have to remain open to traffic, bicycles and pedestrians,” he said. “That alley is part of our overall bike path network throughout the city.”
Attorney Hugh Cropper, who was representing the developer on Tuesday, said the proposal could represent a net gain for the town.
“We’re asking you to abandon the alley and then we can convey it back to the town as an easement,” he said. “It would actually be even wider. The existing alley is 16 feet wide, and what we would convey back would be 23 feet wide. You’d actually gain seven feet.”
Cropper explained Tuesday’s presentation was just a first step in what will be a lengthy approval process with many layers.
“We’re just asking for permission to move forward with an application,” he said. “The next step would be a concept review with the planning commission. It’s going to be a long process.”
While the council endorsed the concept, Mayor Rick Meehan said he was not entirely comfortable with some of the verbiage in the proposal.
“I’m not sure about the word abandon,” he said. “I think we would need an appraisal to see if there is any value.”
Paddack said the word “abandon” was largely semantic at this early stage and there would be a legal process for conveying the property.
“We’re not really abandoning this property,” he said. “We’re going to get it back. We’re going to get it back with seven more feet.”
The council voted 7-0 to endorse the concept and allow the developer to move forward with a formal application.