Torgerson began buying up property in the downtown area of the Island community last year and almost immediately unveiled plans to create the massive development in and around Crescent Beach Family Park, a Lee County facility that is essentially open beachfront with volleyball nets and picnicking areas.
Most the land Grand Resorts has purchased and earmarked for its plans were former sites for hotels including a Days Inn and Ramada Inn, retail shopping centers like the now demolished Sea Farers Mall and Helmrich Plaza and standalone bars and restaurants. Many of the prior uses ceased after August of 2004 due to the destruction caused by Hurricane Charley. Many of the hotels were never rebuilt and the area has long been considered underutilized by many and an outright “eyesore” by some.
Seafarers Mall was demolished, as was the Sandman and, Days Inn Hotels, leaving open land at the gateway to the island.
There have been prior attempts to develop the area, most notably a three year effort by Dave Myers that started in approximately 2007. Myers’s group was unable to obtain sufficient financing but his plan was also opposed by Islanders as “too big.” Torgerson has been met by similar if not greater opposition due chiefly to four major concerns. His proposal is even larger than the Myers’ plan and seeks greatly increased density over that allowed by the current Comp Plan in place for the beach community.
Secondly, Torgerson has proposed building a seawall to front his development. Seen as crucial to secure insurance for the development, residents are staunchly opposed to the concretized barriers since they have been largely discredited as unsound environmentally, leading to shoreline erosion necessitating costly beach renourishment.
Thirdly, the project seeks approval for increased height allowances over what is currently permitted by the town’s land planning rules.
Lastly, Grand Resorts needs the property that is currently the County Park. Residents generally prefer the open view corridor the park allows and see Torgerson’s plan as a massive private taking of what is now public land.
The controversy over the use of Crescent Beach Family Park has led to numerous newspaper articles and state and federal investigations, Most notably, omissions in legally required meeting logs by Commissioner Larry Kiker, a former council member from Fort Myers Beach has raised issues of unethical and possibly illegal activity over giving the park to Torgerson to use as a central feature of Grand Resorts.
Any use of the park for private development will require a vote of approval by County Commissioners and residents have expressed concern over Kiker’s close relationship with Torgerson and that concern has been exacerbated by verifiable lack of transparency and failure by Kiker to keep his meeting with Torgerson in the “sunshine” as required under Florida law.
This outcry by the public and general opposition to his plans even by other significant local business concerns led Torgerson to the meeting this past Monday in an attempt to recast his proposal in terms more palatable to the Beach community.
New concept drawings are now posted on the Grand Resorts website and in reviewing them a few notable changes and some minor tweaks can be seen. According to the Fort Myers NewsPress these include:
“The proposed Hilton will be reduced another story. Coming off Matanzas Pass Bridge onto the island, you can see the Gulf above the tops of all the buildings.
A beach access point has been added, for a total of 12.
View corridors have been enlarged to the extent the developer’s lots allow.
The project will go to the town requesting a 13-foot height deviation for the proposed AC Marriott and Hilton and a 3.5-foot height deviation for the Holiday Inn, while the parking garage will be below the height allowed by code.
An elevated pedestrian causeway, about two stories above ground, has been added to move people from the foot of the bridge through the development to the beach.
The beach side plaza created by eliminating a fourth hotel now has a name, Banyan Tree Square, and more amenities have been added. The Hilton next to the square has an open air restaurant and a boardwalk bar
The distant view from the bridge allows a view of the Gulf. Water can be seen the length of the development over the tops of the buildings,
Another rendering shows the underpass as cars come off the proposed roundabout and pass under the parking garage. Lighting and commercial spaces with separate parking relieve the feeling of being in a cavernous space.
Denser groups of palm trees help conceal the parking garage from side street view.
The seawall has a decorative cap to soften it and discourage skateboarders from using it as a rail.”
When questioned about height of his proposed hotels, Torgerson, for the first time since he initiated his proposal, said that while he still prefers to go higher, he might consider getting the space he needs by building the hotels horizontally larger rather than vertically taller.
During public comment, perhaps the most pointed questions were over the development’s density plans. Grand Resorts proposes to build approximately 500 rooms but the town’s Comp Plan only allows 180. Residents are frustrated because no clear answers have been given as how the sites will accommodate the drastically increased density, including providing sufficient parking and handling anticipated larger traffic flows in an already severely congested area.
Originally Torgerson sought to build a 1,600 space parking garage. Under this most recent modification, the number has been reduced to 1,108.
Grand Resorts stressed that it could meet parking needs by utilizing “shared parking” a concept that suggests one parking spot would be sufficient for multiple users. Such as a shopper who also goes to the beach. However, in the eyes of a wary public this approach is nebulous at best. Mirroring their concerns, the News Press noted that “There were no clear answers about how many public spaces the town will gain from the proposed parking garage.” One resident also said the math and concept was “confusing” and in his opinion did not address the parking needed for the increased density sought.
When the subject of the seawall came up, Grand Resorts consultant Ron Flick said that many downtown businesses in the envelope of the wall would benefit from the flood zone map change the developer would receive. “If it’s approved and built one benefit is that it will lower their flood insurance premiums and allow them the same building advantages Grand Resorts would receive.
Despite Flick’s assurances, it is well known that many long-running business people on the Beach are opposed to Torgerson’s plans including Doug Sperin-Smith from Matanzas Inn and Harbour House as well as Bob Conidaris, builder and owner of the landmark Lani Kai resort. Sperin-Smith has published several well-thought out and detailed rebuttals to Torgerson’s existing plans and since many of the same questions went unanswered in the latest “new” proposal it is unlikely opposition from the business community will end.
Additionally, once again there was no discussion of the town or county codes that currently prohibit building the seawall.
While new renderings were presented to delineate the flow of traffic coming from up and down island and off the bridge as cars pass through the proposed rotary, the flow itself was not clearly shown.
And during public comment, concerns were voiced over the plan to pass traffic under the parking garage to go down-island.
Of even more concern was the flow of pedestrians and bicyclists, who would have to go through the garage and then take an elevator to ground level to get from the base of the bridge leading over to beach side of the island...
Flick told reporters and the public that the new traffic flow drawings are posted on the Grand resorts website.
While the tone in the public comment section at the Monday session was more muted than in the past, many questions still seemed to go unanswered.
Commissioner Larry Kiker was asked whether he had told the developer he would be able to use county owned Crescent Beach Family Park. This question led one resident to say that she felt the developer and Kiker have been “less than forthcoming” about their relationship. Another resident said that her concerns over the increased density were still “unanswered” and she though others felt the same way making Torgerson’s plans a “hard sell.” said.
For his part, Tom Torgerson said he would welcome any suggestions by residents and invited continued public involvement and suggestions.
All in all, despite the revisions and attempts to recast his proposals the meeting felt a bit staged. The use of huge video screens and a soundtrack of Kenny Chesney blasting out the tune -“No Shoes No Shirt, No Problems,” made the presentation seem more like a carnival act than a serious attempt to gain the confidence and support of Islanders who continue to view Grand Resort 10.4 acre plan as anything but “Grand.”