Blue Surf redevelopment concept unveiled

Plans to redevelop the landmark Blue Surf Motel on Bethany Beach’s boardwalk, in part, spurred the town to pass a moratorium on commercial construction and consider architectural guidelines for their commercial district.

And at an April 25 meeting of the resulting Architectural Guideline Development Committee for the C-1 and C-2 Districts (AGDC), architect Robert Mobley presented committee members with a concept plan for the mixed-use project, hoping they might be able to provide some sort of approval, or at least an informal thumbs-up on how the design jives with the design guidelines they have been working on in recent weeks.

Vice-Mayor and AGDC Chairwoman Carol Olmstead referenced a letter from Town Solicitor Terence Jaywork in telling Mobley and McCabe family attorney John Sergovic that the committee was not empowered to give any sort of approval. But she and consulting architect Jeff Schoellkopf agreed to provide time for the presentation during the meeting.

In the wake of ongoing discussions about preserving the traditional coastal-resort feel of the town using architectural style and materials guidelines, the Mobley concept was received rather warmly. And Mobley’s stated hopes that the project could be an example of the preferred way to build in the C-1 district could be realistic.

As currently being developed, plans for the Blue Surf turn it from 38-unit boardwalk motel to a combination commercial-condominium structure.

There would be 11 shops on the lower floors of the planned three-story building — four on the boardwalk and seven on the Atlantic Avenue side of the building. The residential elements would include 16 or 17 condominiums, primarily on the second and third stories, Mobley explained, with that variation being controlled by the difficulty in providing sufficient parking for the residential and commercial spaces. (There are currently 48 spaces provided.)

Four residential units would face on each side of the building — oceanfront, Atlantic Avenue, and either side perpendicular to the beach. He said a condo unit netting the 17-condo figure was being planned for the pool deck area, depending on that parking provision, which is planned for under the pool deck.

The commercial ground-floor use with residential use above was another element championed by the committee thus far in their deliberation process, continuing a tradition still in limited use in the town by maximizing residential space in the downtown area within the limitations of parking availability.

Mobley emphasized that the plan was a work in progress, where the design was not yet in a detailed stage but did comply with current zoning standards. He also presented a concept elevation drawing showing a grand façade sporting the kinds of materials and architectural details the committee has been focusing on as their ideal.

The building has a sort of Victorian grandeur, with multi-plane facades (a new requirement in the residential districts) and steeply pitched rooflines, ranging from 5:12 to 9:12 (with 7:12 as an option netting an additional height allowance in the R-1 residential district, as of April 21). It also features cedar shakes and shingles as exterior materials — often pointed to as traditional to the beach cottages of the area and on the list of encouraged materials being drafted by the AGDC.

The design also calls for a porch along the front side of the building — another element being encouraged in the draft AGDC plan. And Mobley drew attention to the planned 12-foot setbacks on the non-boardwalk-facing side of the building, in contrast to the total lack of setbacks the town has required of commercial properties. There’s a planned 15-foot setback on the boardwalk.

Mobley said he’d worked under similar architectural guidelines in Ocean City, Md., which were developed with Schoellkopf and form the basis of the plan for Bethany Beach. “I applaud your flexibility and architectural goals,” he told committee members of the draft guidelines being developed.

While the plan he presented was designed to comply with existing guidelines — including a 31-foot height limit in the commercial districts — Mobley said added flexibility included in the new ordinances might help him improve the project even more.

“Would we like some more flexibility? You betcha,” he said with enthusiasm. “We would like more height,” he admitted. But Mobley emphasized that the goal of that additional height wouldn’t be to pack in more living space — just to expand what was already a difficult ceiling height on the planned upper stories, some 8 feet for most of the space, and just 7 feet in other spots, as tentatively designed.

Architects and builders have argued that is just the reason the town should allow flexible height options, particularly during recent debates over the new R-1 height allowance for 7:12 or steeper roofs. Sometimes, the tradeoff is roof pitch versus ceiling height, and Mobley and local developer Jack Burbage — who is a member of the AGDC — were quick to call for added flexibility there.

Burbage championed even more flexibility than what the new R-1 regulation provides, when speaking at the April 25 meeting. He didn’t challenge the ultimate 36-foot cap the committee had previously discussed for the C-1 district. Burbage instead favored allowing more of the space between the existing 31-foot cap at the roof peak and the 5-foot additional allowance for architectural elements (such as cupolas and chimneys) to be used instead for ceiling height.

Committee members debated the issue, concerned that it would encourage flat roofs. But there was consensus that some additional flexibility for ceiling height could be of benefit.

Back on the subject of the Blue Surf’s next incarnation, Burbage praised the concept design, and Mobley assured committee members that while the design details might change during the process, the concept of a cottage-style structure would not.

The draft plan for the commercial architectural guidelines is due to be presented to the public before the end of May, with a target date for zoning regulations to be ironed out by the end of the summer. That would release the McCabe family to move forward with construction of the redeveloped beachfront lot this fall, as they had hoped before the moratorium was put into place.

The committee’s reaction to the concept design of the new mixed-use structure — while not a formal approval or even a technical thumbs-up — may be an indication that that plan can continue to be developed without much of a hiccup. But the finalization of the guidelines will have to precede the town’s normal planning process and considerable additional input from town officials and citizens on what the Blue Surf is to become.