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A Tale of Two Downtowns

Downtown Naples relies more on the drawing power of its businesses (Jim Freeman)The young couple emerged from the garage on Eighth Street South and, at the corner of Fifth Avenue South, paused to confront the humming bazaar of pleasures arrayed up and down Naples’ signature stretch of real estate.

A lacy mist had crept up from the Gulf that warm early-February Friday evening and wrapped itself around the street whose merchants refer to it as “The Heart of Naples.” The young couple was radiant in the pale early evening light. She wore a tiny black dress. He had on skinny jeans and a hipster plaid shirt. Around them streamed the growing Friday night crowd: tourists in shorts and sneakers, elegantly casual middle age couples, visitors with British, German, and Italian accents. The night beckoned. Food. Drink. Music. Shopping.

“Let’s go to McCabe’s,” the young man said.

The young woman rolled her eyes. “Weren’t we just there?”

He smiled. “I know another place.” He took her arm, and they were off.

Downtown Fort Myers, pulls in visitors with special events, such as the monthly Music Walk. (Debi Pittman Wilkey)That there is always another place on Naples’ Fifth Avenue is one of its undeniable attractions. Another is that the new place will be just as fabulous and fun as the place you just were. More, maybe, depending on your dress and your pocketbook.

Southwest Florida’s two counties are largely defined by their respective major cities, and those cities’ culture and sense of place are anchored by their downtowns.

In Naples, downtown means Fifth Avenue South, and Fifth Avenue South means “timeless charm” and “downtown chic.” At least that’s how the district’s promoters have “rebranded” the area. Posh, ritzy, high-end all just a few feet from the beach.

Fort Myers downtown is a designated national historical district, and officials and boosters there have worked for the past decade to reclaim its faded charm so that its 50 square blocks are more than a collection of law offices, courthouses and real estate agencies. The nutshell vision, according to Mayor Randy Henderson Jr.: “Live here, work here, play here.”

Different strategies, but both cities are guided by the same goal, ensuring that Southwest Florida’s original centers of commerce, government, culture and community remain vital and vibrant.


Strollers’ paradise: Fifth Avenue South in Naples was built for walkability with a collection of shops, restaurants, galleries and more along a six-block span. (Erik Kellar)Naples: Blueprint for Success

Perhaps surprising for a street catering to gourmet appetites of all kinds, a large part of Naples Fifth Avenue South’s success is due to its inclusion in the city’s Community Redevelopment Area, along with other Old Naples clusters of gourmet shops and upscale restaurants—Third Street South, Crayton Cove, the Waterfront District. The city can—and does—offer tax incentives for developers and merchants as well as using special revenue designated specifically for redevelopment projects, such as re-paving sidewalks, landscaping medians or building parking garages.

Naples is one of dozens of Florida cities, from Fort Lauderdale to St. Petersburg, and thousands nationwide, that since the 1980s have established redevelopment areas and devised comprehensive plans to re-invigorate often sleepy, if not deserted, downtowns. The result of these projects is as varied as the communities and geography that shape them.

Almost 20 years since Naples began to redevelop its oldest neighborhoods between the Gulf of Mexico and the Gordon River, the district boasts an art center, theater, community center, band shell, two parks, the Naples Pier and beaches, and five distinct shopping and office clusters.

Its residential streets are lined with expensive homes. And in the winter months, the city’s population almost doubles.

“What people are discussing today is having a community where you can work and play and not have to get in your car and drive,” said Roger Reinke, Naples assistant city manager who oversees redevelopment. “We think what we’ve done has been a big success. Could it get better? Absolutely.”

Private business figures came together 20 years ago to develop a comprehensive plan for revitalizing the area. Ten years later they revisited the original redevelopment blueprint. And now they’re trying collectively to breathe new life into the district.

The recession following the real estate market implosion did not spare the chic shops on Fifth Avenue South. After a decade of steady growth and progress, storefronts, offices and restaurants went vacant. And rents plunged by half because of the sapped demand. Downtown commerce faced competition from splashy new suburban developments like Mercato in North Naples, so local property owners decided to tax themselves to raise money to promote downtown Naples.

Formation of the Fifth Avenue South Business Improvement District was approved by the City Council in December 2010. Landlords from Eighth Avenue South to Fourth Avenue South between Ninth Street South and Third Street South were assessed $2 per $1,000 of taxable value of their property to raise money to lure more people downtown to eat, drink and shop.

Café Lurcat, top; Adelheidi’s gelateria, bottom (Debi Pittman Wilkey)The improvement district appointed a board of directors that included the most prominent Fifth Avenue property owners and hired an executive director, Lise Sundrla, who had held a similar post in Savannah. In January, after surveying property owners and merchants, a marketing plan was rolled out, including the district’s new tag line: “Timeless Charm, Downtown Chic.”

For the first time, the downtown has a cohesive plan to sell itself not only to tourists but also to the rest of Southwest Florida, Sundlra said.

“There are a couple of misconceptions (about the district),” Sundrla said. “One is that it’s strictly tourist-based. The other is that it’s too high-priced. But people are finding that we have a pretty eclectic mix.”


Downtown Ft. Myers (Debi Pittman Wilkey)Fort Myers: A Different Approach

Forty miles, almost due north, Fort Myers government and business leaders face a considerably different situation.

Efforts to bring about a Fifth Avenue South kind of renaissance in their community’s historic downtown district have been slowed by the downturned economy, yet the city is set to begin yet another major makeover.

Much has been accomplished in the historic section of Fort Myers along the Caloosahatchee River, where buildings date from the first decade of the 1900s: a 53-block make-over of downtown sidewalks, including the installation of new utility lines and brick pavers; a new Publix supermarket lured by tax breaks and considered a keystone in stabilizing the area and attracting residents; several dozen new retail shops and restaurants; a spiffy seven-story hotel; and about 7,000 permanent residents.

But there is still much to do, including what may well define the future of the area, a complete overhaul of the city’s waterfront. Last April, the Fort Myers City Council approved a master plan for a project that will bring the river into the heart of downtown through a new water retention basin, a crescent-shaped pool between the river and Bay Street just west of Hendry Street.

Around the basin, the plan calls for a new 220-room waterfront hotel connected to the city’s Harborside Event Center; a new 82,000-square-foot exhibition hall; three restaurants on the water; a 600-space parking garage surrounded by shops, offices, and apartments; and expansion of Centennial Park, including a band shell, fountain and expanded marina.

The idea that has driven the plan, said Don Paight, the executive director the city’s redevelopment agency, is to capitalize on the geography that created the city in the first place.

“We didn’t want a big development on the water that turned its back on the rest of downtown, like Bayside in Miami or the Jacksonville Landing. We wanted symbolically to bring the river into the historic district.”

While “water retention basin” doesn’t exactly conjure images of rosy sunsets and bobbing sailboats—“We really have to come up with another name,” Paight admits—the 1.8- acre pool would become the district’s focal point. Architects’ renderings show a sweeping promenade around the pool arcing elegantly into the blocks of historic buildings.

Acquest Realty Advisors and Fort Myers-based Parker Mudgett Smith Architects, whom the city paid $700,000 to plan the project, expect it will spur $200 million in new

In a recent five-week span, Paight met with eight different civic and business groups to sell the community on the plan. “When you explain it, people get excited,” he said.

If downtowns were houses, Fort Myers’ would be furnished with tastefully restored antiques set on brand-new flooring and served by all new plumbing and wiring.

In 2010, the city completed its Streetscape project in which it renewed 53 blocks of sidewalks and intersections, including paving and utilities. The five-year project was one of the largest of its kind in the country and disrupted traffic patterns for months at a time. Planners were careful to limit the impact as much as possible. A couple of businesses left during the project, but in the last 18 months that work crews were still kicking up dust, 15 new businesses opened, Paight said. Since completion two years ago, 30 more businesses have set up shop downtown.

“Largely, what we’re going after are one-of-a-kind owner-occupied shops,” Paight said.

An example is Enjewel, a clothing and accessories boutique on First Street operated by Lynne Routhier and her daughter Vanessa Dryden. Since 2005, the business has continued to outgrow its storefronts and is now in its third location.

“The downtown has really helped us,” Dryden said. “We don’t ever want to leave here.”

Another boost for the district has been the infusion of visitors for special events organized by the city and downtown businesses. A recent Art Walk, a showcase of exhibitions coordinated by a dozen downtown galleries, brought 2,000 to 3,000 people.

“It’s a social occasion,” said Alainna Zwiernik, co-owner of Howl Gallery/Tattoo and one of the organizers of Art Walk. “Lots of people are excited to have a reason to come downtown and see the rebirth of the area.”

In the growing number of shops and restaurants that have taken residence in the refurbished old buildings, there is a clear sense of camaraderie and pride of place. On the Patio de Leon, a broad brick-paved plaza off First Street, Place 39 offers a mix of art, music, wine. The gallery/jazz venue/wine bar, owned and operated by Terry Tincher, displays local art as well as world-renowned artists such as Salvadore Dali and Man Ray. Space 39, next door to the Morgan House Restaurant, is more about passion than profit, he said. “I’m not saying I’m making money, but I’m loving it.”

Perhaps no downtown business better embodies the district’s blending of old and new, traditional and innovative, entrepreneurial and collective, art and commerce than the Franklin Shops on the corner of First Street and Broadway. In the original two-story Franklin Hardware Building built in 1936, more than 100 artists, artisans, and would-be entrepreneurs offer a dizzying variety of goods in a kind of art and fashion co-op. Franklin Shops provides the space, sales staff, maintenance, and janitorial services, while “shop-owners” rent display room ranging from cubby-hole nooks to elaborate floor space set-ups.

So if you make, say, origami bird houses, and you’re not quite prepared to plunge your life savings into a start-up operation, you can rent space at Franklin Shops for as little as $40 a month for as short a time as three months.

“We sell everything from happy dots to $400 sculptured dolls,” said General Manager Allison Conger. The oddest offering since the store opened was a “creepy-looking doll that was made of some kind of weird material,” Conger said.

“It was masking tape,” said Margarethe Miville, co-owner of the business and a buyer of one of the dolls. “It was really unique.”

Restore, reuse: Downtown Fort Myers was revitalized by attracting new businesses, such as Franklin Shops, into existing buildings and retaining its 1920s charm.Miville and her husband, Rene, owned the building on First Street and were looking for a tenant a few years ago when Paight introduced them to a recent college graduate, Allison Campbell, a Fort Myers resident with a big idea for an arts and crafts co-operative marketplace, but with no money to make it happen. The Mivilles were so impressed with the young woman’s business plan that they decided to become partners.

It’s the kind of success story redevelopers relish. “We didn’t want office space taking up this beautiful corner space,” Paight said. Even better he said, the operation is a kind of business incubator. “We’ve already had people start there and open up businesses nearby.”

“I think the city of Fort Myers is really starting to see downtown in a multipurpose way,” said Margaret Banyan, a Florida Gulf Coast University professor who teaches urban planning. “Downtowns have historically been this way. They’ve done a lot to improve walkability.”

“Unlike Fifth Avenue, we didn’t have enough retailers to be a place where people came to shop,” Paight said. “But now we have three or four actual destination retailers. It’s an evolutionary process.”

Same Planner, Some Differences

So is downtown Fort Myers on track to become Fifth Avenue north? Probably not.

The two redevelopment areas share some elements. Both hired city planning guru Andres Duany, whose firm, Duany Plater-Zyberk, pioneered what is sometimes called the new urbanism, to produce a master plan for redevelopment. Duany stresses the value of pedestrian traffic; a mix of residential, retail, shopping and office space; and efficient use of public transit to connect clusters of population. 

Naples business owners on Fifth Avenue commissioned Duany in 1993. The subsequent plan proved so successful that in 2004, Duany was brought back to update his work. The resulting report, titled “A Decade of 5th Avenue,” concluded that “overall 5th Avenue is a masterpiece even though each building is not.” Duany called for more parking and more diversity in the use of buildings.

Fort Myers brought Duany in to plan its downtown redevelopment in 2002. Most of his recommendations have been implemented, according to Paight.

Duany’s goal of attracting 10,000 permanent residents to the district, however, was dealt a blow by the recession. Though Duany’s plan called for low-rise development along the river, the city council green-lighted a handful of condo towers when real estate was booming. But by the time the towers were built the market had collapsed, and hundreds of units remained empty. Still, about 7,000 people live in the downtown district now, up from 1,500 10 years ago.

The burst of the real-estate bubble hasn’t been all bad, “I think it’s been a great opportunity,” Banyan said. “We had such rapid growth, we’ve made mistakes. Now we have the opportunity to look at how things have been done and how they can be improved.”

Naples officials and business leaders see things differently. “Things are in place here to a degree that we don’t have to do that,” Reinke says.

That said, in 2006, developers and the city were preparing for the addition of 1,000 residential units, along with 200,000 square feet of office and commercial space, a 50,000-square-foot branch campus for Florida Gulf Coast University and a 350-seat performing arts hall. The project, Renaissance Village, was planned for a 22-acre site at the corner of U.S. 41 and Goodlette Frank Road.

Many downtown merchants hoped that huge project would anchor the district and bring an infusion of customers. Then the housing market tanked, and Renaissance Village
with it.

“Naples had a very serious recession,” said Phil McCabe, “a very serious correction.”

But McCabe, owner of the Inn on Fifth, which also houses his McCabe’s Irish Pub and Grill, is convinced the local economy is back on track. “In 2011 we had our best year ever for the 15 years I’ve been here,” he said. “The first month of 2012 is the best month we’ve had. The real estate market is on fire from the lower end to the upper end.”

Construction is under way on a three-story building across the street from the Inn on Fifth. McCabe is developing the property to house a bank and retail tenants on the first floor as well as 32 more suites for the hotel.

Sundrla called the project “the most significant on the street in 20 years.”

“I made the commitment (for the building) in 2010,” McCabe said. “I could see the recovery was on its way.”

But then Naples is not a typical downtown, McCabe said. “We’re blessed,” he said. “We have the beach, and this is one of the wealthiest towns in America.

“There are very few places that compare with Fifth Avenue, especially in Florida. Maybe Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, but other than that, not much compares.”


5 great places on Fifth Avenue South

A few favorite spots on Naples hottest street:

Adelheidi’s (adelheidis.com) Some of the best gelato you are likely to ever have. Try the black pepper, trust us.

Avenue Wine Café (avenuewinecafe.com) Great beer, great wine, great setting. Plus, awesome service.

Sugden Plaza Nestled between Yabba Island Grill and McCabe’s Irish Pub is the best place for people watching in Southwest Florida.

The von Liebig Art Center (naplesart.org) Home to the Naples Art Association, The von Liebig offers classes, gallery space and blockbuster exhibitions, just off Fifth Avenue South.

Truluck’s (trulucks.com) Stone crabs, amazing food and fantastic atmosphere. Stands out among a packed field of fine restaurants.

5 great places in Downtown Fort Myers

What we love about the heart of the City of Palms:

Art Walk (fortmyersartwalk.com) On the first Friday of each month, the downtown comes alive with thousands of people strolling from gallery to gallery.

Florida Rep (floridarep.org) We’ve oft proclaimed our love for this troupe. But the best theater in Southwest Florida keeps getting better.

Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center (sbdac.com) From performances to art openings to Film Festival screenings, the art center has become the hub for all things creative.

Space 39 (spacethirtynine.com) Part bar, part gallery, all fun. One of the most unique establishments in the region is always worth stopping in to sip and explore.

The Veranda (verandarestaurant.com) In our 25th anniversary edition, we called it the best restaurant in Lee County. Seventeen years later, the feeling hasn’t really changed.

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