By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Millions of dollars in road construction, flood mitigation and beach replenishment projects are some of the major improvements slated for the south end of town, Ocean City officials told local residents Saturday during a community meeting.
Mayor Jay Gillian also said during a Fourth Ward meeting organized by Councilman Bob Barr that the city wants to give a facelift to the 34th Street playground, including new basketball, tennis and pickleball courts and better bathrooms.
“We have plans to do a whole makeover,” Gillian said. “It will be nice.”
The project is still in the concept phase, meaning that the city has not yet determined how much it would cost and when the improvements would be made to the playground, city officials said.
Gillian noted that the city is eager to move forward with the project because some of the playground facilities are reaching the end of their “useful life.”
Much of the community meeting, though, focused on the city’s plans for road construction, drainage improvements and stormwater pumping stations to reduce flooding in the Merion Park neighborhood in the south end.
Improvements in Merion Park would be tied together with Cape May County’s plans to elevate the 34th Street-Roosevelt Boulevard linking Ocean City and Marmora to ease flooding along on the heavily used corridor.
According to plans, the Roosevelt Boulevard-34th Street artery will be raised along a 1.6-mile stretch from Bay Avenue in Ocean City to the Garden State Parkway entrance in Marmora.
On Oct. 6, City Council approved a resolution to incorporate Cape May County roads and additional areas along West, Haven and Simpson avenues into the Merion Park flood mitigation project.
Gillian told residents that the city is waiting to hear more details from Michael Baker International Inc., the engineering firm overseeing designs for the project. For now, the project is in the concept phase, so it is not yet clear how much it will cost and when construction would begin, he noted.
The city finished the first phase of a flood mitigation project in Merion Park in 2014, including three new stormwater pumping stations, drainage pipes and road reconstruction. Merion Park homeowners have waited patiently for the second phase to be completed to give the neighborhood even more protection from flooding.
Pumping stations intercept floodwater and channel it back into the bay much faster than it would normally take to drain off the streets after a coastal storm, heavy rains or high tides.
Other improvements under consideration for Merion Park’s second phase include new drainage pipes, road reconstruction, landscaped berms that would act as flood barriers and new gutters, curbs and sidewalks.
Gillian also said he wants to give the 34th Street corridor’s aesthetically challenged appearance a facelift to make it a more inviting entrance into town. The 34th Street artery is Ocean City’s second-busiest entryway behind the Route 52 Causeway-Ninth Street gateway.
“You come into 34th Street, it looks horrible,” Gillian said of the need for an overhaul.
City officials stressed that the city will be searching for county, state and federal grants to help defray the costs of major construction projects.
Gillian indicated one source of funding may be the Cape May County Open Space Review Board, which specializes in financing recreation projects. The city contributes to the open space fund and hopes to get some of that money back, he noted.
Separate from the Merion Park and 34th Street projects, the city is looking to use an abandoned railroad as a flood barrier in the south end of the island. Gillian said the city hopes to secure a state grant to help it maintain the railroad embankment to block stormwater rushing in from the bay and surrounding marshlands.
“That is an amazing barrier for the whole island,” he said.
Railroad tracks that once carried passenger trains between Philadelphia and Ocean City were abandoned decades ago and are now a ghostly presence in the south end of town. However, they could be part of the city’s broader flood-control strategy if the embankment is maintained, Gillian pointed out.
“What we don’t want to see is it getting eroded or eaten up,” he said of the embankment in an interview after the meeting.
Currently, the rusty old steel railroad tracks are overrun by weeds and bushes. Trees have even sprouted between the crumbling wooden railroad ties.
As the city continues to consider different concepts to reduce flooding on the low-lying island, the old railroad bed presents itself as an intriguing option.
Addressing a room of more than 40 residents at the American Legion Post 524 headquarters during Saturday’s meeting, city officials also described plans for other capital projects planned for the south end.
“I think the benefits speak for themselves,” Barr said of the millions of dollars in improvements targeted for his Fourth Ward Council district. “We want to do what’s best for Ocean City. We want to do whatever we can to make everyone as happy as we can, which is not easy.”
Barr extended his thanks to Gillian for establishing a partnership with City Council to build crucial, big-ticket infrastructure projects.
Improvements in the south end will include a combination of city, county and federal projects.
They include an estimated $30 million beach replenishment project – primarily funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – for Ocean City’s south end, Strathmere and Sea Isle City.
The shoreline in Ocean City’s south end will be replenished in 2023, it was announced earlier this year. The contract for the project still must be awarded by the Army Corps of Engineers.