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Riverfront planner tells Vero Council: There is no Santa

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of August 27, 2020)

City of Vero Beach officials spent eight months tweaking five different potential plans for the redevelopment of the riverfront utility plant sites without ever taking a hard look at what the venture would cost.

Nobody gave architect and planner extraordinaire Andres Duany a project budget until the very end of the process. Then two weeks ago, City Manager Monte Falls saw Duany’s $7 million to $12 million cost estimate and experienced sticker shock.

Falls told Duany his budget was zero dollars, that the whole venture needed to be “revenue neutral,” to which Duany responded to the city last week: “You can’t have a Santa Claus.”

Now the whole plan, including the referendum that was scheduled to go on the November ballot, has skidded to a screeching halt – something that probably would not have happened had budget expectations been clear from the get-go.

“I do think I have been treated unprofessionally in one regard only. When I began this process, I actually requested the city comptroller come in and she told me and you, in your presence, that you had $21 million that could be assigned,” Duany said.

“I assumed as I did this plan that only the (cost of) the conference center would be covered by the hotel, and that there would be a third to a half of those funds available because this isn’t Santa Claus.

“Somebody has to put the trees in. Somebody has to put the infrastructure in. Somebody has to put those open pavilions that you love in. You really did not think that somebody who builds the hotel would build all that, right?” Duany said. “So I assumed, because of what the comptroller told me, that there would be, let’s say, $7 million.”

The city hoped all the project costs would be covered by revenues from the planned commercial ventures – the leases and rents on the restaurants, the vendor stalls, the cottage or glamping operation and the on-site hotel.

In response to those hopes, Duany produced the fifth and latest version of the plan and turned that around in a very short amount of time, calling it “a marvelous plan, the best plan yet. It pays for itself and I would be very skeptical that it could be improved in any way, pandemic or not.”

Duany said he’s already consulted with developers, who told him what they would do and not do on the site and how much they would pay to do it. Now Duany is asking the council to be decisive, to meet him halfway and to get the referendum on a special election ballot.

“Look at the plan again. Does it work or does it not work? And for God’s sake, make the decision whether there’s zero dollars, $7 million, $10 million or $21 million. You absolutely owe me that piece of information,” Duany said. “I cannot design without knowing that.”

Fiscal accountability for the plan was not in the brief of the Three Corners Steering Committee, according to the resolution establishing the committee. “Up to this point in the Planning process, the city was focused on the community’s ideas for the site, the development of five scenarios for the site that ranged from recreational use to maximum development, and recommendation on a preferred community vision for the development of the site,” Vero Planning Director Jason Jeffries said Monday.

Former Mayor Harry Howle, who joined the steering committee as a citizen after his council term ended last November, confirmed that financial concerns were not posed to the committee. “But I can look at the latest plan and tell you that, if asked, I don’t think the city could afford so much as the trees being suggested,” Howle said.

“We need to get away from the idea that Big Blue can be retrofitted into a hotel for a sum that remains profitable,” Howle said. “We need a restaurant immediately. This will attract people and other businesses, perhaps a hotel as well.”

Clearly, the five members of the City Council, who are part of the Steering Committee, dropped the ball, asking Duany for revision after revision of the plan with no accompanying fiscal guidelines.

“You always send it back for more and more input until people become exhausted,” Duany said, urging the council to of course listen to public input, but to take charge and make a decision.

Despite the misunderstanding and Duany scolding the council for being rudderless, it looks like DPZ will forge ahead with the city. “I’m sorry to be angry but I’m on my own nickel and it’s for the good of the city.”

“We’re committed to seeing it through, and we’re committed to having Andres and his team work with us until we finish,” Falls said last week at the City Council meeting, adding that the city would be fair in working out a deal for DPZ to continue working beyond the scope of its original $160,000 all-inclusive fee for the project.

Falls defended the city. “We have all along said that we wanted a project that operated revenue neutral. We said there is $21 million in our capital reserves that have not been allocated, and until we can make a decision about how much we want to spend, we need to know how much it’s going to cost,” he said. “That gives us things we can decide on; those are all tradeoffs.”

The council apologized to Duany, Mayor Tony Young saying, “Given the discussion that we’ve had today, we can make more concrete input to you and to the city staff.”

Vice Mayor Laura Moss said “we will get you the information you need,” and Councilman Joe Graves said Duany needing a budget is “a fair ask” and that the council needs to give him a number next month. “We want to lean heavily on your expertise,” Graves told Duany.

Jeffries said the council would be looking at a timeline for next steps at the Sept. 1 council meeting.