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Plan for riverfront development moves step closer to reality


The city is one step closer to redeveloping Vero’s riverfront into a hub of commercial and recreational activity.

The Three Corners Steering Committee, created last year by the city council to oversee the riverfront planning process, settled last week on a conceptual plan that, for now at least, retains the Big Blue power plant building – plus two massive cement water tanks behind the sewer plant.

For those involved in the decade-long effort to sell Vero electric to Florida Power & Light who would like to see all remnants of the electric and sewer utilities removed from the riverfront, the effort to repurpose these structures might not sit well at first.
But this broader vision for the riverfront development is not steeped in wiping the slate clean from old political squabbles but rather on how generations to come want to take what’s special about Vero’s 100-plus-year history and build something beautiful with it – for the next hundred years.

The goal is not only to draw tourists and give retirees something else to do, but also to create an attraction that will make high school and college kids want to stay in Vero, or at least maybe return to Vero with their college degrees and work experience when they are ready to settle down and start a family.

That, in turn, would mean a greater pool of young talent for companies looking at Indian River County as a place to start or relocate their business or to add that new branch office, bolstering the county economy.

That’s a mighty tall order for this plan, but reinventing Vero’s riverfront is one of those rare cases where the term “game changer” is an accurate one.

The plan that will go to Vero’s Planning and Zoning Commission on July 9 – and then hopefully to the City Council on July 21 and ultimately to voters on the Nov. 3 ballot as a referendum – strikes an aesthetically pleasing balance of pedestrian-friendly green space and business opportunities.

Three restaurants are planned, one budget-friendly family restaurant, one upscale eatery and one in the middle price range. There is room set aside for shops, open vendor stalls and a multipurpose covered market area similar to the Historic Charleston City Market. A riverfront chapel was included in the conceptual plan, as was a harbor for boaters to tie up while shopping, dining or lodging at the planned hotel.

Urban architect extraordinaire Andres Duany, whose firm DPZ CoDesign created the plan for the city, told Vero officials that preserving Big Blue was the city’s best shot at attracting a major hotelier to come in and build inside or adjacent to the towering 70,000-square-foot aquamarine structure.

This idea may seem like a far-fetched dream, but Marriott has done just that to a similar defunct power plant in Savannah called The Plant Riverside, with a luxurious J.W. Marriott property set to open inside the old plant building later this year.

If Big Blue is torn down and all the city has to offer is a generic open field, all the city is going to get is a generic corporate hotel built from a boring, canned design, in Duany’s opinion.

Should the city pick the plan apart and fall into small thinking, he said, the project will fail.

Former councilman and longtime Vero resident Brian Heady agreed with Duany that Vero needs to think big. Heady said Duany, with his international contacts and track record for successful ventures, can bring in interested parties through his reputation and name stamp on the project’s vision.

Among Duany’s architectural credits is the chapel and village concept plan for the exclusive Windsor community on the north barrier island. Known worldwide for his “New Urbanism” mixed-use developments, Duany has the connections to lure investors to Vero.

“If you don’t give that maximum, you’re not going to get an investor,” Heady said.

Ocean Drive resident Scott Johnson, an architect who shuttles back and forth to his New York office, said he’s toured the J.W. Marriott project in Savannah and sees the same potential in the plan Vero has developed with Duany over dozens of hours of meetings, incorporating insights from more than 3,000 public comments. “It’s been incredibly innovative,” Johnson said of the conceptual plan voted on last week.

Still up in the air are details about who will do what, build what and pay for what. Vero Finance Director Cindy Lawson told the steering committee the city has up to $21 million set aside for the development costs, but that officials also need to consider the resources that will be needed to maintain whatever is constructed on the site.

It’s presumed that city staff will take on the upkeep of the green, park-like space and the fishing pier, and that investors will build the restaurants on land leased from the city. But who will take on the harbor and day slips is still kind of up in the air, as that doesn’t seem to be a moneymaker, like a marina with long-term stays could be. There’s also a skate park planned, which could be built by a nonprofit group or as a commercial venture.

City Manager Monte Falls said that while he’d hoped the city could come out ahead in terms of lease revenue, at a bare minimum the development needs to break even.

Almost all the planned development will be on the north side of the 17th Street bridge, with the steering committee opting not to flesh out what will be constructed on the south side of the bridge in approximately five years once a new sewer plant is built at the Vero Beach Regional Airport and the old plant is decommissioned.

One project that has been given the go-ahead on the south side is the planned two-story Youth Sailing Foundation facility. Falls said the YSF is very anxious to get a long-term lease executed so they can begin fundraising for that project.

Duany’s original plan had the young sailors located near the bridge on the north side – in hopes that the sailing would build a spectator fan base and add to the overall synergy of the riverfront – but it was decided that it’s best to keep the sailing facility at its current location, more sheltered from power boat traffic and anglers.

In the future, the two cement water tanks could be turned into a concert venue or something related to the arts, and glamping sites could be installed for the adventurous who want to camp with a view of the Indian River Lagoon. Those things are on hold for now, but the tanks will stay in place after the plant is gone.

The 1.3-acre property on the southwest corner known as the Old Postal Annex was carved out of the development plan and slated to be re-zoned and sold off.

Planning Director Jason Jeffries said “the post office annex site would be developed for general commercial use. Timing is recommended to be based on optimal value for the property.” Duany told city officials the postal annex property is currently worth $1 million to $1.2 million.

“We should hold onto it. That property will get more valuable,” Councilman Joe Graves said.

Vice Mayor Laura Moss reminded the group that Vero has had a history of “selling land at the wrong time and for the wrong price.” But the idea is that once there’s a buzz about the riverfront, the city could get a Trader Joe’s or some other high-quality retailer that residents could get excited about to be interested in that property.

As the Planning and Zoning Commission and the City Council analyze the conceptual plan, a few issues that should loom large in their minds are the continued upkeep and liability of maintaining an aging power plant building on the river, the vulnerability of anything constructed on the riverfront to storm surge, flooding and hurricane damage – along with the city’s dismal history playing landlord.

It’s typically not profitable when the city leases out property and it usually winds up in court over some type of dispute, generally involving money.

For starters, Duany mentioned that the city would need to construct a $300,000 fence around the entire parcel and have two security trailers on site staffed by city police officers. How long is that feasible? There must be a timeline put in place that if nothing happens with Big Blue by a date certain, it should be torn down.

On top of that, given the current pandemic conditions, city officials must have realistic expectations about hotel and restaurant investors launching a new project. How much of the taxpayers’ $21 million does the city feel comfortable kicking in to seed the development?

That question will be posed to next year’s City Council with three seats up for election in November. The riverfront plan could become a contentious issue if the local economy has not fully rebounded by November, or if there is a dreaded “second wave” of COVID-19 in the fall as some experts predict.

On Nov. 3 it will ultimately be up to city voters to determine if the plan is viable, or if they want the 38 acres left as undeveloped green space, or if they want to send city officials back to the drawing board to come up with a less ambitious plan.

City Attorney John Turner reminded the steering committee about the language the city must settle on by Aug. 18 to be placed on the ballot. “The referendum is limited to 75 words. The referendum will have a summary stating what the people are voting on. It must not be misleading. It must state what the issue is and what the proposal is,” Turner said.

“The plan is not to sell the property,” he added; what’s being discussed are long-term leases.

For those who fear altering the city charter to allow commercial development on the site instead of just recreational and cultural uses, steering committee member and former mayor Harry Howle said, “the referendum is not removing protections; it’s creating a better scenario.”