Some investors buying into Vero Arts Village dream
The idea of an Arts Village near Vero’s Old Downtown – where artisans would live and work in the same house, murals would adorn buildings, and a sculpture garden, water wall and performance plaza would become focal points of a neighborhood with bicycle trails and a shade tree corridor – on the surface has a lot of appeal.
And while many are skeptical that the vision, nicely detailed in a plan released in February, will ever become a reality, several South Florida entrepreneurs are putting their money where their dream is – purchasing properties in the proposed Arts Village area in hopes of turning a shabby neighborhood into a revitalized one.
Miami artist and real estate investor Ross Power, who helped launch what is today a successful arts village in Miami, is one of them.
In a recent conversation, Power rattled off names of people who have bought properties in the proposed Vero Arts Village, including Michael Rechter, a South Florida entrepreneur who has revitalized a number of commercial properties in Vero and just got approved by the city to open a brewery and restaurant in the old diesel power plant adjacent to the arts village area.
Others include Don and Suzanne Broyles, landscape nursery owners from Homestead, and Neli Santamarina, longtime real estate broker for Gloria and Emilio Estefan, who owns a motel on the island here and a small shopping plaza on Old Dixie downtown where she recently opened a gallery called Raw Space at Edgewood.
Prominent island real estate broker Cindy O’Dare also has purchased buildings in the area. She said she bought her first property in the neighborhood at 1926 19th Avenue about three years ago not knowing an arts village would be proposed.
After she heard about the arts village concept, O’Dare assembled three clustered properties at 1925 18th St., about a block and a half from her initial acquisition. Of her three adjacent properties on 18th Street, a two-level former apartment house off the street has been gutted with hopes of converting it into an artist loft, O’Dare said.
“I love the area and think the arts village is a great idea,” she said. “Ross is a mover and shaker who knows how to get things done. He was instrumental in revitalizing the Design District in downtown Miami. We are lucky to have him.”
The quality of the plan produced by architects and urban designers with the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council is another plus for the arts village concept. It details attractive ideas for murals, signage, public performance areas and historically evocative building types in the Edgewood neighborhood, which is bounded by State Road 60 on the north, 20th Avenue on the west, 14th Avenue on the east and 18th Street on the south.
The game plan is for the city to allow new low-key retail and commercial uses in this somewhat dilapidated, mainly residential section as part of a “Cultural Arts Village District” that will be supported by the city but funded by private dollars.
The proposed arts village area has a mixed building stock with multi-family housing, modest single-family homes, houses old enough to border on historic, some ramshackle structures and some commercial property. Buildings range from old-time Florida cracker-style houses and Spanish colonial revival to art deco and modern 1960s housing. Absentee property owners are also part of the dynamic, said Tim McGarry, Vero Beach city planning and development director.
“Edgewood is downtrodden and it reminded me of the neighborhoods that I have helped revitalize,” said Power, who has a studio in the proposed district at 1916 20th Avenue. He noted it was a 1934 two-bedroom home with carriage house.
The proposed arts village would be more residential than the existing downtown arts district, which leans toward commercial.
Vero Beach City Manager James R. O’Connor said the arts village concept could bring about an expansion of what’s happened in the city in the last four to five years, with multiple galleries and restaurants opening downtown, a few blocks from the proposed village.
“The elements to address are the economic viability and what people are demanding,” O’Connor said.
Power said he hopes to assemble a team of 12 people to work on the first mural in the arts village in a few months.
“We’re going to get this mural project off the ground and expose our logo and commitment,” Power said. “We want something sophisticated and fun.”
The city is buying into the concept – but not with money. O’Connor said the city has not earmarked any infrastructure improvements such as new sidewalks or paved trails specifically for the proposed arts village, but the City Council did recently adopt an arts village report and directed staff to work with the Cultural Council of Indian River County on the idea.
Spending money to create the arts village is up to the private sector.
Barbara Hoffman, executive director of Cultural Council, said there’s some movement on that front. She said she’s aware of at least three couples who would like to buy properties with the hope of converting the houses into places that would include art uses.
Artist Linda Barnett was crafting one of her handmade greeting cards in her downtown Vero Beach shop recently when she took a moment to voice her support for the proposed arts village.
“It would be a most remarkable addition to Vero Beach culture,” said Barnett, who works in the Rosewood Artisan Boutiques at 1443 19th Pl.
Many share that sentiment.
Neil Sickterman, a local landscape designer and volunteer with the arts village leadership team, said he could see art enthusiasts walking from the more busy art gallery area in downtown for a “jaunt” into the arts village to check out more galleries and see artists at work.
For those who doubt the viability of the plan, there is a nearby model. Supporters point to the Edgartown neighborhood in Fort Pierce, adjacent to that city’s busy, attractive waterfront.
As a result of creating the “Edgartown Settlement Zoning District,” Fort Pierce has witnessed a once-blighted area of old structures undergo about $1.5 million worth of property and construction investments and spring to life, said Kori Benton, a Fort Pierce city planner.
“The district revitalized property prices,” Benton said. “The reaction was favorable. The stakeholders started buying into it.”
Benton said Edgartown district property owners tapped into city incentives, such as historic preservation tax exemptions and matching grants for facade improvements.
Don’t expect the recently-proposed Vero Beach version to happen overnight. In Fort Pierce, the downtown waterfront charrettes and community-wide historic preservation meetings began in 2008, with the first Edgartown neighborhood meeting occurring in July 2010 and the district’s final adoption in 2012, Benton said.
New property uses that were adopted include wine-cigar bars, craft beer brewery, bed and breakfasts, arts studios and art manufacturing businesses, pedicabs, child care and even retail sales, Benton said.
One of the biggest improvements was Sailfish Brewing, which has thrived since it opened three years ago at 407 N. 2nd Street. “It draws an eclectic crowd,” Benton said of the brewery in the Edgartown district.
Sailfish’s success could signal good things for the brewery and restaurant arts village investor Rechter plans for the former diesel power plant.
Hoffman said she envisions everything from an ice cream shop to a drug store to a fresh market in addition to art studios and galleries in the arts village
Hoffman also sees the district as playing host to festivals, outdoor theater and concerts, with sponsors, donors and grants helping pay for the public improvements.
Vero Beach’s top planning official, McGarry, said uses such as arts information centers, art studios and coffeehouses could easily be allowed in the area, but that some business uses would not fly.
“That’s where the rubber meets the road,” McGarry said.
“You want to retain the residential character and not overdo it with too many businesses.”