By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Michael and Marta Bravoco quickly found out just how vulnerable their Merion Park neighborhood is to flooding when they bought their Ocean City home last year.
“We moved in last September and we’ve had four flooding incidents that came up to the first steps of our property,” Marta said of the couple’s Victoria Lane home in the heart of Merion Park.
Hoping for some relief from the flooding, the Bravocos and about 40 other residents attended a community meeting Saturday organized by Councilman Bob Barr to hear details about a long-awaited drainage project that would protect the bayside Merion Park neighborhood.
“There’s always hope,” Michael Bravoco said while expressing optimism that the project will ease flooding.
Taking cues from the first phase of Merion Park’s flood-protection project completed almost 10 years ago, the city is planning to build three new pumping stations to help clear the neighborhood of tidal waters seeping out of the surrounding marshlands.
The pumping stations are planned along the 34th Street-Roosevelt Boulevard entryway between the foot of the 34th Street Bridge and Bay Avenue. In addition, there are plans to upgrade an existing pumping station at the end of Bay Avenue to improve its capacity to channel floodwater back into the bay.
Other improvements that are included in the estimated $10 million project include new drainage pipes, road reconstruction to raise the streets, landscaped berms that would act as flood barriers and new gutters, curbs and sidewalks.
“You’ve seen what we did in Merion Park before, and we’re going to do it again,” City Business Administrator George Savastano told residents at the hour-long meeting at the American Legion hall.
According to the timetable for the project, the city will seek construction bids this summer and start the work in late fall. Savastano said the city tentatively expects to finish the project in late 2024 or possibly in 2025.
Very little or no work at all will be done during the busy summer tourism season to avoid construction disruptions that could interrupt traffic flow into town on the 34th Street entry corridor, city officials said.
Barr, the Fourth Ward councilman who represents Merion Park, said residents have waited patiently for nearly 10 years for the second phase of the project to finally get underway.
The city finished the first phase of the flood-mitigation project in Merion Park in 2014, including road reconstruction, new drainage pipes and three stormwater pumping stations.
Barr said feedback from Merion Park’s homeowners will be vital in helping to guide city officials as the second phase of the project unfolds in coming months.
“This was an extra positive meeting,” he said in an interview afterward. “We can study it all we want to, but the residents know the area best.”
Barr praised Mayor Jay Gillian for fulfilling his promise to complete the second phase of the project.
“The mayor was true to his word. He said he was going to make it happen, and he did,” Barr said.
Gillian, Savastano and the city’s Operations and Engineering Department director Vince Bekier were part of Barr’s meeting, each taking turns describing aspects of the flood-mitigation project in great detail.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to help our taxpayers,” Gillian said of the flood-protection plan.
Additional information was provided by Joe Danyo, chief engineer for Michael Baker International, the engineering firm that is designing the project for the city.
The city also unveiled renderings of the project to give residents more perspective of what type of construction will be done.
Danyo, who lives in Merion Park, said his knowledge of the neighborhood gives him insights that will help Michael Baker International in crafting the project’s overall design.
“Anytime it floods, I’m driving around the neighborhood,” he said.
City officials and Danyo made it clear that although the project will help protect Merion Park, it will not completely stop flooding from occurring in the neighborhood.
“Unless we put a bulkhead around the entire city, we’re still going to experience flooding events,” Danyo said. “But we’ll have it not flood as much as it does now, and make the roads passable.”
During the meeting, Merion Park homeowners repeatedly thanked city officials for their efforts to alleviate chronic flooding. However, Anita Messina, who lives on Oxford Lane and has been a Merion Park resident since 1979, wondered whether the project will ease flooding or simply redirect it into other parts of the neighborhood.
City officials assured Messina that the project would not push water from one part of Merion Park into others.
“Good luck,” Messina responded.
Afterward, Messina said in interview that she remains skeptical that the city can alleviate flooding overall without some of the water being diverted into other areas of Merion Park.
“We’ll see what happens. Hopefully, it will work,” she said.
Separate from the city’s project, Cape May County is planning to elevate the roadway along the Roosevelt Boulevard-34th Street corridor to help reduce flooding on the artery linking Ocean City and Marmora.
The city and county will coordinate their plans to avoid possible conflicts. The county project is expected to begin in spring 2024, after the city begins construction on the Merion Park drainage work, city officials said.
The Roosevelt Boulevard-34th Street corridor is the second-busiest gateway into Ocean City, behind the state-owned Route 52 Causeway-Ninth Street Bridge in the center of town. On average, 20,000 vehicles each day cross the 34th Street Bridge, the most heavily traveled bridge in the county network.
According to plans, the Roosevelt Boulevard-34th Street artery will be raised along a 1.6-mile stretch from Bay Avenue in Ocean City to the Garden State Parkway entrance in Marmora.
In Ocean City, the county will also raise the roadways around the Acme supermarket at 34th Street, as well as the intersections of West Avenue and 34th, 35th, 36th and 37th streets, according to a summary of the project.