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Might a boutique hotel rise incorporating Big Blue?

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of July 21, 2022)
Hotel Image: Artist's Rendering

Good news for people who want to see Vero Beach upgraded with a world-class, mixed-use redevelopment project on the riverfront where the old Big Blue powerplant now sits idle.

Major developers are keenly interested in the $120 million hotel, marina, restaurant, retail and recreation plan.

“I am personally very excited about the project,” says Bob Miller, CEO and founder of Equity First Development, who submitted a proposal that included the image above.

Miller was one of four big players who responded with detailed proposals to the Request for Information, or RFI, that the city put out several months ago.

Miller, whose company bought the adjacent Fairlane Harbor mobile home community in 2020 for $36 million and who owns a home in Vero Beach, added: “It would be a tremendous boost for the area. There is room on the site to develop a large successful project that would be the next big step for Vero Beach.”

Other developers agree.

“The site is in a great location and presents a unique opportunity” for a master-planned destination development, according to E2L Real Estate Solutions LLC, a Maitland, Florida-based developer that submitted a 26-page proposal. “Demand trends appear positive overall for a destination and entertainment project with spaces anchored by hospitality, convention space and parks.”

Clearpath, an Indiana-based developer whose principals have deep roots in finance, construction and development, wrote in its proposal: “We believe the market and community will support [an iconic project] ... that balances the charm of the Florida village vibe with innovative design and uses required to meet Vero Beach’s changing needs.”

Most of the developers plan to incorporate the landmark, mid-century modern powerplant, which shut down in 2015, as part of the project.

Equity First see it as the ultimate boat storage barn, while others want to use the main, “great hall” section for hotel, convention or retail space. All include an engineering caveat, noting that plans could change if the massive structure turns out to have unseen problems.

“At least one of the developers had an engineer with them when we did the walkthrough for the RFI,” said Vero Beach planning and development director Jason Jeffries, who has been shepherding the project through its many phases. “The engineer thought the building could be used but he isn’t going to put his seal on that without a closer look.

“Most likely, if it is used, the back part of the plant with the boilers would be torn down and just the great hall section saved.”

Several of the developers envision electric jitneys connecting the riverfront project to downtown Vero and the beachside shopping and dining district on the island, looking to integrate the new project with existing attractions and amenities to attain economic synergy.

All of them seem to love the size and openness of the site, which gives guys used to working in tight urban spaces plenty of elbowroom for largescale construction.

According to E2L Real Estate, “Site constraints would typically require certain work to be done in phased order” to allow space for construction traffic and material stockpiles. Here though, “given that there is ample space on the site ... it is likely that the work for all elements will be started in a manner to optimize schedule and reduce capital costs.”

The city put out the Request for Information to keep the riverfront project moving forward ahead of a November referendum in which voters will give thumbs up or thumbs down to rezoning the city-owned site to allow mixed-use redevelopment.

“We wanted to keep things going and make sure there is interest out there on the part of developers,” Jeffries told Vero Beach 32963. “It is a way of testing the market. If they take the time to put detailed proposals together that gives us more confidence that there is real interest.”

“The city created a great RFI,” said Miller. “It is a smart way to take the temperature and pulse of the development community and put not just your toe but your foot in the water.”

If voters approve the project this fall, the city will do further financial, engineering and site-planning work to tighten up its parameters and then put out a more formal Request for Proposals, or RFP, getting down to brass tacks with the developers.

That process is likely to attract additional development companies that are waiting on the sidelines for voter approval before jumping in with both boots.

The city owns about 35 acres on three corners at the intersection of 17th Street and Indian River Boulevard, at the base of the Alma Lee Loy Bridge.

That includes 16 acres at the power plant site north of the bridge, a similar amount of land south of the bridge where the city sewage plant will be winding down operations in a few years, and the 4.3-acre “old post office” site on the west side of Indian River Boulevard, across from the sewer plant.

The RFI proposals mostly focus on the powerplant site where the bulk of the mixed-use project will be located, but Equity First included plans for a boutique grocery store on part of the 4.3-acre parcel. “I’d love to see a Trader Joe’s in that spot,” Miller said.

The project for the acreage at the foot of the 17th Street Bridge was first proposed in 2019. The city called in world-renowned architect and urban planner Andres Duany, designer of Windsor on northern end of the barrier island, and conducted an elaborate outreach to gather residents’ thoughts about how the site should be developed.

Duany created a plan based on his aesthetic and resident input in 2020 that included a hotel, marina, restaurants, shops, housing, parks, recreational facilities and a sailing club, much of it housed in Old Florida vernacular architecture, but with the cathedral-like powerplant rising above the new buildings.

COVID-19 slowed progress and sowed doubts about the plan but when the pandemic subsided, interest resurged and the city pushed forward, commissioning a feasibility study in 2021 and creating a master conceptual plan based on Duany’s vision early this year.

The feasibility study flashed green, concluding that, “The Plan is well conceived and financially feasible.” Furthermore, it said, “The Plan is marketable and likely to attract experienced and well capitalized developers.”

That turned out to be true.

With the study and a masterplan in hand, the city put out its RFI in late March. Developers read the study, studied the plan, visited the site and nodded their heads.

Jeffries made it clear to developers that proposals would have to closely adhere to the masterplan, especially when it came to the waterfront retail and restaurant section. “There is a little more flexibility in the front section, depending on the type of hotel and what happens with the power plant building, but the waterfront area has to be very close to our plan,” he said.

Equity First, Clearpath, E2L Real Estate and Urgo Hotels and Resorts all wrote detailed proposals that adhered, more or less, with the masterplan, and included detailed financial and company information along with design ideas.

“I am very impressed with the City of Vero Beach and its leadership,” said Miller. “They took the time to do it right, keeping what residents want always in the forefront. They didn’t overdo it. They kept lots of green space along with improvements and amenities that locals will use and that will attract people from outside the area.

“Many cities on the east coast of Florida just want to pack as much as they can in by the water and pour a billion yards of concrete, but Vero is much more sensitive. The city leaders have kept overdevelopment in check and came up with just the right balance in this project between amenities and open park space – even at the expense of things that would generate more revenue.”

“I grew up in South Florida in the 1960s when those cities were more like Vero and I saw overdevelopment engulf that area,” Miller added. “We used to come up to Vero to fish and it always seemed like a sanctuary. And this project fits in with the character of the city. It will maintain its look and feel forever.”

Jeffries says he is encouraged by the strong developer interest.

“I have worked for 26 years in government and seen some cities come up with pie-in-the-sky plans that aren’t realistic. But the Vero has taken this step by step, carefully, and it has continued to move forward in a positive way.”

Stay tuned for the referendum.

If voters say yes to the plan, work could actually get underway in late 2023.