Blue Surf asking town for transformer space

The redevelopment of the landmark oceanfront Blue Surf Motel in Bethany Beach started off with a bang last year, with resounding approval by the town’s Design Review Committee of a plan mixed retail/residential space in a style that some consider a prototype for the town’s preferred architecture.

But a hitch in that plan emerged in recent weeks, as architects and builder Coleman Bunting realized the new plan left no place to put a 5-by-7-foot electrical transformer that is needed to bring electricity to the redeveloped property.

Plans call for the wiring bringing electricity to the new Blue Surf condominium/retail project to be buried rather than strung from poles, which is something the town has long favored for aesthetic reasons. But the added load needed to be carried by the service also requires a nearby transformer, Bethany Beach Building Inspector John Eckrich explained after the most recent meeting of the DRC on the Blue Surf project, on July 13.

Eckrich said the McCabe family, which owns the property, had initially asked the town for permission to locate the transformer on town property on Atlantic Avenue, in what is currently a parking space for lifeguards. But Eckrich said that location had been rejected because there are water mains located below the spot and it would pose a safety hazard to put electrical equipment directly above them, as well as a loss of a parking space for the beach patrol.

A second option requested for the project is to place the transformer — again on town property — adjacent to the town’s bathhouse and safety building, at the end of Garfield Parkway.

Eckrich said the second proposed site is adjacent to an existing handicapped-accessible parking space but also poses concerns about ensuring clearance from car doors and general safety issues with cars moving in close proximity to the transformer.

Despite those concerns, the McCabes have asked the town council to consider their request for the second site at their upcoming council meeting, tonight, Friday, July 19, beginning at 7:30 p.m.

Council members could vote to give permission tonight for the transformer to be placed at that location.

However, Eckrich said on July 13 that he liked better two other options that were raised at that day’s DRC meeting: (1) finding room on the Blue Surf property itself in which the transformer could be housed — likely on an upper level; or (2) relocating the transformer to the interior part of a planned loading area, which would in turn necessitate the moving of the complex’s trash containers toward the end of that loading area.

Town Council Member and DRC Chairman Lew Killmer told Bunting and Blue Surf co-owner Patricia McCabe that they should consider an upper-story or rooftop location for the transformer. Bunting questioned whether the electric company would be amenable to the idea, though.

Eckrich said such a move would not only solve the problem of finding space but possibly allow them to reduce the size of the box, since the elevated location would be less susceptible to storm surge, as it would be outside the flood plain. He said he had seen such a location used in another local project, so he believed the electricity supplier might be willing to consider the change.

Committee members also noted concerns about the recessed location of the trash containers in the loading area, as currently planned, because they would have to be moved nearly 40 feet for every trash pickup conducted by town Public Works employees. Moving them closer to the street to accommodate the transformer could have a positive side affect, Killmer noted, since Public Works Supervisor Brett Warner had expressed concerns about the need to regularly move the heavy containers that far.

Bunting said he and the McCabes were also willing to look into a private trash hauler, should it be necessary to find additional accommodations on that issue. Bunting emphasized the aesthetic improvements that would benefit the whole town due to the removal of the current above ground electrical wiring.

Despite the support for the other two locations from DRC members, on the subject of the transformer the focus of the developers remained on the location next to the bathhouse. Plans still called for the council to consider on July 19 the issue of permission for that location.

Details hold up final approval

The transformer location was one of a handful of unresolved questions that prevented the DRC from granting its final approval for the redevelopment project at their July 13 meeting.

The Blue Surf complex had received its initial nod from the committee late last year, with high praised heaped on the seaside styling of the new building — something that fits perfectly with the new commercial architectural guidelines developed by the town last year.

But drawings shown more recently to prospective buyers in the complex had raised some eyebrows on the parts of some town officials, as they didn’t quite match up to what had preliminarily been approved in November 2006.

Gone was the “gingerbread” of exterior decorative elements, as well as the decorative six-sided cupolas that had so impressed the committee with their seaside style. A previously open-air stairway had been enclosed in glass.

The project architect said the removal of the cupolas on recent drawings had been an idea he’d wanted to approach the town about, but DRC members quickly made clear their concerns about that idea.

“They want them,” Bunting told his architect plainly.

The architect also explained that the decision to glass in the stairway had been due to weather concerns, which DRC members accepted without significant objection despite indicating a preference for the original design.

And the missing gingerbread is still planned to be added, Bunting said.

But, lacking a drawing that indicated all of those things and with the issue of the transformer still unresolved, DRC members deferred their vote on final approval of the renovations.

That could some at their August meeting, or sooner, with pressure on for the McCabes to get the old Blue Surf torn down and the new Blue Surf erected in its place in time for the 2008 summer season. Construction work on the project is set to begin after Labor Day this year, with Bunting suggesting that four to five months of major construction lie ahead.

Some 243 pilings are planned to hold the weight of the massive structure, which will house condominium units on its upper floors and retail space on the ground floor. “They’re going to be driving miles of piles,” said DRC consulting architect John Hendrickson, describing the clusters of three or four pilings that will bear the weight of the building below structural columns.

With that many pilings to be driven, DRC members said they were hoping, and expecting, that one of the latest models of quieter pile-driving devices would be employed, to avoid lengthy noise-heavy periods for year-round residents.

Killmer noted a change in the area of the ground floor as well, with plans now callings for the retail spaces to be directly on the same level as the ground and boardwalk, to avoid any steps up into the retail shops for customers. That issue was discussed during the drafting of the commercial architectural guidelines, as the tradeoff between flood risk and customer convenience was weighed.

The McCabes and Bunting have chosen one of the potentially riskier options available to commercial spaces within the flood plain: opting to favor customer convenience by eliminating steps into the retail shops and reducing the risk of resulting flood damage with “flood-proofing” techniques. Those techniques include sealed glass storefronts and “flood-proof” doors that allow a sealed gasket to close off the storefront in the event of an impending storm.

Killmer said he was concerned about the notion of an average store employee being left in charge of such a major operations as deploying the flood-proof gaskets but Bunting chalked that up to a business decision.

In nor’easters that plagued the area in 2006, the immediate vicinity of the Blue Surf was inundated with storm surge that crossed the town’s erosion-narrowed beach. However, planned beach replenishment also beginning after Labor Day this year should also provide an added buffer for all the town’s oceanfront businesses and residents.

Bunting said plans still call for impact-resistant laminated glass for the storefronts, rather than storm shutters or louvered fronts. The glass will be designed to handle the impact of a storm-hurled 2-by-4 piece of lumber at wind speeds up to 200 mph, befitting the Blue Surf’s oceanfront location.

Major change for beachgoers used to open porches

Completing a list of the DRC’s concerns on July 13 was the solid wall planned to edge the existing boardwalk access ramp on the side of the Blue Surf property that is adjacent to the town bandstand, rising to second-story condominium units.

“You’ve taken care of most of the issues we had before,” Killmer noted. “The only other issue is that long wall that faces the bandstand.”

Killmer said the unrelieved expanse of faux wood planned for the wall seemed to him to be, at the least, an invitation for graffiti artists. “I’m concerned it will look very bad very quickly,” he emphasized.

Bunting countered that the choice of Cedar Impressions siding for the wall’s surface was made, in part, because it would make for an easier cleanup of any markings. “It will be easier to clean than wood,” he offered.

Still, Killmer lingered over previous suggestions for faux residential-style windows and other decorative details that might break up the wall. Making reference to the narrow passage between the planned wall and the bandstand — just 8 feet — he noted the potential for the formation of a wind-tunnel effect and said he hoped the impression of the wall would not be one of “the Great Wall of China.”

Finally, Bunting and McCabe confirmed a planned color scheme for the project on July 13 as well: grey with white trim, in seaside style, with a blue metal roof on some portions of the building and grey single roofing on others. A white aluminum or vinyl railing is also planned.

Given all of the minor changes from the original plan presented to the DRC, Killmer said, “This is still a very attractive building,” promising that the DRC was likely to approve the project once those final details and a final plan were presented to them.

Committee member Don Doyle offered a note of caution, however, saying he expected public comment regarding the physical size of the place and that the DRC should be assured that the project meets all standards so that the public can be told that.

Killmer also recognized that the change to the venerable old motel building was likely to raise some concerns among the public anyway. He said the narrow passage between the building and bandstand was likely to seem somewhat like a “cattle chute” when contrasted with the existing open porches on that side of the property now.

“It’s going to be a change that people are going to have to get used to,” he offered.

Killmer noted that he had been told that six residential units in the complex had already been sold. “In this market, that’s pretty good,” Hendrickson observed.