On barrier island, hurricanes spark property upgrades

VERO BEACH — Commercial property owners on the barrier island have done a good job keeping their buildings in top-notch condition, according to Derek Arden, owner of Vero Commercial Management.

“I was driving back to Vero from Cocoa Beach last week, looking at commercial real estate along A1A, and I noticed that most of the buildings in the various towns were less attractive than the buildings in our central downtown along Ocean and Beachland,” said Arden. “A lot of the buildings were very dated.”

“I think the property owners on barrier island have been meticulous about keeping up through the years,” said Billy Moss of Commercial Real Estate LLC. “The buildings here aren’t just run-of-the-mill properties. They have a special, Vero Beach look.”

That look, a blend of the Bahamas, Key West and Old Florida, with pastel-colored stucco, wood louver shutters, latticework, wrought iron railings and tin roofs, adds to the allure of the island and to the value of the commercial real estate located here.

“People buy with their eyes,” said Moss. “Appearance is of the utmost importance. The real secret for leasing and selling commercial property is creating something visually striking.”

The real estate downturn, which raised vacancy rates in island office and retail buildings, accelerated the pace of renovation in the central beach, according to Anthony Della Porta, owner of Della Porta Construction.

Della Porta, who began his career in commercial construction on the Barrier Island working for the general contractor who built Disney’s Vero Beach Resort, has remodeled numerous buildings along Beachland Boulevard and Cardinal Drive.

“In my experience, there has been some attrition in the past several years, with tenants moving out and spaces remaining unoccupied,” Della Porta said. “Because of that, owners are more likely to renovate and upgrade their properties so they have more curb appeal and show better. A lot of professional want to be on Beachland but they have become more cost conscious. If they are going to pay the higher lease rates there, they want the building to be in top condition.”

“The market slowdown has dictated the re-creation of certain buildings and increased the importance of appearance,” said Moss. “There is a lot competition out there and income can be tough to come by, so owners are fixing up their buildings to make them more attractive and desirable.”

Moss said one of the first things he does when he takes a listing is stand in front of the building with the owner and tell them what he thinks should be done to improve curb appeal.

“I have no problem pointing out things that will enhance the building and make it more leasable or saleable.”

Renovations that raise a buildings profile and appeal don’t have to be expensive, according to Moss.

“Little things can make a big difference,” he said. “Flowerboxes under the windows or awnings or a lamppost with a planter can change the way a building looks. Polished brass hardware, a new wooden door, sharp signage – all of those things, though minor in themselves, help create a perception of value, and, as John Kennedy said, ‘perception is people’s reality.'”

Moss said that landscaping and repaving a parking area are other relatively inexpensive improvements that can make a big difference in a competitive market.

“Landscaping is probably the fastest way to get dramatic improvement.”

Other renovations, especially bringing buildings up to code to resist hurricanes, can be costly, but property owners can recoup the investment in lower insurance premiums and higher occupancy rates, according to Della Porta.

“Owners aren’t required to bring buildings up to code unless the renovation is extensive but they may see it as a good long-term investment. If they can provide the insurance company with some type of mitigation form that roofs and openings are up to current code, they can get some financial relief, and it makes tenants feel more secure.”

“The hurricanes sparked a lot of interest in renovation and remodeling here,” said Arden. “Some tenants ask about the windows when looking a property to lease, and it helps the situation if the building is up to code with glass that will resist 140 mph impact. That way the tenants know they won’t have to put up plywood or hurricane shutters, and they know their inventory will be safe.”

Della Porta’s company completed a remodeling project at Beachland Plaza, a two-building complex at 645 Beachland Boulevard that addressed both curb appeal and structural improvement.

“It was a two-pronged project,” Della Porta said. “We were sprucing the buildings up to give them a more modern look, and bringing them up to code. I think they were built around 1974 and not much had been done to them.” Della Porta added they stuccoed over some brick façade and added the Bahamian-looking shutters to create a beachier feel.  “We did an overall interior and exterior paint job and improved the parking area by screening the Dumpster pad and putting down concrete in place of gravel to make it more plaza-like.” They also replaced the flat roofs on both buildings to make them more water-tight and brought the roofs and openings up to current Florida code for wind resistance.

Della Porta said major remodels similar to the one at 645 Beachland can cost several hundred thousand dollars.

When landlords fix up the outside of a building, tenants will sometimes remodel the interior to keep up with the exterior, according to Arden.

“It can be a snowball effect,” he said.

Other recently renovated buildings that have spruced up the area and contributed to “the Vero look” cited by Moss and Arden include the Premier Real Estate building on Beachland, Beachland Financial Plaza where Chase Bank and Merrill Lynch are located, the Northern Trust building, the New Vero Beach Hotel and the building developer Steve Mulvey rebuilt by Humiston Park that houses the Citrus Grillehouse and other businesses.

“The Vero Beach Hotel really added to the character of beach and Mulvey’s project is a wonderful recreation of an older look in a newer building,” Moss said. “It is very comforting to the eye. A lot of people were against the idea of renovating that area, but everyone loves it now. It has sparked a lot of interest.”

“Just because you fix a building up doesn’t necessarily mean it will be leased in 3 months instead of six months,” Arden said. “But it never hurts to have a nicer looking property.”

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