Centennial Place could give Vero the vibrant riverfront that it lacks

Ever wonder why Vero Beach doesn’t have a lively historic riverfront with restaurants, shops, docks and lodging like towns up and down the coast from Stuart to Cocoa?

With efforts underway to devise a plan for redevelopment of the city-owned riverfront property known as Centennial Place – 30-plus prime acres that flank both sides of the Alma Lee Loy Bridge – the question naturally arises.

Vero has by far the nicest oceanfront along this stretch of coast, with 4-star resorts, fine restaurants and high-end boutiques in its postcard-perfect seaside village, but it has nothing remotely like the thriving riverfront dining, entertainment and business districts in Stuart, Fort Pierce and other towns to the north and south.

Why not?

The simple answer is the railroad.

The Florida East Coast Railroad tracks run much further back from the water in Vero than in the other towns, and the railroad determined the city’s location.

But there is more to it than that.

Henry Flagler’s engineers laid their tracks along an ancient geographical feature called the Atlantic Coastal Ridge to keep the rails as high and dry as possible, while still sticking close to the shore of the Indian River Lagoon where a few small scattered settlements had already taken root.

That sedimentary ridge is a solidified sand bar that was pushed up by waves running along the coast when the Vero area was part of the ocean floor. By following the ridge as they laid timber crossties and spiked down the steel rails, the mosquito-bitten construction crews gained a solid substrate and protected the tracks from flooding.

“The elevation at Miracle Mile is only 5 feet above sea level,” says Vero Beach Planning and Development Director Jason Jeffries. “At the Atlantic Coastal Ridge where the railroad passes through downtown, the elevation is 16 feet.”

In the other towns and cities along the Space and Treasure coasts, the ridge and the railroad that followed it run between 500 to 2,500 feet from the water, but in Vero the shore of the lagoon is 7,000 feet – 1.3 miles – from the railroad tracks where they run by the Indian River County Citrus museum, which used to be the town’s train station.

“What’s interesting about Vero is that the downtown was plated west of the railroad,” says Jeffries. “The other towns were plated east of the rails, along the water.”

Some of the other towns already had 50 or 100 inhabitants and a handful of buildings near the lagoon by the time the railroad came through in 1893. When the tracks were laid close by, the townsites were locked in place, with development filling the space between the railroad and the river.

Meanwhile, in Vero, there was nothing but a few homesteaders in 1893. Most of Indian River County was swampland and development didn’t take off until 1912 when a group of Davenport, Iowa, businessmen formed the Indian River Farms Company, bought 55,000 acres and dredged the county’s network of canals to drain the land for agricultural and settlement purposes.

The businessmen wouldn’t have bought their massive tract in this location if the railroad hadn’t been here. Flagler’s trains ensured they would be able to bring in construction materials and ship out produce and, as soon as the land was dry, the same engineer who designed the canals, Robert Carter, laid out the town cheek and jowl with the tracks.

To people at that time, the railroad meant prosperity and growth and its impact was dramatic up and down the coast. A 1920 map drawn by Carter – by then city engineer – that’s on display in the history and genealogy section of the main county library shows how fast the town grew once it was established and just how closely it clung to its steel lifeline.

The highly detailed map, which has a legend at the bottom proclaiming Vero “The Next Big City on the East Coast of Florida,” shows the town elementary school, the powerplant, the original city hall and Pocahontas park all edged right up to the tracks.

Extending east and west from downtown, large, neatly plated subdivisions with hundreds of homesites are laid out as close to the railroad as possible.

“Trains not only provided much needed farming, building and cooking supplies, helping to make Florida’s wilderness more habitable, but improved commerce by providing faster transport of agricultural products and other goods,” according to a historical overview on the City of Vero Beach website.

Having everything from doctors and lawyers offices to general and hardware stores to the post office and city hall close to the train station also was important to people arriving by rail to shop or do business in town. There were few cars and most people took care of their errands on foot.

“You are exactly right,” says Indian River County Historian Ruth Stanbridge about why Vero grew up by the tracks. “There was no highway, so people [and goods] had to travel by rail or water.”

According to an article by Steve Winston on www.visitflorida.com, Vero’s train station “was the lifeblood of this town.”

Stanbridge says city fathers, busy downtown, didn’t get around to trying to develop the riverfront until after the Second World War and then concentrated their efforts on the island side of the lagoon.

The town had changed its name from Vero to Vero Beach and annexed the barrier island in the mid-1920s to make the municipality more alluring to tourists and potential residents in the north. So, when the opportunity to fix up part of the riverfront came along in the 1940s, the island was the priority.

“The Intracoastal Waterway had silted in during the World War II,” Stanbridge says. “When they dredged it after the War, the city worked very closely with the federal and state governments to create Riverside Park by putting dredging spoils on marshland – which was still legal then. The land where Riverside Theatre and the art museum sit was marsh before that.”

So, in the 1940s, the city got a nice park and recreational area on the river but nothing like the busy historical waterfronts nearby that have since become the civic centerpieces of Stuart, Jensen Beach, Fort Pierce, Sebastian, Melbourne and Cocoa, raved about in guidebooks and patronized by Vero residents.

Because of an accident of geography, those towns now have repurposed historical buildings and attractive new development carefully curated along their riverfronts with an eye to the pleasure people take in drinking, dining, shopping and simply relaxing by the water.

In Vero, by contrast, you can drive the length of Indian River Boulevard without ever glimpsing the river – and that is a shame, aesthetically and economically.

The good news is Vero is now coming up on a second – or third – chance to repair its deficit. A smart, well-designed development on the riverside acres where the power plant and sewer plant now loom over the lagoon could give the city what it lacks.

Docks for boaters, a boardwalk out over the water as in Stuart, restaurants, shops and possibly a boutique hotel, along with plenty of green space with palm trees, hibiscus, benches and fountains, would give residents a place to take friends and family, and visitors another reason to visit.

An entertainment venue such as a small amphitheater could be part of the project along with mixed-use development with offices or condos above shops and dining spots.

Geography and the industrial age conspired against Vero having a charming waterfront, but the future is wide open. The city could yet have a beautiful modern development with historical echoes that would create jobs, generate tax revenue and enhance the city’s quality of life and reputation.

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