(Feb. 28, 2014) If at first you don’t succeed, try a smaller hotel.
Seven years after a previous design for the site was shot down by the city, a new proposal for the grounds of the former Ocean City Health and Racquet Club is looking to move forward this spring.
“We all know how controversial this project was in a prior life,” said designer Jeff Thaler. “So we’re trying to keep this as noncontroversial as possible.”
“The city’s problem with the previous project was that it seemed like 10 gallons of sand in a five gallon bucket,” Thaler said. “It think what we have now is about four gallons in a five gallon bucket.”
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 property is now owned by WTSFB Properties, LLC, which subsequently hired Thaler’s firm, Atlantic Planning, Development, and Design.
The proposal, as pitched to the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission last week, is for an eight-story Marriott Residence Inn hotel with 150 rooms. Under the city’s “Special Bayside” development regulations, projects are allowed to go over the normal five-story, 50 feet height limit – provided that they have additional setback and reduced density.
The current site, Thaler said, is 4.3 acres.
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. The rooms themselves would face south and west, with a large open space between the building’s south face and Trader’s Cove.
“The site is what we call ‘top-loaded’ to make it more amenable to the neighborhood,” Thaler said.
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.
“They were unable to show how they were going to service that building given the intensity of the multiple uses,” said City Zoning Administrator R. Blaine Smith.
The project was dropped in December 2006, and the club later reverted to bank ownership. It closed for good in April 2010, and was later sold to WTFSB.
One of the major issues facing the health complex proposal was the shadow it would cast, virtually blocking the morning sun from Trader’s cove and casting a large evening shadow on Route 90, which the State Highway Administration said presented a hazard for visibility and de-icing.
Thaler agreed with the commission that another shadow study would have to be done for the new proposal. Under the Special Bayside parameters, a building allowed to go over the 50-foot height limit must not create a shadow impact any greater than if it was held to the standard height.
“What they have to show is the impact if a five-story was built, and that is they standard they’re held by,” Smith said.
Likely of more concern than the shadow, however, would be the traffic situation, as 61st Street would be the only outlet to Coastal Highway available for the hotel.
This would find traffic into and out of the hotel trying to cross over the stream of cars coming off Route 90 and heading south on Coastal Highway. Further, those wishing to head north from 61st Street would likely cut across the traffic lanes to reach the turn lane at the 59th Street light.
“As I recall, the big issue before was trying to get to that first u-turn to get back to the bridge,” said Commissioner Lauren Taylor.
However, Thaler noted, hotel guests tend to park and leave their cars for long periods of time versus what would’ve been patrons of the health complex.
“We all know that hotel-motel has the least turnover of any use by nature,” he said.
“Ultimately it is what it is, unless you’re going to put in a traffic light,” said Commissioner Chris Shanahan.
Although the hotel’s pool and other amenities will likely keep many guests on the premises, there is also the concern that those going to the beach will attempt to cross mid-block at 61st Street instead of going to the nearest light.
“I would need to see a study that tells us how people are going to get from one side of the street to the other, and how many,” said Commissioner Peck Miller.
The State Highway Administration would also likely request such studies on traffic, pedestrian movement, and shadows. The state’s objection to the previous health complex plan was a major factor in its rejection seven years ago, Thaler noted – but if the new hotel plan is workable, the SHA’s influence should not sway the city against it, he urged.
“The state highway makes suggestions or recommendations, but they’re not the judge and jury on what the town does,” agreed commission attorney Will Esham.
Thaler said he will likely return to the commission several times for guidance as the project is further developed, with the aim of having a final approval in May.