Publisher Forward: Fort Myers Beach is a major economic driver and engine for Lee County. Almost everyone who visits the county will make a trip to the Beach. For many decades, Estero Island has been a family-friendly slice of \\\"Old Florida\\\" There is now a new development project under consideration that could change the character and complexion of the Beach forever.
The Sun Bay Paper has chosen to publish the following assessment of that development by Doug Sperin-Smith. Sperin-Smith is well-qualified in this regard. As the owner of the Harbour House, Matanzas on the Bay and the Beach Pierside Grill - all located in the same general area as the new proposed development - he brings a wealth of experience and insight to the table. He voice deserves serious consideration and it is presented here unedited for our readers.
Downtown Redevelopment- Visioning our future Choices.
There is a clear benefit with an established developer proceeding with orderly repositioning of property within the downtown core. The Plaza parcel and some of the other buildings are well past their prime. A good front door to the Beach would be a good thing.
What many of us do not like about the plan is how aggressive it is, how out of step it is to the character and soul of the Town and how odd it has been envisioned this far without public input. Any plan that requires a full rewrite of the development code by extensive CPD Variances is not where this community has gone or embraced in the past.
It is a bit gratifying to see their outreach for Public Input (News Press Guest Opinion), although I would have preferred a gentler unveiling to begin with and a more balanced plan from the beginning. It will be interesting to see the science behind the Seawall modeling. This needs to be clarified to the community and not just the development team- especially since they are convinced this is really a good idea. Similarly, although I have little sympathy for the “hardship” of losing a floor on the Hilton, some of the reassessment options they have disclosed seem hopeful. Saying this, it seems a beachfront Plaza to allow a view of the beach is underwhelming compared to the existing park and public places- but it’s a start.
The developer must have received a very positive impression for cooperation by someone (Town or Lee County Leadership) to suggest the plan. To put the Beach Park into the plan is a huge assumption. Perhaps, because the developers are really very new “residents “ to the beach – they may have assumed because the property is where it is, reasonable permitting will keep the economics of the project to be acceptable. They are paying top dollar for many parcels (Plaza excepted in my opinion). Time will tell if this is a good or bad strategy- but their economics are of modest concern for our community compared to the impacts of the development.
One of the bargains that will be presented to the County is the loss of Crescent Beach Park and the Seafarers parcel in exchange for a re-routing of Estero Blvd and some parking places in the plaza parcel. The idea of giving up scarce Beach Parks in prime resort areas and limiting public beach access seems shortsighted. Improving access and parking options makes more sense and investing resources to improve public spaces is more community spirited. The county has all the negotiating power on this and needs to protect the public lands.
One of the Carrots we are being presented is relaxed FEMA regulations to allow ground level commercial for areas like Time Square and this helps rationalize the Seawall – which at 9 feet above sea level, essentially limits ground level views of the beach while impacting businesses such as Pierside Grill in very substantial ways. These details need to be evaluated before the county or town Opine to fast tracking permitting.
The developers beach parcels will be asked to be consolidated to allow bigger/wider buildings and perhaps, if helpful and the park is not traded away totally, some property exchange will be proposed to make building footprints more flexible- their parcels bookending Crescent Beach Park make this an option- which may not be a bad thing if the public/park spaces are retained. Existing easements and Right-of-Ways will be asked to be moved or vacated to facilitate the plan. Unless the park is retained, no view corridors of the beach will exist- thus, the buildings and ground floor commercial in the park area essentially become the view. None of this is a positive or should be taken lightly by the Town or County Leadership.
New Beachfront development does not require commercial in the ground floor areas. Edison Beachhouse, Diamondhead and new Pink Shell are good examples of new development. The Town would be reasonable served if the commercial component of the new downtown was limited to the Plaza site. Even if FEMA was accommodating with the seawall and eased floodplain rules, an extended Times Square with no beach view corridor and an uninteresting wall of multi-story resort structure is not a valuable addition to our community.
The seawall itself is an interesting concept. It sounds like an Atlantic City Boardwalk, but it really is a nine foot high wall blocking all views of the water landward of it and it is the width of a six foot wide sidewalk. To satisfy design requirements, you have to climb over it with limited beach accesses. Think of a tight dike. It certainly helps their parcels with the flexibility of ground floor commercial uses and it has the potential to help existing Times Square businesses rebuilt in the event of a storm catastrophe, but for most other parts of the island, it does little. As I understand it, the reason these seawalls are essentially not permitted historically is under normal conditions and in normal high water events, the structure itself is a major contributor to beach loss and the need for more re-nourishment occurs. The structures have been disasters of their own. So what you get is more hurricane protection but lots of negative impact on the beach itself. The carrot might be that the Lynn Hall park gets the seawall for “Free”, but giving up Crescent Beach Park is really the loss of a once in a lifetime opportunity the County wisely took when it purchased the property in the first place. Having a seawall for the parks is much less attractive or needed because these lands are parks and not resort development parcels. Open space and view corridors with public space are good.
Traffic flow is critical. Smoothing traffic and reducing barriors are good goals, but the added development adds its own issues- particularly when development and auto access if on the Gulf side of Estero and requires re-entry and a left turn back onto what is supposed to be a newer faster Estero Blvd. It’s hard to believe existing Estero Blvd uses/ conditions, multiple drive accesses and unfamiliar tourists will fly through this area despite any attempts to change it. High demand periods will continue. Moving Estero and simplifying People flow is probably a good idea and if the county had been serious enough- they could bought the plaza themselves and made this happen. Never the less, a reasonable bargain with the developer seems to be an option- which is a good thing if it will help- with our without development. The developer negotiating for the Ocean Jewels site is because the traffic circle does not work without it and the new Estero cannot bend around it enough to make traffic flow. A better plan is to bend Estero a bit and have all the parking garage and much of the resort development on the left as you enter the island. Going “under” the parking garage at the Gateway to be beach makes no sense at all.
The Beach understands economic impacts. There is always a case for economic growth, more jobs, more taxes, more impact fees etc. etc. Lee County has been and is a growth area. This is fine and if this Hotel proposal is abandoned, Lee county will get the same type of development in a different location (Estero Coconut Hyatt as an example)- which is where impacts can be mitigated more easily anyway. It is also fine to have a Town with strong vision, strong quality of life and a specific chosen balance to what that community should try to be. This proposal would not get out of the starting line in Downtown Naples or Sanibel and it okay to just say no. Cleaning up the easily seen shortcomings of our Downtown does not preclude a different plan or smaller scale higher quality development as envisioned by the Downtown plan and the Development Code. This is a good time for the Town to be strong.
This is all very important to the town and the review of the proposal does not need to be political based, rushed or accommodating to the developer. The Outcome needs to be the best it can be and the CPD process allows the Town to follow any path it believes to be necessary. If a town consultant can help to protect the residents’ interests that may be fine. If a citizens visioning committee needs to be formed to review the proposal or develop choices- so be it. If consultants need to be hired to review traffic studies, seawall concepts or site-plan choices – so be it. Any variance requested from the development code is an opportunity to negotiate an outcome acceptable to the Town and residents and this power should not be taken lightly. It is not unfair to have a strong community voice or vision. Save your beach.
Fort Myers Beach