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Coronavirus seen slowing approval of plan for redevelopment of riverfront

Photo: City of Vero Beach Planning Director Jason Jeffries leads a Zoom meeting with members of the Vero Beach Chamber of Commerce about plans for developing the riverfront utility sites.

An updated version of the plan for redeveloping the site of Vero’s Big Blue power plant and sewer plant on the Indian River Lagoon should be ready in the next two weeks, but COVID-19 restrictions will likely delay final approval.

The final plan must go through at least three levels of approval before it could go on the ballot as a referendum amending the city charter, which protects the riverfront parcels the city owns from being sold, leased or developed for anything but recreational use.

But robust public vetting by the Steering Committee, then the Planning and Zoning Commission and finally the Vero Beach City Council can’t really happen under COVID-19 “Safer at Home” restrictions.

“Since this is such an important project, we want everyone to have the opportunity to meet in public,” said Vero Planning Director Jason Jeffries.

The final wording of the referendum would need to be sent to Supervisor of Elections Leslie Swan by August, and Jeffries had hoped to have the complete package to the City Council for final approval by May 5, but the pandemic has extended that timeline.

“If we can have the Steering Committee, Planning and Zoning and City Council meetings by June, there is a possibility we can still have the referendum in November,” Jeffries said on Monday. “[If not] the city can always schedule a referendum at any time; the city would just have to pay for the election.”

Jeffries led a Zoom teleconferencing meeting on Monday with members of the Vero Beach Chamber of Commerce to discuss the status of plans to redesign the area known as Centennial Place. Fifteen people joined the interactive meeting.

The proposed design incorporates mixed uses, juxtaposing active and passive recreation for the public with commercial uses. Vero Planning and Zoning Commission member and landscape architect Robin Pelensky expressed excitement about the retail opportunities that could open up on the riverfront. “Where’s my Trader Joe’s?” she asked Jeffries and the group.

The city’s hired consultant, Andres Duany of the DPZ firm, originally envisioned a plan that made the Youth Sailing Foundation facility the focal point of the north parcel, creating a compact hub of riverfront activity. While that option looked good on paper, Jeffries said when it was unveiled in February the Youth Sailing folks wanted to be moved back to the south parcel where the sewer plant now sits.

“There was concern over the Youth Sailing conflicting with the power boats,” Jeffries said.

The skatepark that is part of the plan was moved from its original location, too, after the plan was vetted and it was determined the skatepark was too close to the waterfront restaurants.

“People are not going to want to be at an upscale restaurant listening to skateboard noise. The skate park is better closer to the bridge,” Jeffries said.

The plan includes “day docks” where boaters would tie up for a few hours while they enjoyed the new riverfront restaurants and retail shops and other amenities.

Vero Chamber President Bob McCabe reminded meeting participants that although the design process is happening all at once for both parcels, the sewer plant site is still a fully operational sewer plant and will be redeveloped after the power plant site.

The prospect of selling the parcel on the southwest corner of Indian River Boulevard and 17th Street came up, and Jeffries said the city was “still undecided” about whether to list it for sale.

That decision, he said, would be made when the final design is approved. Until the pandemic crisis allows for active public participation in meetings, several critical decisions are simply on hold.

“We’ll have to see where we are at the end of the month,” Jeffries said.

Information on the design can be found on the City of Vero Beach website and on the website