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Ocean City

Downtown landmarks to be razed; new projects already in offing

(Jan. 4, 2013) Much like Steve Austin, the Bionic Man, downtown Ocean City must first be destroyed before it can come back better, stronger and faster, although the last part is a matter of relativity.

Two iconic downtown structures are currently under demolition, but due to the slow real estate market, only one is likely to be rebuilt in the near future, while the other will be used indefinitely for parking and storage.

The downtown branch of Fat Daddy’s restaurant is being prepared to be gutted, a conclusion to the long efforts of owners Ed and Lisa Braude to secure funding for the rebuilding of their property. The building, which sits on the northwest corner of Dorchester Street and Baltimore Avenue and stretches north toward St. Mary’s Church at Talbot Street, has been in need of serious repair for some years.

“What they’re doing right now is taking the asbestos shingles off of the side of the building,” said Ocean City Development Corporation Director Glen Irwin. OCDC, the city-sponsored nonprofit that supports downtown redevelopment projects, became a party to the project in October, when it applied for state grant funding to back the Braudes’ work.

“That’s what ties us into the project, because OCDC had to be the applicant [for the grant],” Irwin said.

The state has $2.5 million under the Maryland Strategic Demolition and Smart Growth Impact Fund, of which Irwin has requested $90,000 to cover demolition costs for the upper floors of the property. These floors, he said, had been used for seasonal employee housing, but have been condemned for some time, making the building essentially two-thirds uninhabitable.

If the state is able to sponsor the initial demolition, however, Irwin said the project is much more likely to get further support from lenders.

“We should be hearing sometime this month as to the grant we applied for,” he said. “The project, primarily out of need, is moving ahead now anyway.”

The new design for the building was approved by the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission in November, after having been revised to create the appearance of having several buildings on an old-fashioned streetscape, despite being a single unit of new construction.

The revised design feature pilasters to separate the two middle sections of the building, as well as a recessed entrance for the retail store in the northern section, giving the appearance of more traditional streetscape. The southern, corner section of the building will house Fat Daddy’s eating space, and will have a peaked roof that extends above the flat top of the rest of the building, breaking up the roofline.

Rental housing for seasonal workers will still be incorporated into the upper floor of the structure.

“They’re talking about affordable employee housing on the upper floors, which the state loves,” Irwin said. “And the restaurant is on the corner, which is where you want restaurants.”

In another good omen for downtown development, the long-abandoned Cropper’s Concrete site, on the bay side of St. Louis Avenue between First and North Division streets, has begun to be cleared as part of a deal with the city to extend the approval of the property’s redevelopment plan, which has so far been unable to attract any investors.

“By Memorial Day, they want to have everything out of there except for the office building,” said city Zoning Administrator R. Blaine Smith. “Then they’ll clean that lot up and use it for parking, at least temporarily.”

The idea to revamp the dilapidated cement factory was first presented in 2007, when the Cropper family sought approval from the city for a project with 54 townhouse and 40 condo units to occupy the space. OCDC supported the project, citing the inclusion of mixed housing and a provision that would give the city right-of-way for the possible future construction of a public boardwalk on the bay side of the island.

“We really like the fact that the townhouses and the residential components were going to be added to that … and that fact that they had agreed to put in a public easement for a bayside boardwalk,” Irwin said.

After two years without progress, the approval for the design expired. But it was extended for another year, and again for another two years after that, in order to continue to search for ways to finance the housing project. In 2011, the Cropper family decided to auction the lot, along with the future project designs, and it was bought by the Gudelsky family.

This year, again, another two years of site plan approval extension were requested by the new owners.

“It’s doubtful that they themselves would actually build it, but the idea is that they would market that project with the site plan approval,” Smith said. He recommended renewal of the approval, but with the condition that the crumbling buildings be cleared for an interim use.

“It was renewed, but part of that was the cleanup,” Smith said. “Sometimes these vacant properties lend themselves to good temporary uses.”

The area may be used for parking, Smith said, or as a staging area for other construction. For the past two years, part of the lot has been used to stage fabrication of the Dew Tour skate arena.

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