Downtown Seasonal Housing Project Reviewed By Council; Model Block Redevelopment Eyed

Downtown Seasonal Housing Project Reviewed By Council; Model Block Redevelopment Eyed
The image shows the potential layout of a model block redevelopment effort, including housing for seasonal workers. Submitted Rendering

OCEAN CITY — After decades of acquiring piecemeal properties for the proposed model block redevelopment, the Ocean City Development Corporation (OCDC) this week pitched a proposal for a mixed-use, multi-purpose seasonal workforce housing project.

For about 20 years, the OCDC has been working on a redevelopment plan for the model block. There have been multiple land purchases and land swaps completed over the years with the Town of Ocean City’s assistance to consolidate the roughly 35,000 square feet of inner block purchases between Somerset and Dorchester streets and Baltimore and Philadelphia avenues.

There have been numerous concepts pitched for the model block over the years. The various ideas pitched over the years have been an IMAX theater, an aquarium, a retail village, and a children’s museum, among others. With the town’s growing seasonal workforce housing crisis, the OCDC’s model block was identified recently as a potential site for the workforce housing project.

During Tuesday’s work session, OCDC officials laid out conceptual plans to redevelop the model block with a mixed-use seasonal workforce project along with other amenities. OCDC President Kevin Gibbs explained the concept to the Mayor the Council.

“The OCDC has been acquiring property for the model block for the last 20 years,” he said. “There have been a lot of different concepts considered over the years. When the workforce housing issue arose, we started working with an advisory group. We think this proposal positions the model block to be used for workforce housing.”

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Gibbs explained the proposal is a mixed-use project with affordable seasonal workforce housing, parking available on the ground level, some commercial and retail space. It would also provide housing for seasonal police officers downtown, along with an area designated for the Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) downtown bicycle officers to park and store their bikes, fill out reports and other tasks.

“We’re trying to show what it would look like after phase one,” he said. “We wanted to get something on paper, so you can visualize the goal. The bike patrol would have their own substation because it sounded like the OCPD needed their own space. That’s how this evolved. You could have police officers living downtown. We really think this project checks a lot of boxes for what Ocean City needs downtown.”

The proposal includes the development of a workforce housing project on the north side of the model block that would complement the existing workforce housing uses on the north side of Dorchester Street. Because of the urgency of the workforce housing issue, the portion of the proposed project would be included in phase one.

In phase two, a second parcel B along Somerset Street would be redeveloped with a mixed-use project with commercial space on the first floor that would integrate with the streetscape on Somerset Street currently underway. The intent is not to throw up dormitory-style housing, but rather integrate with the existing character of the downtown area.

Councilman John Gehrig said most of the parcels in the assembled model block were purchased through Inlet parking lot revenue, a portion of which is dedicated to the OCDC. Gehrig asked if there was a plan for who would get first crack at the new workforce housing — town employees or private sector employees.

“The majority of the parcels in the model block were purchased through Inlet lot funds,” he said. “Since we used city funds, would our city employees be given top priority for the housing?”

Gibbs explained the plan was largely conceptual at this point and those types of issues would be resolved.

“We’ll be able to give you a full proposal,” he said. “The goal is to give you an answer for the town’s workforce housing problem. The goal is to get 200-plus beds, improve police response downtown and improve the aesthetics in the downtown area.”

The Mayor and Council were generally pleased with the conceptual plan to redevelop the model block downtown with a mixed-used workforce housing project. Councilman Mark Paddack pointed out some of the other ideas that have been floated for the model block over the years.

“It’s a good idea,” he said. “I’ve watched all of the concepts and attempts to find the right match. This is looking toward the future. OCDC has the staff and the community behind them. We have a serious need for seasonal housing. Let’s move forward with it.”

Mayor Rick Meehan agreed.

“This is something that would bring a great impact to downtown,” he said. “It will certainly have an economic impact. I think it’s a great proposal. The OCPD’s bike building is a great addition. I think it’s time to get us all together and get this moving forward.”

With that said, the council voted 6-0 with Council President Matt James absent to approve the conceptual plan for the model block as a mixed-use seasonal workforce housing project.

The OCDC’s planned workforce housing project would not necessarily replace similar efforts at different sites in recent weeks. In September, Holtz Builders out of Wisconsin expressed a desire to build one or more dormitory-style seasonal workforce housing projects in and around the resort area. The company has had success in developing seasonal workforce housing in other resort destinations around the country to help address labor shortages and provide clean, safe and affordable housing for seasonal workers.

City Manager Doug Miller said on Wednesday the council’s support for the proposed OCDC project did not necessarily supersede Holtz Builders, or ostensibly any other private-sector entity from pursuing workforce housing projects.

“This would be independent of any future Holtz Builders project,” he said. “The council hasn’t discussed one project versus another. I would think our stance would be we need to fill that gap and the OCDC project won’t take care of it all by itself, so Holtz still has the ability to do a project. I think we would support that. We would support any effort to get town workers in housing during the summer.”

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.