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Downtown Update
On The Waterfront
The River District Rises

by Andrew Elias

The premiere issue of Ft.Myers magazine, published in January 2002, featured the cover story, ‘The Future of Downtown’. The interview with the Executive Director of the Downtown Redevelopment Agency, Don Paight, was conducted just prior to a week long workshop by internationally acclaimed town planner and architect, Andres Duany. The plan five years ago called for an additional 1,200 residential units as well as luring new retail shops, restaurants and offices downtown to create an active community throughout the day and evening. Paight also spoke of the desire to bring more art galleries and museums downtown so it could become a tourist destination.

In the five years since our fist interview there has been a lot of exciting developments in downtown Fort Myers, some envisioned by Duany and others not in his initial plans. With all the developments along the river, as well as a new campaign to attract visitors and residents to the new ‘River District’, we thought it a perfect time to meet with Don Paight again to see what the Fort Myers waterfront will look like in another five years.

Ft.Myers magazine: It looks like a lot of things have changed downtown in the last five years.

Don Paight: A lot of things are going on right now.

Of Andres Duany’s plans from 5 years ago, what has been instituted and what has not? How have the plans changed?

We’re actually following the plan very closely. The council adopted the plan three and a half years ago. One of the goals in the plan was to increase housing supply downtown in order to attract restaurants and retailers and cultural activities. Since the plan was adopted we have approved development orders for 3,800 new housing units. Of that number 1,500 are either complete or under construction as of right now. They include projects like:

The Oasis: Five towers with 1,000 units. Currently two 32-story towers are under construction and sold out.

Alta Mar: 131 units complete and occupied.

Beau Rivage: 124 units complete and occupied.

St.Tropez & The Riviera: Two 27 story buildings sold out and ready for occupancy (one in May or June 2007 and the other in July or August).

The Prima Luce: Two 18-story buildings starting marketing and presales in January 2007.

Cypress Club: Two 32-story buildings under construction. The first one is sold out.

Riverwalk at Sunset: Three-story condominium townhouses with 52 units and behind those a six-story building with the bottom two stories a parking garage and the top four condos. Construction begins in 2007.

High Pointe Place: Just got their certificate of occupancy. Five towers with two now finished and by the end of January they’ll have the closings on all 105 units and then the other 3 buildings will be finished this time next year and they are also all sold.

One West: Three towers. They’re going to begin their preconstruction sales in January and sometime by the middle of 2007 they’ll start construction on their first tower. That’s our first international developer, out of Tel Aviv, Israel.

Legacy Harbor: It is in its design stage. That’s down by the Centennial Harbor Marina where the old Chart House building used to be, now Joe’s Crab Shack. That will stay but all the land along in front of the marina will be reconstructed for two 25-story towers that will go in there. Mark Sullivan will be doing that project. He and his dad were the ones that helped bring the Red Sox to Fort Myers. He’s a former Red Sox player and his dad was one of the owners.

And the Vue.

Then there’s First Street Village: They had their ground breaking on the old Edison Ford Square site. That’s a project that’s almost identical to what Duany wanted. He proposed doing a village concept instead of high rises. That’s going to be four-7 story buildings with a Publix grocery store, 50,000 square feet of retail space, about 30,000 square feet of live/work or commercial office space and then about 345 condominiums. That’s now under construction.

So, from the housing perspective we’ve already exceeded the goal of 3,000 units because we now have 3,800 that have already been approved.

And there are plans for water taxis along the river?

Once we get all the highrises finished we’re going to have a water taxi service that will connect all of them to the downtown yacht basin. If you want to go downtown to dinner and the theater you won’t need your car. You can just walk out the back door of your condo and get on a water taxi.

Is that unique or has it been done anywhere else?

Fort Lauderdale has a very successful water taxi service. We’ll probably contract out privately and have someone else operate it. The other thing we’re going to be putting in is a free trolley service to connect downtown as well. That’s all being paid for by the condominium developers because they have to contribute to a public transportation fund.

We’re trying to discourage people from using their cars. The streets are being rebuilt so it’ll be really comfortable to walk—nice lighting, nice landscaping, all new sidewalks. You‘ll be able to step out your front door and take the free trolley or your back door and take a water taxi. You don’t have to worry about parking and can have a few drinks with dinner and not worry about driving home. We’re trying to create a more urban lifestyle here where you’re not dependent on the car to do everything.

To have a successful downtown residential community you have to provide services like grocery stores. We spent two years going after Publix to try and get them to commit to having a store in the River District and they’re now under construction.

So if you go through Duany’s list, probably 80-90% of his recommendations are either underway or in the planning stage. We’re following them very closely.

Will there still be public access to the park?

Oh yeah. Right now we have almost a mile of public riverfront access that runs all along the park, around the yacht basin and all the way over to the Burroughs Home and almost every one of these new highrises will include a public riverwalk. They’re going to have about a half acre plaza right in the center between two towers in front of the setback third tower, so the whole front will be a public riverfront area.

I’ve heard some talk that there might be a performance space or something?

Right. One of the things the architects are looking at is where to put a bandshell so we can do more concerts and community events. You can’t orient it to the west because if you have a late afternoon or early evening concert the setting sun will be right in the eyes of the performers and you can’t shade the stage so we’re looking at more of a north/south orientation, maybe where the pavilion in the park is now so you can use the whole big grassy area in the park for people to sit.

Where Taste of the Town is now?

Exactly. The other thing was restoring the old buildings in the historic district. We currently have about twelve buildings under construction and another twelve that are finished as far as going through historic restoration and reusing the buildings. We have a lot of the upper floors that are occupied by apartments, condominiums or office space. Our big challenge right now is getting more retailers and restaurants into the ground floor.

That might be a challenge until these places are occupied

Exactly. The other thing Duany gave us was a streetscape plan to redo all the streets. Right now everything in under construction. We have $50 million going into the downtown, everything from the river to Martin Luther King and US 41 to Fowler. All of this is being completely rebuilt with all new underground water, sewer and drainage. We’re taking all the overhead lines down, the power, the phone, the cable and the fiberoptic are all getting buried underground. We’re going back to brick streets (which are some of the original bricks), historic lighting, all new sidewalks, all new landscaping. So this is $50 million, and a three and a half-year project currently underway. We’ve got another $10 million going into rebuilding First Street, which is going to be converted from a one-way to two-ways, which is another one of Duany’s recommendations. Everything from Seaboard to Fowler Street is now being reconstructed and when that’s finished we’ll move over and do Seaboard and Second Street and then convert those back to two-way.

I would imagine the traffic could be a nightmare. Is there anything you can do about getting in and out of downtown? There’s nothing you can really do with McGregor…

We really can’t widen McGregor and 41—they’re at capacity—but we are going to be widening Second to a four lane boulevard and First Street will be widened to allow two-way traffic. We think that will help access in and out of town. Martin Luther King has been rebuilt all the way out to the interstate, there’s improvements planned for State Road 80 all the way out to the interstate, and eventually the state will be improving Fowler and Evans. Those roads are going to be widened so access will be pretty good. Between downtown and the First St. and Palm Beach Blvd. project almost $60 million in just infrastructure and roadway improvements are underway right now.

When we spoke five years ago there were big plans for the convention center and possibly a Hilton or a Hyatt coming in. Has there been any movement on that?

The council approved going ahead with the first phase expansion of Harborside. We’re going to be adding some meeting and exhibit space and some breakout rooms. We’re getting ready, probably in January or February, to start the design work. We’re still working on trying to get a hotel on the waterfront

One of the reasons for expanding the convention center would obviously be to draw conventions, but then you need hotel space.

We have two hotels that are getting ready to start in the River District downtown. The Indigo Hotel is a little boutique, 62-room hotel going in on Main Street. What used to be the Monaco, now called The Mediterranee Resort & Spa, is going up on Park and First Street. That’s a 300-room hotel. It’s a real nice project, but we’re still trying to attract a hotel right down next to the Convention Center.

Again, following Duany’s plan, we have hired a local architect, Parker, Mudgett, Smith to do a sight development plan for the waterfront. Duany gave us some concepts—he said expand Harborside, put in a hotel, restaurants, retail shops, public walkways and try to find what the council wants.

We had WCI and we had another firm that took a look at it and it just didn’t work out. They kept coming back with plans and the council would say we like this but we don’t like that, make some more changes, so rather than going through that exercise they hired architects to work for the city and said ‘here’s the land that we own, here are some concepts, here’s Duany’s plan. now go do some detailed plans of what we can do and where we can fit it, where can we fit a hotel, how much should we expand the park and have more public open space’. That contract is being worked on right now.

So we’re following the housing plans, historic preservation, the roadway conversions from one way to two way, the waterfront development, the streetscape and utility undergrounding.

We’re following the plan very closely. I do a checklist periodically of all the things Duany said to do and almost every one of them we’ve done. Even the little things like when you come into town along Martin Luther King, Duany said there needs to be a nice park entryway feature. We took a big vacant lot in front of the old train station, which is a historic museum, and put in Park of Palms, a landscape with a whole variety of Palms. So as you come into town that’s an entryway feature. An awful lot of things he said we have already implemented or are in the works.

And all of this basically to be completed within five years?

Everything that’s underway now you’ll see completed in about five years. In fact, everything that’s permitted right now—we have construction value of about $2 billion worth of construction that’s approved—that’s just going to change the face of this area in the next couple of years.

What about the project of the three churches?

Trinity Village. That’s something that is very unique and was not in Duany’s plans, but I suspect he would be very supportive of. We have a group of very old churches downtown—the first Methodist, the First Presbyterian and the First Baptist Church—that have large pieces of land and an aging congregation. The Baptist Church is on the corner of Second and Jackson, the Presbyterian Church is on the corner of Lee and Second and the Methodist Church is on First and Fowler. Each one has a separate Sunday school, separate administration offices, separate gymnasium, separate kitchens. They have a lot of duplicated services and it’s very expensive to maintain and they all have more land than they really need—so the concept is to keep the Baptist Church where it is, keep the Presbyterian Church where it is and do some remodeling and renovations, and move the Methodist Church right in the middle, which is Lee street.

The Methodist Church will build a sanctuary big enough to be a symphony hall, because the Southwest Florida Symphony is looking for a place. The Trinity Village plan includes plans for an 1,100 or 1,200 seat hall, not in competition with Barbara B. Mann but more of a symphony hall that the church will use on Sundays for their sanctuary and is big enough that if all three of them want to go in together for Easter or Christmas services they can use that. Then the symphony gets to use it on Friday and Saturday nights. There will be one building they’ll share for Sunday school rooms, administrative offices, they’ll have one big kitchen, one big Fellowship Hall, one big gymnasium that all three churches will get to use.

Are these plans still in their infancy?

Well, it’s really beyond that. These plans started over a year ago. Actually David Lucas, from Bonita Bay, who I guess knew some of the folks associated with the churches, kind of challenged the three churches and said ‘I’ll put up half the money to do the design studies for this if the three churches put up the money for the other half’. They voted to do that. They hired an architect from Boston, Suzaki & Associates, came up with the concept of Trinity Village (which I heard David Lucas coined that term), and for about a year they worked on this. It’s going to include the three churches, housing for elderly, a seven-story tower for senior housing, a seven-story tower for affordable housing, the church facilities, the Fellowship Hall will double for a conference area, a Christian bookstore, and probably a K-5 school. All three congregations agreed it’s a great idea so we’re going ahead.

One thing they needed was more parking so there will be a parking garage just south of the Baptist church. We’ll build the garage that the church will donate the land for. The church needs the parking mainly on the weekends and weeknights and we need it during the weekdays so we get full use of the facilities. It helps everyone.

This sounds really unique. Was this done elsewhere?

We don’t know any other city that has done a project between three different denominations that have gone in together to share assets and resources. It’ll keep their expenses down and give them much better facilities than individually each would be able to provide.

I was at the Banyan Tree Café and they mentioned a Butterfly Conservatory plannednext to them?

Yes, the Butterfly Conservatory. The Johnson family bought quite a bit of property on Fowler Street. The property between Huff Street and Fowler, fronted on Thompson, will be a 3,500 square foot, all-glass conservatory, like a indoor tropical rainforest where they’ll raise butterflies. You’ll be able to go in and walk through and buy butterflies for your own garden or to release at weddings. Then next to that they’re going to have a little garden center and then one of the other buildings will be a coffee shop.They’re planning a whole complex over there.

The governmental entities keep expanding as well. Right now there’s a new 10-story building going up for the county justice center. It’s a brand new addition with five new courtrooms. Across the street from that they’re building a 1,200 car parking garage. We are just finishing up a study for two more parking garages. Overall there’s a lot of stuff going on.

There’s a lot going on with the arts as well, including the exciting new Cultural Arts Center in the historic old Post Office and Federal Buidling.

The city also has a public art program. The mayor asked all the highrises to make a voluntary contribution to go to public art and they raised about $800,000. They have a choice of putting it on their property, where the public could have access to it, or making a contribution so it could go into a public space somewhere else in a park or on a street. The city has appointed a public arts commission to locate sites and help identify artists.

Well, it all sounds very exciting.

from the January-February 2007 issue


Cypress Club

Oasis

Mediterranee

Riverwalk at Sunset

High Pointe

One West

Don Paight