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Duany: Downtown needs to be ‘cooler and hipper’ than Ocean Drive

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of January 25, 2024)

Spend a few minutes with Andres Duany, who visited Vero Beach last week to educate himself about the city’s desire to revitalize its downtown, and you’ll soon realize the 74-year-old architect and urban planner can be blunt in sharing his opinions and assessments.

Though he does so in the most gentlemanly way, he tells you what you need to hear, not necessarily what you want to hear, especially when discussing his work.

Duany – the renown “father of New Urbanism” who created Vero Beach’s Three Corners Master Concept city voters approved in a November 2022 referendum – provided some of his raw honesty during a dinner-hour break in last week’s reconnaissance mission, saying:

• While he’s expected to collect input from the entire community, he said he’d prefer to talk to only residents no more than 45 years old, because they’re the people to whom the downtown area must appeal most.

• To compete with Ocean Drive and, eventually, the Three Corners, Vero’s downtown needs to have an edgy, cool feel that attracts young adults.  But establishments, as well as any future housing in the neighborhood, must be affordable to that crucial demographic.

• He said he was “shocked” by the public sector’s unwillingness to help the private sector here through funding or public-private partnerships, as well as by the bureaucratic impediments local government places in the way of development.

Nor did Duany mince words when told of the sense of urgency some city officials and other downtown proponents have placed on the revitalization project.

The City Council hired his DPZ CoDesign firm in December to create a master plan for Vero’s downtown, and unless he’s told otherwise after next month’s charrette process, Duany said his final presentation later this year will call for a “radical” redevelopment.

“What I’ve learned is: The more radical the better,” he said. “Small plans don’t have the power. People get behind grand plans.”

Duany warned, however, that such a transformation, if that’s what the city seeks, could take two decades to perfect. “It takes 15 years to change a community, and 20 years to make sure the changes are working the way they’re supposed to,” he said.

That’s why Duany is so eager to hear from younger people – specifically, he said, the 30-year-olds who will be 50-year-olds when the remaking of Vero’s downtown is complete.

His early vision includes redevelopment that results in more people living downtown, where there would be fewer offices and more restaurants, bars and other nightlife to draw people to the area.

“Young people need nightlife,” he said. “They need places to meet and socialize.”

Where will these young people come from?

Duany cited Florida’s rapidly growing population and said he expects many young adults to migrate north from South Florida to find less-expensive housing, perhaps while working remotely. Eventually, he added, jobs will be provided by businesses that move because there’s a younger, educated population.

His vision also anticipates the arrival of a Brightline train station, which Duany said is inevitable. That future service, combined with many businesses requiring fewer in-office days, would allow local workers to commute twice per week to larger cities, such as Orlando and West Palm Beach.

“My job is not the present,” he said. “My job is 15 years from now. That’s why it needs to be about young people, because, as we’re seeing all over the country, it’s young people who want to live downtown, go downtown, enjoy the nightlife downtown.”

But Vero’s downtown also needs to include affordable places to eat and drink, which, Duany said, it doesn’t now.

He said he spent his first night in town – from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. two Tuesdays ago – walking along the downtown corridor and stopping in at every open business.

“This place is already too expensive for young people,” he said. “I was paying checks that were shockingly high. Most young people don’t have that kind of money.”

He paused for a moment, then, to punctuate his point, added, “There needs to be a Waffle House here.”

Don’t be mistaken, though: Duany was not at all disappointed with what he found in Vero’s downtown. Instead, he said he was encouraged by much of what he saw and excited about the possibilities.

He was especially taken with some of the downtown buildings and businesses, particularly the former county courthouse and Curfew restaurant – both located on 14th Avenue – and the 21st Amendment Distillery on 13th Avenue.

He said downtown “presents itself” better at night than it does during the daytime hours.

“Overall, I was very impressed,” Duany said. “Much of what I saw was really interesting, a lot of edgy things. There were interesting places to eat, cool bars with character … nothing you’d find in a mall. That’s what you want. That’s what brings young people downtown.

“And I was not expecting so much activity,” he added. “So the good news is, your downtown is on the way up. It’s harder to turn things around when it’s on the way down.”

Duany said he believes Vero Beach could have a “great downtown,” launching its revitalization along a four-block stretch along 14th Avenue and 13th avenues, if property and business owners in the neighborhood buy in and government bureaucracy doesn’t “get in the way.”

He said he understands the local government’s “very strong libertarian streak,” but he’s puzzled by its reluctance to contribute to – or at least cooperate more with – private-sector development that is part of projects the city supports.

“What you have here is exactly what doesn’t work,” Duany said. “Bureaucracy is a burden.”

If the city truly wants to embrace a downtown revitalization project, Duany said, the local government should offer incentives to minimize the risks taken by the first-in developers to get the project started.

What the city should not do, however, is try to recreate Ocean Drive along 14th Avenue.

“Downtown can succeed only as an opponent to Ocean Drive,” Duany said. “Not only are you drawing from different demographics, but Ocean Drive is already done, and it has a completely different feel to it. You can’t compete with that.

“Very few towns of this size have two competing Main Streets,” he added. “Downtown’s Main Street needs to be cooler and hipper than the other Main Street.”

Duany said he designed the Three Corners concept in a way that it wouldn’t compete with downtown, but he doesn’t know how closely the city and, ultimately, its still-to-be-chosen developer will adhere to the plan he presented.

Also, contrary to what many locals believe, Duany said downtown business owners should consider the Miracle Mile plaza an asset – not a competitor – because the convenience of a nearby shopping center will entice more young people to live downtown.

“I was shocked at how close the shopping center is to downtown,” he said, adding that it was too soon to say how much retail shopping will be included in his final plan. “You can get there by bicycle.”

As for Brightline, Duany said he believes the company will eventually forgive the community’s initial legal opposition to the high-speed rail service – for business reasons, of course – and Vero Beach will someday get a stop as part of an expansion of local service.

To think otherwise, he added, is “presentism.”

Duany said he has a plan to confront the problems caused by a growing homeless population downtown, particularly at Pocahontas Park, but he declined to elaborate last week.

The City Council last month approved $175,000 for Duany’s firm to develop a concept plan, much as it did for the Three Corners, but for a smaller-scale project. He attended and participated in a joint meeting of the council and City Planning & Zoning Board last Thursday.

Duany is scheduled to be back in town from Feb. 5-9 for a series of charrettes at the Vero Beach Community Center, where he hopes to get more input from local residents and stakeholders.

Using the information he collects, he will create and present a master plan later this year.

“I’ve been here a lot over the years, and everybody assumes I know Vero Beach,” said Duany, who designed Windsor on the barrier island in the 1990s before returning to Vero Beach in 2020 to develop the Three Corners concept. “But I don’t know your downtown.”