The height of beach living

December 30, 2005

The Gateway Grand isn't your parents' Ocean City condo. The 196-unit project will have first-class amenities such as granite countertops, 9-foot ceilings and an indoor pool. Asking prices for a three- or four-bedroom unit will be just as breathtaking - $1 million to $2.9 million. And the building at the site of the former Gateway Hotel and Ocean Club at 48th Street will have something else that might take old-timers by surprise: It's going to be 17 stories tall.

That's typical for the north end of Ocean City, where high-rises dominate, but not in midtown. Ocean City's redevelopment boom is pushing developers to reach for the skies. The council gave final approval to the Gateway Grand this month (local zoning law allows taller oceanside buildings if the developer agrees to, among other things, set aside more open space), but the decision raises questions about how far the tall trend may go.

There are at least 80 projects in some stage of development, Ocean City planning officials say. A Hilton Suites hotel under construction at 33rd Street will be as tall as the Gateway Grand. The advantages are obvious - more rooms can have an ocean view. That drives up property values and, ultimately, the city's tax base. And it doesn't necessarily mean higher density.

But the building trend is slowly changing the community nevertheless. It has meant more second-home buyers and fewer short-term renters. The result? While development is booming, Ocean City's peak summer population is still about the same as it was in the 1980s. The town's newest owners are older, and more affluent. Gone are the old-style boarding houses and mom-and-pop motels.

The council may well have made the correct call with the Gateway Grand. But just how many high-rises are going to be permitted in the future is unclear. Certainly, if rising prices and demand for waterview condos persist, developers will want to build a lot more. The council, which is about to revise the town's comprehensive plan, ought to exercise some restraint. Ocean City need not become another Miami Beach just because some developers would like to make it so.

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