Seaside theme presented for Bethany Beach

A vision of the Bethany Beach of the future was presented to interested townsfolk Wednesday, Jan. 19, in a public hearing on motifs and themes that could be incorporated into the town code or a future architectural standard.

Associate Dean John M. Maudlin-Jeronimo of the University of Maryland School of Architecture and nine of his students spent the last two weeks in the town, surveying existing architecture and developing recommendations for ways to create a cohesive, attractive set of standards that would improve its overall look and appeal.

At the Jan. 19 meeting, Maudlin-Jeronimo noted that the project had initially been broken down into two possible directions for the town: that of Rehoboth Beach’s preservationist model versus the modern high-tech (or “high-tack”) look of Ocean City’s commercial districts. He also pointed that the presentation was the work of his students and allowed them to speak for themselves in introducing residents of the town to what could be its future.

The students were plainspoken in presenting the “high-tack” makeover for the town, transforming existing buildings in Bethany Beach’s commercial center on Garfield Parkway into geometric constructions featuring lots of glass and exposed structural elements. That plan, they said simply, was created as an academic exercise rather than a realistic recommendation for the town.

The students’ “real” recommendation, however, was greeted warmly by those present at the meeting. Their “vernacular” guidelines targeted elements already present in existing residential architecture in the town: simple facades, clapboard siding, shingles, large-scale trim and gable roofs. Each of those elements they used to transform the existing commercial storefronts into quaint seaside stores.

The proposed transformations of the existing semi-modern Sunsations storefront elicited spontaneous applause from several members of the audience, so dramatic was its makeover.

Also a success for those in attendance was the proposed “streetscape” plan from the students. The plan included a number of elements targeted at increasing pedestrian safety and encouraging pedestrians to shop and remain in the commercial district.

Among the changes proposed were wider sidewalks, utility poles relocated to the town’s alleyways, brick sidewalks and crosswalks, more plantings, pedestrian seating niches and even an open-air market located across Garfield Parkway from the town hall.

While the overall reception for the plan was considerably warm, questions from those in attendance largely focused on its practicality. Encouraging property owners in the commercial district to make the recommended changes to their facades is a potentially expensive proposition for both the property owners and the town.

But Maudlin-Jeronimo said he felt the proposed plan was “very doable,” “very realistic.” The key, he said, would be a system of incentives to aid the property owners with the financial burden of the changes. The town could assist with matching funds, which could themselves be provided (at least in part) through grants from the state.

Once the ideas are instituted in town code, Maudlin Jeronimo said, it would be a matter of gradual transformation over the course of years, as new owners reworked their properties to meet the themed code.

Mayor Jack Walsh said he found the recommendations “refreshing” and giving a new perspective on the town. “You have to ease into these things,” he said. “You can’t do this overnight.” Walsh said he believed the establishment of an architectural review board (ARB) in the town would assist with the implementation of such a plan. He also noted that “the streetscape plan, by itself, is great.” He emphasized the ability of the town to tackle such a transformation in “little bites,” such as starting with the streetscape plan.

Town Council Member Lew Killmer — the former Planning Commission chairman (and current member) — said he also believed it was reasonable to think the proposed transformation is possible. He noted the ARB currently exists in the town as a working document, awaiting approval of the Planning Commission and Town Council.

“This needs to be done right, in a way that doesn’t turn people off,” he said of the ARB.