Ocean City's past returns Renovation: Shore resort city is adding Victorian features as it begins a face lift of its famous boardwalk.

September 06, 1998|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY -- It's Labor Day weekend at Maryland's beach resort, but merchants and city officials are already looking ahead, getting ready to launch a $3.5 million boardwalk face lift they believe will link its future with its Victorian past.

For all its tacky familiarity, its T-shirt stands, pizza and french fry joints, Whack-a-Mole game barkers, trinket shops and deafening video arcades, city leaders insist that the boardwalk is Ocean City.

And with some modification, some gentrification -- yes, maybe ,, even some yuppification -- they are determined to keep it as the focal point into the next century.

"Without the boardwalk there is no Ocean City," says Bill Ochse, chairman of the Boardwalk Development Association, a nonprofit merchants group he helped start last year. "It's what makes Ocean City, Ocean City. I don't see how anybody can argue with the fact that it is a unique asset."

The two-year renovation, which begins this month and is financed through the sale of bonds, is timed to coincide with the new millennium, and it is based on design elements reminiscent of the 1890s, when the beach town got its start.

The first to go will be the 50-year-old concrete surface, which will be replaced with a herringbone pattern of wooden boards. Starting at Fourth Street, construction crews will move south to Somerset Street. Next fall, the new boards will be extended south to South First Street.

Between the new boardwalk and the beach will be a parallel concrete path with benches and new lighting to accommodate boardwalk trains, bicyclists and in-line skaters. Benches will be added, placed back-to-back for optimum people- or ocean-watching.

At Division Street, the city plans a gateway arch patterned after a similar signature structure seen in old postcards from Ocean City's earliest days.

Entrances to the boardwalk will be spruced up to camouflage trash bins and utility services.

'Something to build on'

City officials sought out the architectural firm Wallace, Roberts and Todd, designers of Baltimore's Inner Harbor, Florida's Walt Disney World and other well-known sites, to come up with the overall design.

"We went down to Disney World's boardwalk, and we saw that they had patterned it after the mid-Atlantic Victorian style we already had here," says Mackey Stancell, a member of the Boardwalk Development Association. "We knew we needed some improvement, but it was obvious that we had something to build on."

A staunch supporter of the boardwalk campaign, Stancell owns two restaurants and a marina in Ocean City -- all on the city's

busy Coastal Highway or on Assawoman Bay.

"I don't see any conflict there," Stancell says. "The boardwalk has been neglected for too long. I don't have a business there, but all business in Ocean City is tied to the boardwalk. It's part and parcel of the whole beach experience."

While Ocean City's Roland E. Powell Convention Center, which fueled a redevelopment boom when it reopened almost a year ago at 40th Street and Coastal Highway, has drawn a lot of attention, city officials say now is the time to shore up the city's historic downtown.

"The convention center has been huge for us, there's no doubt about that," says Mayor James N. Mathias Jr., a Baltimore native who came to the beach 26 years ago and has not left.

Reversing decline

In recent years, boardwalk properties have declined in value, a trend the city aims to reverse, Mathias says.

"We're hoping that the boardwalk project will serve as a catalyst for upgrading the whole downtown area," he says.

"We're looking for ways to encourage people to look there and open bed-and-breakfasts and other upscale uses. We need to attract people with significant disposable income who might be going elsewhere. You give people that traditional, romantic feeling of the boardwalk, and you build from there."

With increasing competition from other resorts and entertainment outlets, Ocean City officials vow to continue marketing the venerable beach town as a year-round resort, constantly honing their marketing pitch.

With too many derelict properties in the historic downtown, some buildings may have to come down to create what Mathias says should be a distinct district, such as Georgetown or Fells Point.

Boardwalk is central

But nothing will change unless the city holds true to its vision for the boardwalk, he says.

"You take that memory everybody has of the first time they saw the boardwalk -- the sounds, the smells, the whole experience," Mathias says. "That's what we have that almost no place in the country has.

"We have to start there. The boardwalk is the essence of Ocean City."

Pub Date: 9/06/98

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