Planning commissioners tasked with recommendation to council
With 13 stories overlooking the ocean and a name synonymous with paradise, a Margaritaville resort planned for downtown Ocean City could change the entire dynamic of the resort’s off- and shoulder seasons if developers can cut through some red tape to make it happen.
“We think it’s a phenomenal opportunity for Ocean City,” Becker Morgan Group architect Jack Mumford said of the project. “It’s a great project, obviously.”
Mumford was a member of a heavily prepared team of developers who presented details of the massive and striking project — planned for the former Phillips Beach Plaza property lots on 13th and 14th streets — Tuesday at a city planning and zoning commission hearing.
The hearing provided planning commissioners and members of the public a three-dimensional aerial view of the design, which will undoubtedly stand out at the confluence of the southern, more historic buildings in southern Ocean City, and newer high rises to the north. Along with the 265-room hotel resort and amenities, the project plans also include separate employee housing nearby.
To make it all a reality, developers first need to get the green light to place a planned overlay district, or POD, zoning designation over the existing properties to allow for “unified development,” which was the catalyst for Tuesday’s roughly three-hour hearing.
The next step is a work session, which planning commissioners set for Nov. 9, where they will discuss their recommendation. Members have 90 days to recommend approval or denial to the mayor and council, who will make the final decision on awarding the developers the POD they need. If all goes as planned, they will then be able to proceed with a site plan.
Tuesday’s hearing was not the first time planning commissioners viewed the project, but the presentation included many more details, and some changes based on suggestions they made several months ago during their first look.
A barrage of people provided testimony, including city staff members, who said the plans meet the requirements for a planned overlay district and fit into the details of the city’s comprehensive plan.
Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville said the location of the project is ideal for the transition from one style of buildings to another downtown.
“Usually the edge position is where a lot can happen when you change from one district to another, one building type to another,” he said.
Glenn Irwin, the executive director of Ocean City Development Corporation, also said the design works with the downtown facade.
“We’re in support of this project,” he said “As hotel, restaurant, retail and meeting space, we know it will have a major impact in Ocean City.”
The developers also paraded a number of well-prepared professionals to the podium Tuesday to speak to every aspect of the project, ranging everywhere from amenities and valet parking plans, to shadow studies and setbacks.
Hotel management company Chesapeake Hospitality and Margaritaville Holdings, which are partnering to run the new venture, along with an array of other contractors, consultants and even neighbors provided individual observations about each and every detail.
Steve Smith, a principal of Greenbelt-based Chesapeake Hospitality, said the project will include 14,000 square feet of flexible premium meeting space, three outdoor pools, an adjacent indoor pool, a kids club, three restaurants, and complimentary guest shuttle service, among other details and amenities.
The 400 guest parking spaces will be all valet, and developers are looking into a bike share or some other type of transportation program for employees. Smith said plans are in the works to build employee housing as well.
“The development budget does include off-site employee housing facilities,” he said. “There is a site within walking distance of the hotel for employee housing.”
When asked how many employees the housing may accommodate, Smith was unsure, but estimated between 50 and 60. In total, the project is set to create 175 jobs.
Along with guest rooms and leisure space, the planned resort includes multiple retail spots on the first floor with access from the Boardwalk, and a theme consistent with the famous Margaritaville hotels and resorts popping up across the country.
“I’ve always thought of this town as one of our ideal spots to bring our brand because of what Margaritaville stands for,” said John Cohlan, the CEO of Margaritaville Holdings, and the longtime partner of singer and famed entrepreneaur Jimmy Buffet.
Cohlan added that anyone who knows the Margaritaville brand knows it stands for paradise, and he anticipates that the presence of this type of hotel and experience in a prime spot in downtown Ocean City will help revive the resort during the non-peak seasons.
“Ocean City is a perfect place for what we do as far as lifestyle,” he said.
Planning commissioners seemed impressed with the design, but some concerns were expressed about parking during Tuesday’ meeting, as the development of the site and removal of the Beach Plaza hotel will eliminate some public spaces that have been relied on for some time. The commissioners will discuss those types of details further during their work session next week.
One other small sticking point is a dispute over a 16-foot, city-owned alley known as Washington Lane that bisects the site. The developer plans to incorporate the space into the design of the complex, replacing it with a 23-foot public easement with two travel lanes and one bicycle lane.
The alley is needed to meet the square footage requirement for the POD and city council members have to vote to abandon it. They were supposed to discuss it at a work session last week, but the applicant removed it from the agenda.
According to a staff report, city employees recommend that council members give the green light to discuss and vote on the alley abandonment at a future council meeting. The report said the city “has no direct need” for the right-of-way for utilities, and that the creation of a wider public easement “would improve the alley’s primary function as a public way.”
Hugh Cropper, the attorney representing the developers, said he presented the project plans Tuesday as if council members have already approved the abandonment, because he is confident they will move forward with it.