OCEAN CITY – Parking concerns forced resort officials this week to withhold approval on a proposed mixed-use facility for the police department in the downtown area.
On Tuesday, the Ocean City Development Corporation (OCDC) made its annual presentation to the Mayor and Council. Out of that larger presentation came a discussion about a pair of projects proposed in the downtown area by the OCDC, including a mixed-used facility at Somerset Street for the Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) and a future seasonal housing facility on a portion of the model block.
For years, the OCDC has been piecemeal acquiring properties in the downtown area known as the model block. The OCDC is proposing a mixed-use facility at Somerset Street, which would include new storage and space for the OCPD bike patrol, an improved private bus stop, public restrooms and as least 25 beds of seasonal housing for the OCPD.
The other project is proposed for a portion of the model block at Dorchester Street. The proposed mixed-use facility would include 200 beds of seasonal housing along with new offices for the OCDC along with other uses. Mayor Rick Meehan said he supported the projects, but voiced concern about losing existing parking spaces at the Somerset Street location.
“With the Somerset project, we’re going to lose 15 parking spots on that lot,” he said. “Do you have a plan to find more parking at the model block? I’m hoping you can supply more than 15 spaces, especially if you’re going to have 25 beds.”
Councilman Mark Paddack agreed the downtown parking issues related to the project needed to be vetted.
“I think parking in lieu of fees should be discussed,” he said. “You’re going to get 15 spots from the model block. We are going to need parking downtown.”
OCDC President Kevin Gibbs said the organization is always looking to add parking downtown for whatever project it is doing.
“We’re always looking to add as many spots as we can,” he said. “We are working as hard as we can on that. We have a parking problem, but we also have a housing problem and we’re trying to fix both.”
The OCDC’s financial contribution to the project comes from a pre-established formula including a portion of the parking revenue generated at the Inlet lot. Gibbs said the larger seasonal housing project was still a few years from coming to fruition.
“We’re probably three years away from the model block project,” he said. “We will have the parking revenue for it for at least three years.”
Gibbs said the combined projects met a critical housing shortage need and the parking issues would be addressed.
“We’re trying to get a handle on what the downtown parking looks like,” he said. “It’s a chicken-egg thing. We need parking, but the benefits of this project will far outweigh the loss of those 15 spaces.”
Gibbs said the Somerset Street project meets an immediate need for two key city departments.
“The police department needs more space and the beach patrol needs more space,” he said. “We’re solving some major problems with these projects. Those benefits outweigh the negatives. After we exhausted the aquarium idea and the children’s museum idea, this is the best use for this property.”
OCDC Executive Director Glenn Irwin said the organization shares the Mayor and Council’s concerns about the loss of parking, but the Somerset Street project meets a demand for more housing.
“We clearly need housing downtown, but we do have concerns about parking,” he said. “The parking at the model block was an interim use. We always wanted to build this facility.”
Councilman John Gehrig said he was more concerned with how the project would be paid for. Again, the OCDC would make a contribution from the Inlet lot parking revenue, but the town would be on the hook for the balance, likely as an addition to the town’s capital improvement plan (CIP).
“Where does this fit in the capital improvement plan?” he said. “There have been projects on that list for 20 years. I just think we need to figure out how we’re going to pay for it. The parking is another issue.”
There have been discussions at different times over the years about developing a downtown parking garage and that issue resurfaced again on Tuesday. Gibbs said a future parking garage would be ideal, but the OCDC was ready to go forward with the proposed Somerset Street project for the OCPD and other mixed uses.
“We’ve worked closely with the city and I think we’re at the point where we’re ready to build this,” he said. “We have solved a problem now. I would like to build a parking garage tomorrow, but we’re not at that point yet.”
Irwin explained the OCDC’s contribution to the Somerset Street project.
“We’re hoping to bring $1 million to the table,” he said. “It’s a little aggressive, but if we don’t get started soon, we’ll be looking at 2024 or 2025.”
Paddack said there was support from other departments for the Somerset Street project.
“We did receive two letters, one from the police department and one from the beach patrol,” he said. “This solves a problem for both of them.”
City Manager Terry McGean sought direction on a future downtown parking garage concept.
“We can certainly reach out to the appropriate consultants if the council is interested in revisiting the parking garage concept,” he said.
McGean also explained the potential funding source for the proposed Somerset Street project.
“Assuming it’s $3.4 million job, the OCDC would provide $1 million,” he said. “The balance would come from fund balance or it would be bonded.”
There was a motion to approve the Somerset Street project, but it was later withdrawn so it could be discussed more. The council on Thursday met to discuss the CIP as part of a larger budget wrap-up session and Councilman Tony DeLuca questioned if it was more appropriate to discuss the project at that point.
“I certainly approve of this project,” he said. “Can we wait until Thursday to approve this? We haven’t talked about the CIP yet. That discussion happens on Thursday.”
Meehan said whatever process the council wanted to take to approve the project, the parking issues will never go away.
“Whether it’s approved today or Thursday, I approve of this project,” he said. “Whenever we look at good projects, it’s all about partnerships. When you look at the Art League building, it was a great partnership. I was on the first parking committee I think in 1974 and here we are all these years later having the same discussion.”
Gehrig said he did not want to push the project too far on the backburner.
“I support this project, but I don’t want to wait five years for it,” he said. “What does the parking look like in five years? That’s what we have to consider.”
Gibbs agreed parking will always be an issue, but urged the council not to hold up the project.
“In general, I think we’re all frustrated with the parking issue,” he said. “It’s not just a downtown issue. We’re going to try to put forward to the council something that solves the problem. I’d like to see some positivity going. Let these departments have the beds they need so they can recruit.”
Gehrig said he was uncertain how the immediate need for the project came up.
“I didn’t know we had a housing problem with the police department,” he said. “Suddenly, this came out of nowhere. It’s a major project. Let’s take our time and get it right.”
In the end, the council decided to withhold approval for the project on Tuesday and revisit it when the CIP discussions were held.