CAPE MAY — For years, a dedicated group of locals fought to preserve the Beach Theatre, the city’s only cinema.
They missed. Now the question is: what happens next on the site?
The theater itself collapsed over a decade ago, being demolished by the owner in 2011. The front facade and retail stores remain, but appear more weathered, with steel poles supporting the canopy in front of the building .
“It’s an embarrassment to the whole town of Cape May,” said Eustice Mita, the property’s current owner. He is the general manager of ICONA Resorts, which owns several hotels along the coast.
Mita wants to build a $150 million hotel on the site, taking up much of the block across from the city’s convention center. Plans call for 160 rooms between Stockton Place and Gurney Street, along with what he described as high-end retail stores, restaurants, ballrooms and ample indoor parking.
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Doing so, Mita said, will require the city to declare the block as an area in need of redevelopment, which would give the local government plenty of leeway to approve projects.
In an interview last week, Mita described the statement as a necessary step in realizing his plan, suggesting naysayers could derail a Planning Board proposal if the project goes through the normal planning process.
“At the Planning Council you will have the same very small group of people who are the ones who come forward and lobby the governing body,” he said.
He says he has three groups to convince: the inhabitants, the other merchants of the city and the governing body. To that end, he plans to showcase the plans at a special event at the Cape May Convention Hall from 4-6 p.m. Thursday.September 1st.
“We hope to gain the support of citizens and business owners, and therefore the governing body will support what the majority of the community wants, which is the first new hotel in over half a century in Cape May,” Mita said. He described the project as similar to classic grand hotels of the past.
Without the designation, he said, the project will not happen. And there is no plan B.
“There is only one option,” Mita said.
Otherwise, the site will remain as it is, and as he had indicated, he thinks it is currently an eyesore.
“I’m just going to sell it. I’m not going to hang on,” he said.
Mita indicated he had the support of local government and suggested Mayor Zack Mullock had not said he opposed the plan or the designation.
Mullock tells a different story.
“We have informed them that we are not interested in a redevelopment area,” Mullock said recently.
He said Mita’s proposal appeared to be a “high quality project”, but wanted the developer to approach the construction office. But he doesn’t want city council making decisions that should be up to the historic preservation commission, the planning board and the zoning board, Mullock said.
“They helped keep Cape May unique. I see no reason for anyone to skip those boards,” Mullock said.
No tax incentives
As proposed, the plan would appear to require variances in height and density, if not more, unless the site is designated as an area requiring redevelopment.
That designation could also include tax incentives, which Mullock called unnecessary in Cape May.
“It’s an absolute ‘No’.” We have a lot of businesses in town and no one is asking for tax breaks. They just do their business,” he said.
Mita said he was not asking for tax incentives. And he pointed out that the city itself has discussed the area as in need of redevelopment, regardless of its proposal. The most recent example came from the master plan review report in 2019, which cited the old cinema and other parts of this area as underutilized, with vacant commercial space “and buildings that are not readily adaptable to viable use”.
Another proposal to designate an area of Cape May as in need of redevelopment, this one a block off the Washington Street Mall pedestrian shopping area, ruffled feathers and pissed off residents in 2018. Backed by businessman Curtis Bashaw, the area included the city’s only supermarket and adjacent parking lot, as well as City Hall, churches, and other uses of Ocean Streets in Franklin, between Washington Street and Lafayette Street .
After an overflowing room of speakers criticized the proposal for hours on a cold January night, the Planning Council rejected the proposal.
“It’s totally different. It’s a hotel. It’s in a devastated area,” Mita said. “It’s very different from what Curtis wanted to do.”
Convention centers need hotels, he said. The ICONA project could make the Cape May Convention Hall across Beach Avenue a year-round destination, he suggested. Also, Mita said, resorts need hotel rooms.
He said Cape May had lost about 50% of its hostels and hotel rooms since 2000, with many becoming private homes or being sold as condominiums.
In cases where individual rooms are sold to separate owners, which is now common practice in beach communities, it becomes nearly impossible to renovate the property due to the need to obtain agreement from multiple owners.
“It stays in its current form forever,” he said. This means that an ugly building will remain an ugly building, he said.
In October 2021, when Mita presented her vision at a city council meeting, she was met with a mixed response, with some praising the design while others expressed concerns about increased density and traffic. Thursday, he will try to convince the City that this proposal will benefit residents and businesses. He described tourism as the lifeblood of Cape May and hotel rooms as vital to tourism.
The company already owns a hotel in Cape May, the ICONA at 1101 Beach Ave., as well as additional hotels in Diamond Beach, Avalon, and a recent purchase in Spring Lake, Monmouth County, a hotel from the era Victorian that should be part of the ICONA Boutique Collection. The company also owns the Mahalo at Diamond Beach.
As proposed, the hotel would encompass most of the block and be one of the tallest buildings in Cape May. According to Mita, the Marquis de Lafayette at 501 Beach Ave. would still be slightly larger.
In 2019, ICONA purchased the Beach Theater property at a bankruptcy auction for $6.65 million. The other properties included in the plan have also been purchased, according to Mita.
The hotel project would cover the area from Stockton Place to Gurney Street, including the site of the old theater and the shops opposite along Beach Avenue, as well as another row of shops on Gurney and a bike hire location to the side.
Mita estimates construction would take about 18 months once permits are in place.
It is possible that the members of the municipal council who will decide to approve the site as needing redevelopment will not be the same members currently on the council. Four of the five members, all but Mullock, are eligible for re-election this year.
Mita said he did not believe the proposal would be a factor in the November election.
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