(May 9, 2014) After nearly two hours of presentation and review, the city’s planning commission cleared the design of the Marriott Residence Inn proposed for Sea Bay Lane, adjacent to the Route 90 Bridge, with only minor aesthetic changes.
Representatives from the neighboring Trader’s Cove townhouses, as well as members of the commission themselves, continued to voice concern over parking, traffic flow, and pedestrian safety – but ultimately found that the current design was the best building that it could be given the awkwardly positioned site.
“You have to understand that traffic is going to happen whatever goes there,” said Commission Chair Pam Buckley.
“Obviously something is going to be built there – it’s a prime piece of property,” said Commissioner Chris Shanahan.
The land in question begins at the western end of 61st street along Sea Bay Lane, stretching between Route 90 and the Trader’s Cove townhouses. The proposed hotel would be 150 rooms in eight stories, including the typical amenities such as pools and a gym.
The building would sit at a minimum setback of 19 feet from Route 90, with the north face of the building being the hotel’s corridors in order to keep traffic noise out of the rooms themselves, which would face south, east, and west.
Parking is located either beneath the hotel, or in a lot to the south along Sea Bay Lane. This leaves a considerable amount of space between the hotel itself and Trader’s Cove, reducing the visual impact and eliminating any shadow cast on the existing townhouses.
Much of the commission’s scrutiny – both during an initial review in February of this year and during the final review Tuesday night – was prompted by controversy over a previous plan for the site back in 2006, which was approved by the city but dropped due to outcry from the public and other agencies.
“To put it mildly, I crashed and burned with that use of the property,” said attorney Joe Moore, who represented the previous project and is now representing the property’s new owners, Palmer-Gosnell Hospitality.
The company also owns hotels in the Virginia and Washington, D.C. area, and recently purchased property in Rehoboth.
The site was formerly occupied by the Ocean City Health and Racquet Club, a full-service gym facility with basketball and racquet courts, saunas, and a pool, which was built in 1983. After over 20 years of operation, the club’s owners, the Furst family, acquired additional real estate and planned to build a new facility that would be not only a health club, but also contain medical offices and retail space.
The facility was extremely large, up to 12 stories in the original proposal, and in the city’s opinion lacked the necessary service outlets for the amount of traffic generated.
“That was under the old height exception rules, which did not have any limitations other than what the Mayor and City Council would agree to as a conditional use,” Moore noted.
Following the debacle, the city introduced new bayside height-by-right restrictions, which allowed large parcels to build in excess of the usual five stories only with additional setback and reduced density. The proposed Furst project would’ve been built to the absolute maximum lot area.
“Compare that with what we are doing now,” Moore said. “Even though it is an eight-story building, it is much more benign in it setback and in its intrusion to the neighboring properties.”
Critically, city Zoning Administrator R. Blaine Smith noted, a shadow study indicates that the eight-story building with increased setback would have less shadow impact on the surrounding area than a five-story building placed at the standard setback. This was the critical criteria for the bayside regulations, Smith said.
Moore also lobbied that his clients had done as much as possible to mitigate traffic issues. The hotel has a complete drive-through with two exits for circulation on and off the property on Sea Bay Lane. However, the commission still worried that the traffic coming off 61st Street would cause problems on Coastal Highway.
“You have people coming right off Route 90 going south into that first lane,” said Commissioner Peck Miller. “There’s no stop sign and virtually no yielding, and now you’ll have people coming off 61st Street trying to cross over to turn around at 59th.”
Moore noted that the hotel will be offering complementary shuttle service to and from the beach to reduce traffic as much as possible. Signs will also be posted directing pedestrians to cross at the light at 59th Street, instead of crossing mid-block.
“It’s about a 2,000-foot walk to get from the beach,” said traffic engineer Betty Tustin, who had been retained by Moore. “A family with kids, coolers and umbrellas will likely take the shuttle if offered.”
“The incentive to cross is minimal, significantly less than what was there and what could be there,” Tustin said.
Her study also indicated that the hotel would generate 63 trips in and out per hour on a peak Saturday, versus 280 for a shopping center of size similar the one previously proposed.
Still, neighbors were concerned how the hotel’s traffic and parking would impact Sea Bay Lane, which is a private road whose right-of-way rights would be shared by Trader’s Cove and the proposed Marriott.
“At peak hours, we see that the Sea Bay Hotel will fill up and spill out all over 61st Street,” said Trader’s Cove Association President Tom Whalen. “We’re pretty sure we’re going to have the same issue here, but they’ll have nowhere to go because the street parking is already taken by the other hotel.”
The proposed Mariott has one parking space per room, compliant with city code, but deficient from a practical standpoint given that more than one car’s worth of people often utilize a single room.
“We’ve gone through years of back-and-forth with what we require in certain types of uses for parking,” Buckley said. “I really can’t do anything to make them have more parking, because this is what the code is at this point.”
The only substantive change mandated by the commission was some type of additional architectural feature to break up the north side of the building, which is otherwise long corridors of glass.
One of the issues in the 2006 project was how the building would look to those driving into town on Route 90.
“I would like to see at least two bays or some type of vertical elements interrupting that monolithic wall,” said Commissioner Palmer Gillis.
“It needs to not look like it’s the back of a building, even though it is the back of the building,” agreed Commissioner Lauren Taylor.