A Tale of Two Cities
The Beachside Resident - July 2011

Cocoa Beach has a Vision Plan for its downtown. But a vocal minority stands in opposition.

It’s summertime, and somewhere near Minutemen Causeway, a group of stalwart young gentlemen emerge from a yellow Mustang, hats angled sidewise, necklaces glinting in sunlight. They flick their cigarettes to the curb as they unburden their car of beer, footballs, snack bags, beach paraphernalia. One squares himself up to an abandoned building, unzips, and moans gratefully as he relieves himself upon the stucco wall.

This is downtown Cocoa Beach: a wasteland of asphalt, overhead wires, tattoo parlors, neglected commercial facades, memories. The years have not been kind. Iconic restaurants have locked their doors. Another bank has been boarded up. What’s left for this beachside town? Have we been reduced to this… a urinal for weekenders and Orlando day-trippers?

It’s summertime, and the waves are gone. With nothing else to do, I find myself shambling to City Hall, climbing up to the office of Tony Caravella, Director of Development Services. Caravella invites me to have a seat and presents me with a pamphlet, something he calls a “Vision Plan.”

The Vision Plan — 136 full-color pages — was drawn up by Bernard Zyscovich, an urban planner with intimidating credentials, wire-rimmed glasses and a basso profundo voice. Packed with photographic spreads, soaring descriptions, and design initiatives meant to add character to Cocoa Beach’s downtown district, the Vision imagines a surfside town adorned with shade trees, shopfronts, wide sidewalks, gardens, permanent art installations, awnings, restaurants, bike paths, retail shops, boutique hotels, and residential apartments.

“In order to thrive as a community,” Caravella says, “we have to become economically competitive. How do you do that? First, you show that you’ve thought about it.”

A few months ago, Bernard Zyscovich hosted a public workshop to flesh out the ideas outlined in his Vision. Citing historical buildings like the Cocoa Beach Casino and the Starlight Motel as possible inspirations for a new architectural code, he stressed the importance of respecting history, and promoted eco-tourism and green initiatives. He described the barrier island as one the world’s greatest natural treasures — a narrow stretch of land dividing two great bodies of water.

On July 7, the city commissioners will vote to pass a new law — ordinance 1528 — which would allow the city to re-zone the downtown in accordance with Zyscovich’s Vision Plan. Once passed, the City will begin the long process of redevelopment.

There’s only one problem. Ordinance 1528 will not pass on July 7. Or anytime in the near future.

Look carefully at the language, and you’ll see that 1528 “allows for mixed residential and commercial land uses on the same tract,” within the downtown core area. There’s the rub. In 2003, during condo-mania, the city passed a resolution which banned the commission from increasing “density or intensity” without unanimous approval of all five city commissioners. While mixed-use is not technically an increase in density, it brings up the issue of higher population, thus 1528 has been deemed by the City Attorney as requiring a 5-0 vote.

“There are a lot of great things in the plan,” says commissioner Skip Williams, who has promised to vote against any increases in city density. “But they could have built a plan that didn’t break the rules.” Williams is concerned that adding residential units might have permanent effects on downtown -- not all of them positive. “Under this plan, there could be 545 more people living downtown, which would mean at least 290 more cars.”

In the past seven years the population of Cocoa Beach has decreased by over 600, so the addition of 545 new residents would not significantly increase the total city population. And Zyscovich’s plan calls for parking structures, accessible via alleways, which would accommodate the additional vehicles.

But does the Vision Plan hinge on mixed use in the downtown district? Many argue it does. Mixed use is a vehicle to “attract people to live and socialize and shop,” according to Zyscovich. “By increasing the downtown’s overall population, we foster social interaction, generate foot traffic, and help create a more memorable image of downtown.” As examples of the success of mixed use, he cites Cocoa Village and Melbourne. Both towns were in a comparable state of degradation in the 1980s, but have since become prosperous, cultural hubs.

Tony Sasso, who was elected city commissioner in 2001 on a “control growth” ticket, and who helped pass popular height restrictions in 2003, hopes the Vision will come to light. He sees it creating a successful and vibrant downtown center while maintaining a small, quaint sense of community. He backs the idea of mixed use downtown. “More residents downtown will only benefit the area,” Sasso says. “Locals take pride in ownership. They’ll help to regulate the noise, the litter, the crime. Locals decide what kind of community we live in.”

While Sasso supports the plan, he urges caution. He wants the City to outline in more detail the height and setback regulations before this goes to a general ballot. Regarding commissioner Williams’ promise to vote no on 1528, Sasso says, “I wish he would just vote yes. It would make it easier on everybody. But how can we fault an elected leader who keeps his promise?”

Commissioner Kevin Pruett, a longtime resident of Cocoa Beach, hopes residents rally behind the Vision Plan. “If the whole city could paddle the boat in the same direction for one year, we’d make huge progress.” He urges people to educate themselves by reading the Vision Plan, which suggests limiting storefronts to two stories, and setting the third stories back from the road. “Nobody wants 45-foot boxes,” he explains.

What is the cost of waiting until the next election? Redevelopment could bring much-needed jobs and money into the area. “The longer we wait, the harder it will be to turn it around,” says Pruett.

Unless the anti-growth faction suddenly decides to take up the oars, Cocoa Beach’s downtown will remain zoned commercial for now. It could be as long as January before the voters decide on this issue. Unfortunately, most locals will never read Zyscovich’s plan. The people of Cocoa Beach will likely cast their votes based on hearsay and 75 ballot words, one of which is sure to be “density.”

“I read the proposed ballot language,” Williams says, with a hint of irony in his voice. “It sounds like roses and champagne. I’m not sure why people would vote against it.”

While we wait, the ocean draws up steam, another shop shuts its doors, and the Kelly Slater statue glistens in the noonday sun. A few cafés provide peaceful bastions among the asphalt jungle. You can still get a slice of pizza, frozen yogurt, a shaved ice. You can get your hair cut, go to the dentist, buy plumbing supplies. But don’t go downtown on the weekends. And don’t imagine that it is a safe, family-friendly venue at night. Look carefully into the heart of Cocoa Beach, and you will see a squalor, much like the black rot which has been eating away at the Glass Bank for over a decade now, growing on its walls.

Somewhere in the world, the light is waning along some tree-lined street. A family sits in repose beneath a café awning, the adults discussing politics, or art, or metaphysics. They tilt their champagne glasses to the afternoon light. The windows above them are draped with rose bushes, which dance in the sea breeze.

Roses and champagne? Or Natty Light and Marlboro Reds?

Cocoa Beach is torn between two visions. Both are ridiculous. Only one of them is real.

Bernard Zyscovich's Vision Plan for Cocoa Beach is here: Vision Plan