By Donald Wittkowski
The developer of a proposed $2 million office building that would serve as a new centerpiece for Ocean City’s main gateway will seek planning approvals for the project during a hearing Wednesday night that is expected to draw some opposition.
The Keller Williams realty firm plans to build its new corporate headquarters on land formerly occupied by an abandoned and blighted Exxon gas station that had marred the appearance of the Ninth Street corridor for years.
Keller Williams has demolished the old Exxon station to clear the site at the corner of Ninth Street and Bay Avenue for redevelopment. In the next step, the company is scheduled to appear before the city Planning Board at its meeting 6 p.m. Wednesday for site plan approval to begin construction.
Paul Chiolo, owner of Keller Williams, said his company remains “completely ready” to present the project to the board for its scrutiny.
“We took this very seriously. The fact that this is the gateway to Ocean City, we took that into consideration. It was important to us not to build something that was overbearing or intrusive,” Chiolo said in an interview Tuesday.
Chiolo said Keller Williams plans to develop “a classic, complementary seashore building” that reflects its high-profile location and would welcome visitors to town.
“It is really pleasing to the eye,” he said.
Ever since Keller Williams announced its project last year, there has been debate whether an office building would be the best use for the site. Critics of the project are expected to attend the Planning Board meeting.
Drew Fasy, co-chair of Bike OCNJ, an advocacy group for local bicyclists, has concerns over the visibility and function of the Keller Williams building. He intends to speak out against the project during the Planning Board meeting.
Fasy said he is worried how the project might affect bike and foot traffic using the popular bike path and walkway along the Route 52 Causeway, which connects with the foot of Ninth Street.
“It is arguably the busiest corner in all of Ocean City,” Fasy said. “The path over the Causeway averages 590 bikers-runners every day and can see as many as 1,300 a day during peak summer months. The access and egress of this proposal is right in front of the multi-use bike path-walkway. … It’s going to be a nightmare for the public.”
Chiolo believes the concerns are unfounded. He noted that the Keller Williams office wouldn’t even be the closest building to the foot of the Causeway. He said the two existing businesses next to the bridge are likely to have more impact on the Causeway’s bike and foot traffic than the office building.
If the Planning Board grants its approval, Keller Williams plans to start construction on the two-story office complex in spring. Completion is expected by next fall, Chiolo said.
The removal of the blighted Exxon site is a key piece of the city’s overall plan to beautify the Ninth Street corridor from the bay to the Boardwalk, creating a far more appealing first impression for visitors arriving in town via the Route 52 Causeway bridge.
The strategy includes replacing three former blighted gas station sites with green space. Initially, the city would concentrate on sprucing up an expanse of land stretching from Bay Avenue to the base of the bridge.
Originally, Mayor Jay Gillian wanted to convert the old Exxon site into landscaped green space. But during a town hall meeting in October to discuss ideas for redeveloping the Ninth Street corridor, the mayor seemed to endorse the Keller Williams project by calling it a “beautiful place.”
“The last comment I heard from the mayor was at the town hall meeting,” Chiolo said. “He said he supported the building and would not interfere.”
The town hall meeting gathered suggestions from the public on how to give the Ninth Street artery a facelift. Ideas included open space, new parks, children’s playgrounds, boat slips and a series of environmentally friendly attractions ranging from bird-watching areas to rain gardens.
Over the summer, the city agreed to pay $475,000 to buy a shuttered former BP gas station on the opposite side of Ninth Street from the old Exxon property. The old BP has since been demolished.
City officials have indicated they would also like to acquire an abandoned Getty gas station next to the former BP site, as well as the neighboring Bud’s Outboard Marine Inc. property. Taken together, the BP, Getty and Bud’s sites would create a large swath of property that could be transformed into green space under the city’s control.
In closing, Fasy said “I feel there is still a chance that we can have that location preserved for open space which is a better and safer option for the gateway in to Ocean City. This option is an example of over building and will create an on-going safety issue”.
Stay tuned. OCNJ Daily will be in the Planning Board meeting and will report the outcome as soon as it is decided.