Baltimore Avenue Project To Be Spread Over Two Phases

Baltimore Avenue Project To Be Spread Over Two Phases
Baltimore Avenue is pictured in a file photo. Photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY – With the cost of redeveloping the Baltimore Avenue corridor having doubled since the project was first planned, resort officials this week chose the option to do the project in two phases over the next several years.

In recent years, a major renovation of the Baltimore Avenue corridor from North Division Street to 15th Street has been on the town’s radar and this week the majority of the Mayor and Council pulled the trigger on a phased concept. The project includes undergrounding the utilities, widening the sidewalks and overall streetscape improvements. A similar project along Baltimore Avenue north of 15th Street was completed years ago and helped revitalize the area and likely spurred redevelopment along the corridor.

The design work for the Baltimore Avenue renovation project is largely completed and staff has been working with the private sector on the undergrounding of utilities and the State Highway Administration (SHA) on other aspects of the plan from its end. When first presented, the Baltimore Avenue project came with an estimated overall price tag of $20 million, which would be funded in part by a municipal bond sale and a combination of potential state and federal grants.

However, in the many months since, the project’s estimated cost has soared and is now roughly double at about $40 million. On Tuesday, City Manager Terry McGean, who has been the lead on the proposed project from the beginning when he was city engineer, presented several options for the Mayor and Council to move the project forward.

The first option was to fully fund the project with a fiscal year 2024 bond sale and start the project next fall with an estimated completion date of 2027. The second option, an option ultimately decided on by the majority of the council, was to separate the Baltimore Avenue corridor renovation into two phases, including the section from 9th to 15th streets first, followed by the south section from 9th Street to North Division Street.

Under that proposal, the town would be able to allow more existing debt service to come off the books, while continuing to pursue grant funding. The section from 9th Street to 15th Street would be funded through a fiscal year 2024 bond sale with a fall 2023 start date and a spring 2025 completion date. The section from 9th Street to North Division Street would then be delayed for two years, ultimately beginning in 2027 and ending in spring 2030.

Another option was to delay the entire project for five years to allow more debt to come off the town’s books, with a fall 2028 start date and a spring 2032 completion date. That option would include continuing to pursue available grants in the meantime. A final option would be to remove the utility undergrounding element of the project, widen the sidewalks only on the eastside of the corridor and simply repaving the roadway.

Before the Mayor and Council heard the presentation of the available options from McGean on Tuesday, they heard from different sources during the public comment period about the importance of the project. For example, former councilman Dennis Dare pointed to the success of a similar project along the Baltimore Avenue corridor from 15th Street to 33rd Street.

“The redesigns of Philadelphia and Baltimore avenues have changed the look of downtown,” he said. “The thinking was public improvements would spark private investment. It has happened. Motel row was transformed into hotel row. I think you’re looking at the same potential with the project you have before you today.”

Dare, a long proponent of redeveloping the Baltimore Avenue corridor downtown, pointed to its importance as a gateway and first impression for a lot of visitors to the resort.

“A lot of people cross Baltimore Avenue at North Division Street and they look to the south and a see a tree-lined street and blue skies above,” he said. “When they look to the north, they see what basically looks like an alley.”

Ocean City Development Corporation (OCDC) Executive Director Glenn Irwin also weighed in on the importance of the Baltimore Avenue corridor renovation. He pointed to the potential private sector investment along the corridor, including, for example, the planned Margaritaville project.

“As all are aware, there has been ample land acquisition activity from North Division Street to 15th Street and should result in several new redevelopment projects,” he said. “This anticipated increase in the property tax base should be considered as part of the final decision to move ahead with these street improvements.”

Irwin urged the council to pull the trigger on one of the options presented by McGean on Tuesday.

“This project has been discussed for many years,” he said. “Let’s not let it sit for the next 20 years pondering if the perfect construction timing and pricing will become available. The cost of this project will only increase in time.”

Mayor Rick Meehan asked McGean why the section from 9th Street to 15th Street was chosen as the initial phase under the second option.

“Why was 9th to 15th Street chosen to do first?” he said. “As former councilman Dare alluded, when you come into town and turn left, you basically see an alley.”

McGean explained that section was less complicated in terms of north-south directional flows along the corridor.

“We’re kind of doing the easy one first,” he said. “It becomes more complicated when you start going south of 9th Street.”

Councilman Peter Buas urged his colleagues to continue to move forward with the long-awaited project.

“Now is the time to do it,” he said. “Do it now and get it right. I think we’ll all be pleasantly surprised in five years.”

Council Secretary Tony DeLuca made a motion to move forward with the second option presented by McGean, which includes completing the project in two phases with each phase funded by a separate bond sale while continuing to pursue grant funding. Council President Matt James said he supported the Baltimore Avenue renovation concept but could just not get passed the inflated $40 million price tag.

“I love the project,” he said. “I just never anticipated it at $40 million. There are other areas of town where that money could be utilized.”

Councilman John Gehrig questioned the timing of the project considering the $40 million estimate over several years. Gehrig also questioned the urgency of the project when Baltimore Avenue is currently serviceable.

“We have a lot of projects coming up,” he said. “This is not an emergency. You could argue it’s not even a top priority. I support the project but the $40 million is too high. It’s not like we can’t use Baltimore Avenue. I think the timing is all wrong. I think this should be tabled until we discuss the capital improvement plan.”

However, DeLuca said waiting to see if the cost estimate would come back down was not the direction to take and urged his colleagues to pull the trigger.

“I really believe the time is now,” he said. “The longer we wait, the more expensive it’s going to get. Some people do and some people review.”

Buas said Baltimore Avenue has already been listed as a top priority in the most recent capital improvement plan review.

“We already ranked this in the capital improvement plan,” he said. “It’s time to just do it. All of the pieces are in place and the staff has come up with a plan to do it.”

Meehan reiterated the success of the Baltimore Avenue corridor renovation north of 15th Street years ago as reason to move forward with the next section.

“I remember what a difference it made when we did Baltimore Avenue north of 15th Street,” he said. “This is an opportunity to continue that. I’ve always looked at Ocean City as one community, not uptown and downtown. Everything we’ve ever done has benefitted all of the town and increased the tax base and kept the tax rate stable.”

After considerable debate, the council voted 5-2 with James and Gehrig opposed to move forward with the two-phase option beginning with the 9th Street to 15th Street section, funded through a fiscal year 2024 bond sale, while continuing to pursue grant funding for the overall project.

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.