Vero should move forward with development of lagoon-front property

The “Keep Vero Vero” crowd looks at the 35 acres of lagoon-front property at the intersection of 17th Street and Indian River Boulevard, and sees developers salivating over an opportunity to erode our small-town ambiance.

The folks who want to make Vero better, meanwhile, see that same miscast patch of real estate as a chance to create the waterfront dining, nightlife, retail and recreation destination our mainland sorely lacks.

I look at the home of the city’s shuttered power plant and soon-to-be-relocated wastewater treatment facility, and see the old Dodgertown golf course.

Remember what happened there, after the city bought the 35-acre parcel, which contained the defunct nine-hole golf course, from the Los Angeles Dodgers for $9.9 million in 2005?

Nothing.

The property sat idle for more than 14 years while control of the City Council shifted with almost every election, ensuring any discussion of development was derailed and that the only improvements involved a lawn mower.

To this day, it remains an empty field nobody uses – even now, 18 months after the city sold the property to the county, which pretends it’s a park but wanted the land only to accommodate overflow parking for special events at the neighboring Jackie Robinson Training Complex, formerly known as Dodgertown.

Is there any reason to believe our city leaders will do anything different with the lagoon-front parcels in the shadow of the western end of the Alma Lee Loy Bridge?

I have serious doubts.

At the moment, as our community continues to feel the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, no construction of any kind is expected on the site until at least 2022. Don’t be surprised, though, if city officials continue to delay discussions and decisions regarding the project.

We’re already more than a year into this venture, which included a charrette process the city’s hired consultant used to produce a well-received conceptual plan, followed by a COVID-inspired revision that will prompt more public input and hearings.

That input and those hearings almost certainly will result in additional changes – because not everyone here agrees on what a new, lagoon-front gathering place should include.

So, when city officials say they expect to adopt a master plan in the coming months, they’re being incredibly optimistic. Or naïve. Or maybe they’re just saying what they believe we want to hear.

Whatever the case, much of the property is protected by the City Charter, which limits its use to governmental and recreational purposes, meaning any changes – to include commercial activity such as restaurants, shops or a hotel in the plan, for instance – must be approved by voters.

City officials had hoped to put one such referendum – covering the initial phase of the project – on the ballot this past November, but they opted to delay the vote until 2021 after the consultant presented them with COVID-related revisions to the plan in August.

History tells us more postponements are coming, and that progress will come slowly.

Not that you can blame city officials for wanting to proceed thoughtfully, deliberately and cautiously as they decide the fate of this project: If done right, the finished product would change the face of Vero Beach and become as much a part of our community’s fabric as downtown and the Central Beach business district.

But, they must proceed.

They must continue to push forward, despite the opposition that’s sure to come from those who think Vero Beach would be better served by another Riverside Park, and fearlessly seize this wonderful opportunity to do something extraordinary.

The final plan doesn’t need to satisfy everyone – because it won’t – but it should include a boardwalk and a series of pathways that provide access to waterfront dining, afternoon cocktails and nightlife, as well as a marina, small-shop retail stores, boutique hotel, picnic area and, perhaps, a band shell for concerts.

If there’s room for a wading pool and a couple of beach-volleyball courts, that’s fine, too. The same goes for a boat barn, even a food truck area.

But do we really need a convention center?

Or an artist colony?

I’m not sure apartment buildings are a good fit, unless they’re built on the former Post Office Annex property on the southwest corner of the intersection.

As for the revised plan: It’s ridiculous to consider the impacts of COVID-19 when designing a complex that won’t be built until the pandemic is a distant memory.

What matters more is that the plan requires everything to be built in a park-like setting that complements the lagoon’s natural beauty, embraces our community’s small-town charm and enhances our quality of life.

Clearly, the potential is there for Vero Beach to do something special, and it’s exciting to think about.

When I do, however, I still see the Dodgertown Golf Club and remember how city officials did nothing there for 14 years. They can’t afford to do the same here, regardless of the pressure they might get from the “Keep Vero Vero” crowd.

Nobody wants to see our community morph into another Fort Lauderdale or even Port St. Lucie, and local zoning restrictions are in place to prevent that kind of over-development, despite the residential and commercial growth we’ve been experiencing.

Developing that prime stretch of lagoon-front property into Centennial Place – or whatever it will ultimately be named – doesn’t move us closer to South Florida, and it won’t make Vero less Vero.

Vero Beach already has by far the nicest oceanfront district 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.

However, it could have, and a well-designed and executed project would greatly enhance the city.

No matter how you look at it, doing nothing is the wrong thing.
We’ve seen it before.

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