Hybrid Baltimore Avenue Design Concept Advanced By Council

OCEAN CITY — After reviewing the nuances of the different options for the redevelopment of the Baltimore Avenue corridor, resort leaders this week approved a hybrid of sorts that takes the best elements from each of the alternatives.

In recent years, a major renovation of the streetscape along the Baltimore Avenue corridor from North Division to 15th streets including undergrounding the utilities and widening the sidewalks, for example, has been on the town’s radar, but the issue is complicated. The project was listed as a top priority in the recent capital improvement plan and will ultimately come with an estimated $20 million price tag funded through a future bond sale. In the fiscal year 2022 budget approved in the spring, $200,000 was included for preliminary design work, which will be refunded to the town when the next bond sale is complete.

During Tuesday’s work session, City Engineer Terry McGean outlined the various design alternatives for the Mayor and Council. When the preliminary designs were presented during a public workshop last month, two alternatives were on the table. On Tuesday, McGean presented a third alternative that represented some of the comments collected during the public workshop along with written comments.

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. A review of the ancient deeds for Baltimore Avenue reveal a no man’s land of about 32 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.

Over the decades, however, private property has steadily encroached on the original right-of-way platted over a century ago. For example, in some cases, private businesses along the corridor have signs in the old right-of-way, while others have parking areas. In some cases, the long-forgotten right-of-way is just covered with grass or landscaping and isn’t necessarily utilized by the private sector.

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Each of the alternatives on the table include an expansion of the sidewalks and the inclusion of a utility strip that could be used for landscaping and the placing of utilities, for example. Each of the alternatives includes absorbing at least part of the 32-foot unimproved right-of way. Under each of the plans, any unimproved right-of-way would be remanded back to the property owners. McGean explained the new property would count toward a parcel’s density allowance under the code, but would also be taxed.

The key issues in each of the alternatives is the width of the sidewalks. Eight feet has been the preference, although the Ocean City Development Corporation (OCDC) has pushed for 10-foot sidewalks along that section of the corridor. For the record, Baltimore Avenue has already been improved with wider sidewalks and undergrounded utilities from North Division Street south to the Inlet, and from 15th Street north to 33rd Street.

Another issue in each of the alternatives presented is landscaping and the need for some type of buffer between the sidewalk and the roadway from a pedestrian safety standpoint. Trees planted in the improved section from 15th Street north did not fare well and in some cases impeded the widened sidewalks, somewhat defeating the purpose of the improvements.

McGean explained alternatives wherein private property owners along that section of the corridor could be encouraged to plant trees or other landscaping in their unimproved sections of the right-of-way. In that way, the town could achieve the desired results in terms of aesthetics while maintaining an unimpeded eight-foot sidewalk.

“Based on past experience on other portions of the Baltimore Avenue corridor, staff does not believe that landscaping is feasible within an eight-foot sidewalk,” he said. “However, the city could work with the adjacent property owners to install trees and other landscaping in the remaining unimproved right-of-way behind the sidewalks on a voluntary basis.”

Councilman Peter Buas presented a hybrid proposal of sorts he believes will come with sidewalks of an appropriate width for the corridor, maintain a safety buffer between the sidewalks and the roadway and achieve the desired results with landscaping.

“This is going to be the most impressive capital project we’ve done in some time,” he said. “This is probably the last time we should be talking about improving Baltimore Avenue. If we’re going to do it, and if we’re going to invest this money, we need to do it right.”

Buas suggested wider sidewalks with staff and the consultant coming up with the best plan to landscape the corridor and maintain a pedestrian safety buffer.

“I’m in favor of putting some kind of buffer between the eight-foot sidewalk and the road,” he said. “What I’d like to do is give the city staff the flexibility to do landscaping or whatever. I’d like to see 10 feet on both sides and give the staff and the consultant a two- to three-foot buffer to do whatever they see fit with landscaping or different types of pavers to differentiate the eight-foot sidewalk.”

Buas made a motion to approve an alternative that includes a seven- to eight-foot sidewalk, and a two- to three-foot utility strip on each side of Baltimore Avenue with staff discretion to come up with something to protect the health and safety of the town. Buas’ motion also included moving the existing traffic signal at 7th Street to 5th Street to align with the existing signal at 5th Street and Philadelphia Avenue, offer landscaping incentives to property owners along that section of the corridor, look into a speed reduction on Baltimore Avenue and direct the planning department to look into the existing sign ordinance in the downtown area.

McGean said the property owners along that section of the corridor could be incentivized to plant trees and other landscaping. He said the town would furnish the plantings and maintain them for a year, and after that, it would be up to the private property owners to maintain the landscaping.

“If we wanted to do some trees, we could do that,” he said. “With the three-foot buffer, we can do some things that would be sustainable. We’ll work with the designer to come up with something that’s aesthetically pleasing with the least amount of maintenance.”

Buas said he seven- to eight-foot sidewalks with the two- to three-foot utility easement would afford staff the opportunity to figure out the best plan for landscaping the improved corridor and maintaining a safety buffer along the roadway for pedestrians.

“I trust the staff to figure out the best plan,” he said. “It could be as simple as a different color concrete. The important thing is to keep the buffer and enhance the overall scope of the project. When you look down the sidewalk, all you should see is eight feet of uninterrupted walking space.”

Mayor Rick Meehan said he supported the hybrid alternative put forth by Buas.

“I support what Councilman Buas has put forward, not so much the trees, but just having that buffer and a place to put that decorative lighting,” he said. “Otherwise, it encroaches into the sidewalk and it’s far less than eight feet. It makes a significant difference, whether it’s 10 feet or nine feet. Just that little bit extra can make a significant difference. We are only going to get one chance to get this right and this is that chance. What he has proposed is a great compromise.”

The council voted 5-1, with Councilman John Gehrig opposed and Councilman Lloyd Martin absent, to approve the hybrid alternative proposed by Buas.

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.