The riverfront gateway to Vero’s future
Can we transform 34 prime acres by 2020
STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of December 29, 2011)
Photo of the 17th Street Causeway, the electric utility Plant left and the sewer plant on the right.
Visitors who traverse the 17th Street Causeway to Vero’s barrier island must wonder “What were they thinking?” when they look to the left and see the antiquated electric utility plant, then look to the right to see a sewer plant many locals label “the toilet on the river.”
In the next five to 10 years, Vero Beach has a once in a lifetime chance for a make-over when it comes to the nearly 34 acres and 1,300 feet of prime riverfront property currently used by city utilities.
The opportunity comes because a sale of the electric utility to Florida Power and Light appears inevitable. In addition, the idea of consolidating water and sewer services with Indian River County makes too much sense for the city to stonewall for long.
With pressure on – even from skeptics of a county takeover – to move the sewer plant off the river, Vero surely wouldn’t spend tens of millions of dollars to build a new plant at the airport when the county has excess capacity.
Removing both eyesores from the riverfront opens vast possibilities for commerce, recreation, and tourism and property tax revenue.
FPL officials estimate if they can close a deal sometime in late 2012 or early 2013 the power plant could be decommissioned by the end of 2017.
Indian River County could theoretically start assimilating the Vero Beach water-sewer system into its own today if a deal was struck, taking the sewer plant off the river in about two years. Barrier island residents have been speculating about what could go on the land once the plants go, but many people say it is time to start envisioning, planning and seriously discussing the topic.
A handful of business, community and government leaders were asked to offer their thoughts, including the man who might be closest to Vero’s riverfront ground zero, Louis Schlitt. A long-time developer, Realtor and commercial property manager from one of Vero’s preeminent entrepreneurial families, he looks at electric and the sewer plants every day.
He is next-door neighbors to the Vero Beach utilities because he owns or manages all the commercial property across Indian River Boulevard on both the north and south sides of 17th Street. Schlitt estimates those projects – the Bridgewater offices, Citrus Financial Center and 17th Street offices – pay more than $200,000 in property taxes.
Schlitt has not been involved in the political debate over the electric sale or consolidation of water-sewer services. He’s never spoken from the public podium or joined the self-appointed pundits on the guest column and blogging circuit, but he has strong feelings about all these issues, and especially about what happens to Vero’s riverfront.
“The decision is long overdue,” Schlitt said. “Vero Beach needs to get rid of three of the worst properties that kept the 17th Street and Indian River Boulevard from developing in a way that would maximize development in this area.
“First make a decision to sell the power plant and move the sewer plant and sell the southwest corner (the socalled postal annex property),” he said. “Then prepare a mixed zoning for the four corners to maximize the tax base and allow for developers to acquire the land owned by the city so the city will receive more tax revenues on top of the revenues from the FPL leasing the power distribution.”
The 17.4-acre power plant property, the 16.3-acre sewer plant site, plus the 4.61-acre parcel on the southwest corner total nearly 40 acres. Schlitt said a mixed-use concept would allow developers to add residential to take advantage of the view of the Indian River, to build centrally located offices and even limited commercial development.
Unlike many recent residents, Schlitt was here when well-intentioned public officials created the mess that is now Vero’s riverfront.
“We need to go back to how this happened and it goes back to before 17th Street and Indian River Boulevard were there,” he said. “It was all marsh jungle and the city wanted a place for the power plant.”
He saw it planned, voted upon and built, in all its ugly glory. Vero bought property on the river, where officials first located the power plant and then the sewer plant. The city then put in a road from Route 60 south to the plants. That road was the precursor to the twolane Indian River Boulevard, which effectively split the sewer plant property down the middle, with an orphaned piece ending up on the west side of Indian River Boulevard.
“Years passed then came the decision to put in a new bridge south of the Merrill P. Barber Bridge. The considerations were the Moorings or near the power plant. After some years of fighting, Schlitt said, the decision was made to put in the 17th Street Causeway.
Despite these huge mistakes, Schlitt is confident Vero can move forward. “With good planning, Vero Beach would obtain a revenue stream of 10 times the taxes of the few existing office buildings, plus the income from the power lines distribution when leased to the FPL … they now get nothing,” he said. “This will more then fill the revenue gap of selling the power plant, and reward the utility user with lower electric bills.
“I get a report every month how much the city loses by not closing on the FPL deal, now in excess of $10,000,000. The city must wake up, close on the deal with FPL and develop a future plan to allow developers to buy the land,” not lease it. Schlitt believes the city’s decision to try and lease the postal annex land at the southwest corner of Indian River Boulevard and 17th street instead of selling it is the reason the land remains empty ad unused today.
Schlitt said it is not too early to start brainstorming about what should be done with the power plant, sewer plant and postal annex properties.
“It will be years for developers to develop architectural, civil, and engineering plans and secure users, buyers and tenants that will be paying the taxes for this prime property,” he said. “Vero is a small city that needs to let business people do the development after the city takes the lead to make sure the development maximizes the potential of this prime area.”
The man who compiles the report Schlitt receives about how much the city is losing by not having already sold its electric utility to FPL is Moorings resident Stephen Faherty. Faherty also has some ideas about the potential uses of Vero’s riverfront.
Faherty said the best plan would be to integrate the three sites – the power plant, the sewer plant and the old postal annex. “I don’t believe the 20- acre power plant site in and of itself is that great for a commercial site with a bridge next to it,” he said.
The three sites would provide an opportunity for different activities for each site such as playing fields (baseball, soccer, football, handball and racquetball, etc.) and parking on old post office site, boat ramp and parking on wastewater treatment plant site, and park, recreation, and entertainment (amphitheatre) amenities and parking on power plant site,” he said.
Faherty said he thinks a citizens committee should be established, one of “diverse age and backgrounds,” with representation from the recreation and finance committees, as well as the city
Should she be re-elected in November, Mayor Pilar Turner would be a key person involved in determining the riverfront’s future. She said she does not have a specific vision of what should be done with the power plant property, but she said that after it is off the river, she thinks there will be a “bigger push” to find a water-sewer solution which would move the sewer plant as well.
“Personally I would like the city to retain ownership of the land and go into some sort of a long-term lease,” Turner said. “It gives us the opportunity to liberate that whole corner and maximize the use of that area for the benefit of the city.
“It’s been an eyesore, it’s been great to at least have the bridge cleaned because it was awful,” said Turner, who lives just south of the 17th Street bridge on the barrier island. “I would just like to see something that would take advantage of it being there on the lagoon, whether it be restaurants where boats could dock or a boardwalk.”
County Commissioner Bob Solari and Turner are often allied on issues, but they differ on the disposition of the riverfront land. Solari, a long-time Vero city resident, said the city should sell the parcels and wisely invest the proceeds.
“The City of Vero Beach already owns more land than it can take care of,” Solari said. “I don’t want to see them lease it because that requires the city to be in the commercial leasing business. I think government should get out of things they don’t belong in.”
Solari said the power plant, sewer plant and postal, if sold together, could make up for “a huge part of the lost revenues with interest, increased property taxes and the increase in values of all the properties around the sewage plant.”
“There are ways to ensure public access without public ownership, such as public access to the riverfront with a boardwalk,” Solari said. “You can have a park-like setting when you sell the property without having a park, because it’s natural that whoever buys the property will want to draw people down there.”
Utility activist Glenn Heran, a CPA recently elected to take over in January as president of the Taxpayers Association of Indian River County, said nothing should be ruled out with regard to the land, but that the opportunity costs should be fully vetted.
“The choices are simple – retain the land for public purposes, sell the site to the private sector, or lease to the private sector – or whatever the voters decide to do,” Heran said.
“Given that the site is City property owned by the taxpayers, I think a public process should be considered for deciding its future use,” said Ken Grudens, executive director of the Indian River Land Trust.
Developer Keith Kite, principal of Kite Properties, has high hopes for Vero Beach, the commercial Indian River Boulevard corridor and its potential to become a major destination for personal and business travelers. The current utility and postal annex sites, he said, could match and improve upon the Royal Palm Pointe area.
“There are many highly successful river waterfront projects large and small in Florida and around the country – Fort Pierce, St. Augustine, Coconut Grove, Venice, Fort Myers, Punta Gorda has a great one. Boston, Baltimore & San Francisco are examples of some large ones.”
“I see waterfront park/walking areas (i.e. manatee viewing) and a mix of retail/restaurant with a day marina/ dockage,” Kite said. “However, my real vision is, if we wanted to think ahead, it would be a superior location for an event and conference center and still allow day use parks/walks for the citizens.
“The event conference center would be world class on the waterfront and provide a real economic driver for our region,” Kite said, adding that, for example, a similar facility in Charlotte Harbor, Fla. Offer both a “sense of the beauty” and an “economic engine” to area residents.
The Indian River Neighborhood Association has preached against an economy driven by residential building and the housing market and advocated a more diverse economy. However, its executive director, Brian Carman, said the IRNA would not weigh in as to the best use of the land. “The IRNA as an organization has no dog in this fight, except that any development be consistent with building height codes and density requirements (if residential),” Carman said.
All along the New River in Fort Lauderdale and along the Intracoastal Waterway in other parts of Florida, hubs of activity dot the waterways with marinas, drawing live-aboards and pleasure boaters.
The parcels in question would be a great spot for that kind of use, says civil engineer David Knight, principal of the firm Knight McGuire and Associates. A land planning and sustainable development expert with nearly three decades of experience in east central Florida, he offers up his vision of a haven for boaters.
“I can envision a significant marina facility catering to both large and small boats with emphasis on the traveling yachtsman and an environmentally exemplary design,” Knight said.
According to Tim Grabenbauer, city marina director and harbormaster, the existing municipal marina on the north side of the Barber Bridge has 108 wet slips, 57 mooring buoys, and approximately 75 dry storage slips.
Currently the wet slips are at 78 percent, dry storage is at 80 percent and mooring buoys are at 130 percent (180 percent over Thanksgiving), Grabenbauer said. The city’s marina employs eight people and has a budget of about $1.6 million.
If the sewer plant side was used as a marina, Knight suggests, the north side, the power plant property, could become a destination, not only for those mooring their boats for the day, the week or the month, but for residents and guests.
“Imagine retail, restaurants, cafes, parks and assembly areas together with professional office, corporate, educational and research facilities and living spaces,” Knight said. “Imagine also a transit/trolley connection route offering easy hop on and off connection to 14th street, Miracle Mile, Royal Palm Pointe and beachside for integration of all the great areas of Vero.
“We have the opportunity to turn our worst eyesore into our best asset that will stimulate every business in town, improve tax revenue, enhance economy and property values, stimulate quality growth, provide recreational activity, and enhance aesthetics tremendously,” Knight said “What a great opportunity that is completely in our control.”