Flagship hotel proposed for downtown Bethany

Efforts to enhance business and year-round activity in downtown Bethany Beach have been expanded in recent years, with new events and town officials working with downtown business owners to encourage people to come downtown, shop downtown and eat downtown, year-round. Now, they could be adding an option for more people to stay downtown, too.

Developer Jack Burbage is proposing a “flagship” hotel be built on the oceanfront site of the Bethany Arms motel complex, which fronts the boardwalk on both sides of Hollywood Street, just a block south of Garfield Parkway. Burbage told town council members on Monday that he has a contract to purchase the property and is now exploring whether his vision for the new hotel can become reality.

That, Burbage said, depends on two factors. First, he said, the Town has to want it. If it doesn’t, he said, he won’t build it. Secondly, the site has to be able to accommodate at least 100 rooms.

“This is not a money thing at all,” he told council members. “I’ve been lucky. The good Lord has blessed me, and I could live the rest of my life fine. But I love Bethany Beach. And I’d like to do this project, if you want it. If you don’t want it, I won’t do it. I’ll walk away from it.

“But I really think it would be something that’s strong, that could secure the downtown,” Burbage said, “and it would be like the Atlantic Hotel is in Berlin (Md.). It could really be the crown jewel that could help, and then we would have all these little businesses that would prosper in the offseason because of the events that you are bringing into the town.”

Burbage’s first requirement seemed to be a slam-dunk, at least a first glance, with a positive, even effusive, response from council members at their Jan. 14 workshop.

“It sounds great,” said Councilwoman Carol Olmstead.

And resident Joan Gordon, too, enthusiastically welcomed the idea.

“I think this is the most exciting thing to happen in Bethany Beach in a long time,” she said. “I think this is a fabulous idea and will really give a boost to the town.”

Burbage said the hotel was a vision he had some time ago. Now, heading into his 30th year as a developer in the area, he said, “What is important to me is a vital, strong downtown. … I’ve watched towns come and go. I’ve been on the Chamber of Commerce of Berlin for years. I’ve seen in the past, if you have a strong downtown, you have a strong town. If your downtown starts to decay and falter, then it carries out throughout your whole town.”

Burbage said he hoped to replicate in Bethany Beach what has happened in nearby Berlin.

“Berlin many, many years ago was faltering, had many stores that were vacant. The Atlantic Hotel was falling apart, and a group of investors bought it with the idea that they’d never make a dime on it but they wanted to do something for the town,” he said. “They renovated it, and now it is the crown jewel of downtown Berlin. And now the stores around it have grown tremendously. The quality of the stores has gotten better. There’s not a vacant store in the downtown at present. And they’ve just opened three new restaurants.”

Burbage said his connection to Bethany Beach is a motivating factor behind the project.

“I have a lot at stake in this town, because I love the town and I believe in the town, and I’ve put my money where my mouth is for 30 years. I don’t have to do this deal, … but I’d like to do this deal. I really think it could be the crown jewel of Bethany Beach.

“It would be done in first-class,” he emphasized. “When we do things, we don’t do them halfway. What I envision there is flagship of a Marriot or a Hilton, with a spa and some nice rooms, and one that would be built in the vernacular of Bethany Beach, that it would look like Bethany Beach back in the olden days. … It would be quiet. It would be on the boardwalk. And we think that it would really help the town. It would help extend the season of the town.”

Burbage said a lack of available lodging is keeping the town from adding even more events to those that already take place in the spring and fall.

“We have a lot of events in the spring and the fall, but there really is not a place for them to stay. I know one event that wanted to come to Bethany, but they didn’t come because there wasn’t lodging for it, and they needed lodging,” he said.

Acknowledging efforts by the Town to get the downtown area more active and year-round, he said, “I also think that if we can get the downtown more active we can upgrade the quality of the shops. I am tired of boardwalk T-shirt shops, and I’d like to see that replaced with like a South Moon Under.
“And we can do it in Bethany. Bethany’s small enough that we could upgrade and make you happy. And I really think this project could be, if you so desire and if you want it, to be that impetus that will really set it off and get it going and make it happen.”

Burbage says project will be ‘first-class’

Burbage repeatedly used the words “first-class” in describing the project.

“It will be done by first-class, managed first-class. The architecture will be great on it,” he promised.
Burbage said he has already hired two different architects to develop sketch plans for the new hotel. One, the Becker-Morgan firm, he said has deep knowledge in the hotel industry. The second, Jeff Schoellkopf, is already a familiar name in Bethany Beach. Schoellkopf not only designed the Atlantic Hotel but also the building that houses Japanesque and Pitter Patter in downtown Bethany. He also helped the Town develop its architectural guidelines for commercial properties.

“He’s very knowledgeable about what we like and don’t like,” Burbage said, also noting Schoellkopf’s LEED certification and interest in “green” design. “He really gets into the thinking of how we can do things better,” he added, further noting that Schoellkopf comes from a small town in Vermont, along with having grown up in the Ocean City, Md., area.

“By having two architects, we can get the best of both worlds,” Burbage said. “We can see and meld the two together and take the best of both designs.”

Burbage said that, along with the hotel rooms, the new hotel would feature a spa and small conference center, the better to draw small groups to the area in the offseason.

“You’ve done a great job with beautification,” he told the council. “But a shot in the arm would be to replace the Bethany Arms with a flag, like a Marriot or a Hilton, and put a spa in it and have it so you could have meetings here if you had a small group that wanted to have a meeting here in the offseason.”

Burbage said the conference center would likely be designed to accommodate up to 75 people, while the spa would offer an attractive option for them and for locals. He said the hotel would also support the different activities that the Town helps support each year, as well as offering a place for out-of-town guests to stay when residents didn’t have enough room at home.

“There’s so much we could do together with the town,” he said.

Burbage said his vision would be for the hotel to primarily offer suites, “because this is a family town and that’s what we want it to stay, and that’s what a family would need.” He said he also thinks there should be one parking space allocated per unit. “And height is also important, because we don’t want any more towers here,” he added.

Burbage said he plans to have the hotel open year-round. It would be managed by Real Property Group of Ocean City, which he said currently operates 28 hotel properties, including 18 hotels in New York City.

“So they really know how to manage the hotel, how it should be done right. We’re going to make sure it’s managed right,” he assured the council.

Town Manager Cliff Graviet confirmed for the council that the Bethany Arms property does run right up to the boardwalk, but Burbage said he didn’t know whether the new hotel would run right up to the property line. He said he wanted to let the architects come up with a design and would work from those designs.

“We want it small. We want it quality. And we want it nice,” he said. “I’d like to see us work together on it. If there’s something you don’t like, let’s change it right away.”

Burbage also said that he expected the Marriot or Hilton connection to be a very positive one for the hotel.

“The nice thing about Marriot or Hilton is they’ve got criteria that are far and above what any municipality and state has, especially in terms of safety. Marriot says it’s the safest room you can stay in, because they’re designed that way. They’ve got people who’ve been in the business for years and years, and they know what works and what doesn’t work, and they’re on the cutting edge. And they don’t mind spending the developer’s money. It’s going to be a first-class project, and that’s what I want for Bethany, too.”

Zoning, density regulations may need to be adjusted

Burbage’s second requirement is a little trickier, as a number of zoning issues could stand in the way of the project. Not the least of those issues is the current density limitation of the property, which stands around 50 units. Burbage said Marriot or Hilton will insist on a hotel property having at least 100 rooms.

“Right now, what is presently existing at the Bethany Arms is all that can be done there — which is about 50 units,” he said. “The flags say it’s not worth it unless you have 100 units. But it’s got to be done nicely. It’s got to be done discretely,” Burbage insisted.

He said that, with a first set of drawings expected this week, he had asked his architects to design around a size of 300 square feet per unit, hopeful that the Town will adapt its zoning regulations to allow the redevelopment of the Bethany Arms to that density.

“If we can’t do it right, if we can’t build what we think is quality, we won’t settle,” he said. “We’re in the study period to see what can be done with that property, how well it can be done.”

Graviet noted that the elements of the code involved in the issue “were tailored in the times they existed.” That means that they were tailored to the Bethany Arms, with a requirement for no less than 800 square feet per unit. In fact, the 800-square-foot minimum is for a unit with a kitchen, while, perhaps illogically, the minimum for a one-bedroom unit without a kitchen is 1,000 square feet.

The town manager said that, in preparing to possibly refer the zoning issues to the town’s Planning Commission, he had researched the industry standard for density. Graviet said that standard is 300 square feet per room. He said that is also the standard on the Delmarva Peninsula. That would likely allow for about 100 rooms, or more, to be built on the Bethany Arms property.

“The first obstacle to this project is to change that and bring it more into keeping with what’s the norm in the rest of the world,” he said.

The proposed Bethany Arms redevelopment project also raises another issue with the town’s zoning code. Graviet said the code currently has a minimum square footage for a hotel or motel room of just 150 square feet. “And, probably, as we look at doing other things, we might want to look at increasing that,” he said.

Noting that the rooms in the Burbage project would likely end up being around 300 square feet in size, he said the existing regulation was “probably done in the day to accommodate what was in the Blue Surf.” Now, a larger hotel room size is the standard, and may be what the Town wants.

Finally, the actual zoning of the property is another potential impediment, as a portion of the property — that on the south side of Hollywood Street, which includes a boarding house that is part of the Bethany Arms — is zoned residential, even though it supports commercial lodging, Graviet said.

“It may be some action needs to be taken regarding the southern portion of that property,” he said.
Councilman Lew Killmer noted that precedent exists for a sub-zoning of the property, as the Town has already rezoned the Sea Villas area as zone R-1B to differentiate it and its unique characteristics from the rest of the R-1 zone.

“We can recognize what this property has been,” Killmer said, “and that they’re not doing anything different from what the property is currently used for, and zone it correctly.”

Assuming the Town does make the changes in code and zoning needed to accommodate the redevelopment project, Burbage said his hope is to demolish the existing Bethany Arms structures in October 2013 and to have the new hotel open by the summer of 2014.

“That’s very aggressive,” he acknowledged, “but we’re currently building a Marriot in Chincoteague that will be open in June, and we started the first of December.”