Top global planning firm helping shape future of Centennial Place

The Vero Beach City Council, which gets new members – and sometimes changes courses – every year or so, has a history of fumbling the ball in big games. From the decade-long absurdist drama of the electric utility sale to the recent whiplash reversal over closing the swimming pool at Leisure Square, the council often fails as a model of municipal effectiveness.

So, there is no reason to be super confident the city will do a good job coming up with and implementing a plan for Centennial Place – the 30-plus acres of prime waterfront land flanking the Alma Lee Loy Bridge – which has transformative potential to give Vero Beach an area with some of the same appeal as attractive riverfront districts in other towns from Stuart to Cocoa.

But so far things are looking encouraging.

After first deciding no consultant was needed to create a plan for this exceptional property, the council smartly reversed itself and hired one of the most accomplished city planning firms in the world, DPZ CoDesign, which has created hundreds of masterplans on six continents – nothing in Antarctica so far – ranging in extent from two to more than 160,000 acres. Included in that portfolio are successful plans for the downtown areas of Naples, Fort Myers and West Palm Beach.

At the same time, the city has launched what DPZ project manager F. Xavier Iglesias calls an “unprecedented” public engagement effort to gather ideas about what the Centennial Place plan should include.

So Vero residents, whose children and grandchildren will be using Centennial Place for the next 100 years, are being involved early and often, and all the competing and complimentary ideas that emerge will be winnowed, shaped and blended by world-class experts to produce a final plan the public can vote to implement or reject.

“I think it will be relatively easy to come up with a successful plan because the site is so large and has so many zones,” said DPZ co-founder and creative powerhouse Andrés Martin Duany, who sat down for an exclusive interview with Vero Beach 32963 last week to share his thoughts about the site and the city’s aspirations for it.

“The aspirations are enormous,” Duany said. “There are many ideas, and as the ideas come in, we will be able to place the components in appropriate locations on the site.”

To get a sense of what Duany means, consider this: The riverfront tip of property that sticks out into the lagoon past the little harbor where barges full of oil used to dock, bringing fuel to the power plant, is larger than Humiston Park. Behind that is a second wide-open “zone” not right on the water that is the size of Jaycee Park.

Then you come to the plant itself – which could be preserved as part of the project if the city council so decides after hearing from the public. The building, which Duany admires and compares in extent to medieval cathedrals like Norte Dame and Chartres, is enormous, more than six times as large as the beautifully renovated diesel powerplant downtown that now houses a thriving restaurant and bar.

Could a reimagined “Big Blue” become something like the one-time naval munitions complex which was converted into the now world famous Torpedo Factory Art Center in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia?

Beyond the powerplant is another zone between the building and Indian River Boulevard that is the size of A.W. Young Park

And then you have another property as big as all these put together on the south side of bridge.

Component ideas that have gained traction so far include a Youth Sailing Foundation facility that would bring lots of people onto the site on a regular basis for classes and be a point of civic pride as Vero sailors continue to win races in regattas up and down the coast; restaurants and shops along the water: public docks for boats on the Intracoastal Waterway whose captains turn in to dine or shop; a fishing pier; an amphitheater for public concerts and other events; and landscaped park space with benches, fountains and other public amenities.

Other ideas that have been floated include a skateboard park, a zipline, a village of tiny houses – possibly set aside as affordable housing for teachers – a botanical garden with Florida plants or a wetland area.

That is not to mention a whole universe of things that could be built inside the powerplant if it is preserved.

Obviously, some of those components might clash and the whole site end up as a hodgepodge if planning was substandard – which is where the world-class experts come in.

“The design skill is in weaving the best ideas together into a harmonious, layered whole,” Duany said.

“It is a very large site – as big as the historic area of St. Augustine, including Flagler College – so it can accommodate many ideas, and different parts of the site are different in character. People think it is all about the waterfront, and we say, yes, these four things go on the waterfront, done. What else do you have?”

DPZ last week put up an interactive website, speakupverobeach.com, where anyone who is feeling creative or cares about what happens at Centennial Place – which some of the “Old Guard” still call by the inspired name Three Corners – can propose and discuss ideas over the next two months.

This gives community members a chance to “talk among yourselves” prior to a series of public meetings the last week in January where proposals will be discussed and preliminary decisions made. According to DPZ, members of the project steering committee, which includes the five City Council members and five appointed citizens, will monitor the site and respond to questions and proposals.

“The city has put a focus on public engagement that is unprecedented in our experience doing hundreds of projects,” said Iglesias, “Having the kick-off two months ahead of the public meetings is unusual and very helpful. They really want the community involved.”

After the public meetings at the end of January, DPZ will present its first draft of “five scenarios that will reflect that week’s work,” Iglesias said.

Options DPZ will offer will include land banking the property and leaving it for a future generation to develop; a plan that suits the site’s immediate neighbors; a plan that reflects the website input; a plan that reflects what the steering committee is leaning toward; and DPZ’s own best concept.

“We always have a proposition, but we are always ready to change or adapt it,” Duany said.

The five plans “will be very well depicted but still in need of refinements,” Iglesias said. “Those refinements will continue until the beginning of May – with updated drafts presented to the city in March and April.”

The final report, consisting of site and architectural plans, 3-D imagery, tables (including cost estimates), and explanatory text, will be presented to the City Council the week of May 5, according to Iglesias.

“It’s likely that some scenarios will receive more detailing, or be blended together, while others will be retired as the process moves forward,” Iglesias said. “The website should help gauge which scenarios garner the most public support.”

Things could change as the process proceeds, but “the current idea is to help the city arrive at one plan that can be formatted into a referendum for the citizens to vote on – ideally in November 2020. If one plan is not selected as the outright winner by the steering committee as we near the May finish line, it is entirely possible that two contenders could go before the citizenry” for a vote.

Whatever happens, Duany would like to see it happen fast once a decision is made. “We don’t want to wait lifetimes,” he said. “We want to say, ‘This is what you voted for. OK. We will be breaking ground next week.’

“The site has great potential. Hopefully ideas that are worthy of it will emerge.”

Hopefully.

This is Vero Beach after all, and the city doesn’t have a great track record for clear conceptualization and timely, effective implementation when big issues are in play.

But who knows? Things are off to a good start.

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