Downtown Palm Bay? Developer building Aqua housing-retail complex on R.J. Conlan Blvd. PALM BAY — Platted as a sprawling residential community by General Development Corp., Palm Bay lacks a historic downtown found in traditional Space Coast cities like Melbourne, Cocoa and Titusville.

Palm Bay planners are targeting Robert J. Conlan Boulevard as a future “downtown district” for developers to build urban-style construction.

And Thursday morning, a groundbreaking ceremony occurred for the Aqua housing-retail complex at the curving northern end of the industrial roadway.

“The plans for this area are going to be phenomenal. And Palm Bay is seriously growing like gangbusters,” said Nancy Peltonen, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Palm Bay Chamber of Commerce.

Describing Palm Bay’s potential downtown district, Peltonen displayed an conceptual rendering of pedestrian-friendly brownstone buildings and angled parking along Robert J. Conlan Boulevard, near Palm Bay Road.

Land clearing started in July for Aqua. The project includes:

• 320 apartments surrounding a lake, ranging from studios to one-, two- and three-bedroom units

Vertical construction should start next week, and crews may complete the five-building complex by January 2020, said Andrew Steel, Northshore Development chief investment officer.

•  Five commercial buildings, fronting Robert J. Conlan Boulevard

“We’ll look to local retailers, coffee shops, restaurants, breweries. It’ll be next to a fantastic dog park,” Steel told the crowd.

Commercial construction may start in the third or fourth quarter of 2019, Steel said, wrapping up by summer 2020.

The 24-acre site was purchased for $1.1 million in July 2016 by Franz Hanning, CEO of Orlando-based Northshore Development. Hanning is former president and CEO of Wyndham Vacation Ownership.

In terms of development, Hanning likened Palm Bay with “an empty canvas” where little has occurred the past 30 years. Aqua lies near to Harris Corp.’s Technology Center, Renesis (which acquired Intersil Corp. last year), and Raytheon’s future facility on U.S. 1.

“I’ve never been more excited about a place than Palm Bay. I think even the people that live here don’t really understand or realize what ‘s going to hopefully happen,” Hanning said.

In September, the Palm Bay City Council enacted a six-month moratorium on all applications for development orders, development permits and building permits within the proposed Robert J. Conlan Boulevard downtown district. City Hall staffers plan to prepare new design and zoning guidelines during the moratorium.

Palm Bay Mayor William Capote compared Aqua with “the birth of a child” in creating a downtown district. In recent years, he said most people thought he was crazy when he talked about redeveloping this older area of the city.

“I know you are taking a risk on this vision. But I will tell you: Other people are going to follow you here. And you’re going to see that Northshore is going to be mentioned as one of those catalysts that made this happen, this corridor here,” Capote said during the ceremony.

“So I want to thank you for taking the risk in Palm Bay — because some other people wouldn’t,” Capote said.

Some of Palm Bay’s highest-profile development busts the past few years have centered near the site. The previous owner of the Aqua property — a different Orlando developer — floated visions in spring 2016 of building a convention center, two hotels and an arena hosting a Southern Professional Hockey League expansion franchise. That never left the drawing board.

Three years ago, just to the east on U.S. 1, Oakridge Global Energy Solutions announced plans to launch a lithium-battery plant boasting 1,000 high-paying jobs by the end of 2018. Gov. Rick Scott visited Palm Bay for the high-profile jobs announcement — but the project fell through.

Defense contracting giant Raytheon is now remodeling the building, with plans to staff hundreds of employees.

Lincoln Property Co. will manage the Aqua four-story apartment complex. Based in Dallas, the firm bills itself as the nation’s second-largest multi-family property manager, overseeing 124 residential communities with more than 33,000 units.

Neale is the South Brevard watchdog reporter at FLORIDA TODAY.

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