Despite significant teeth gnashing over the past half-decade by those who worried otherwise and the protestations of those who trumpeted developments to the north, downtown Naples is still the epicenter of Collier County.
When people think of visiting here, it holds the images they see in their minds: Fifth Avenue South lit up at night, the Naples City Pier, the boats at Crayton Cove. It’s where locals and visitors alike celebrate Christmas, New Year’s, St. Patrick’s Day and the Fourth of July. It plays host to the Swamp Buggy parade, even though the actual races take place miles away.
Downtown Naples is established and establishment. At the same time, it’s about to undergo its biggest period of upheaval in two decades, a sea change of development that, depending whom you ask, will either revitalize it for the future or rob it of cherished character. In the next two or three years, a handful of substantial developments—many already underway—will bring in thousands of new residential units, hundreds of thousands of new square feet of commercial units and a de facto design overhaul.
“Where this is going is positive,” says Bill Barnett, a longtime member of the Naples City Council and a current mayoral candidate. “From what’s going on with (Phil) McCabe’s (property) to the development at 560 Ninth St., these are all projects that are making downtown an attractive place to live and play.”
The majority of Barnett’s fellow councilmen agree. The city has issued approvals for several major commercial and mixed-use projects in the downtown and Old Naples areas. Old bungalows on large lots have been replaced by neat rows of townhouses over the past few years as residential developers have begun to extract the maximum value from each piece of land.
But there is a vocal group of people who aren’t so sure. During the discussions of the new building plans prominent local developer Phil McCabe has for a parcel of buildings he owns at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue South and Fifth Street South, dozens of people lined up to complain about both the structure and the loss of what they believe is the character of the city.
“I think it’s important that you need to understand how this is going to impact the community,” Old Naples resident Bob Martin told the council in November. The Naples Daily News reported that Martin led a petition effort that garnered about 300 signatures opposing McCabe’s plans, which would put 11 residential units on top of retail space.
McCabe was dismissive of those who oppose his plans, saying they are the same arguments that were used two decades before when the first wave of redevelopment on Fifth Avenue began.
“This is what they were saying when we couldn’t get $10 (a square foot) in rent,” McCabe told Gulfshore Life earlier this year. “What they don’t remember was all the vacancies on the street. It wasn’t a place people wanted to be.”
Barnett is even more pointed in his thoughts of those protesting the future developments. “It’s just a few people who really like Cafe Luna,” he says. “Cafe Luna has already found a new spot. So it’s still going to be around, just in another place. But that’s what they are worried about.”
Naples Square is planned to house 300 condos off 10th Street South.
Martin and another Naples resident, Joan Fiore, have filed a suit to stop the development, saying it violates the city’s charter that limits the height of development downtown to 42 feet and three stories. Barnett says variances are given frequently, and that the building should be considered only three stories because the parking level will be entirely below grade, a first for the city.
While McCabe’s plans have garnered the most media attention, they are relatively small compared to other development happening in the city, especially in the area north of Fifth Avenue South between U.S. 41 and Goodlette-Frank Road and along the Gordon River. There are only a few small parcels left in the Old Naples portion of downtown. A 1.1-acre lot at Fourth Avenue South and Fourth Street South, recently purchased by Hoffman Commercial Real Estate as part of a nearly $75 million sale of several buildings on Fifth Avenue, offers the most substantial spot. Otherwise, the only thing to do is tear down and rebuild. That isn’t the case for a few major parcels along 10th Street South. The biggest, and possibly the most important, development downtown Naples has seen since Bayfront two decades ago is Naples Square. Taking over the land once earmarked for the now-bankrupt Renaissance Village project, Naples Square doesn’t assume its predecessors’ lofty goals. Once scheduled to be home to at least 400 residential units, 200,000 square feet of retail, a 350-seat performing arts center and a 50,000-square-foot satellite campus for Florida Gulf Coast University, the scaled-back plans are for 300 condominiums built in four 75-unit segments. A later phase will include much of the commercial space originally slated for Renaissance Village.
Developed by the Ronto Group, Naples Square is by any account a pretty strong success. Originally marketed as a more reasonable entry price point to living in downtown Naples with condos for less than $500,000, units are now starting at more than $700,000. And considering the other large developments that could bring hundreds more housing units to the area, Ronto’s owner, Anthony Solomon, believes there will be demand enough to raise those entry prices as each phase comes online.
“This is what the market is looking for,” he says of his 1,200- to 3,000-square-foot condos. “People want to be part of a downtown environment. But the current housing stock doesn’t necessarily have the sort of design and finishes that today’s buyer is looking for.”
Solomon, along with other developers like Adam Smith of Naples ReDevelopment, sees a demand for a walkable, bikeable downtown area where people would work, shop, dine and play without needing to get in their cars. And business owners are taking note that there might be an opportunity to set up shop off Fifth Avenue and still get the foot traffic needed for success without paying the $65-per-square-foot rents demanded on Fifth Avenue.
“You already see people moving in,” Smith says. “Look at the new brewery at Third Avenue. Even as this area becomes more developed, this is going to be a spot for the smaller, more funky restaurants and businesses to come in. (Those are) the kind of things that give cities character.”
Smith is developing a few properties downtown, most notably the St. George, a mixed-use development a block down from where Fifth Avenue South and U.S. 41 merge. But his plan has a bit of a twist. It’s still mixed-use, but instead of pricey condos on top, he’s planning upscale rental units. “We just see a need for that. There really aren’t rental properties available downtown. Not everyone wants the hassle of ownership.”
McCabe sees that need as well. His next project, once the Fifth Avenue South building is completed sometime in 2017, is scheduled to be an addition to his flagship hotel, The Inn on Fifth, across Fourth Avenue South. Most of the accommodations would be for guests planning to stay for a month or longer.
The new look of Naples’ most visible region started out as pieces of single-family homes. For the past few years, clients of architect Matthew Kragh, owner of MHK Architecture and Planning, have been flocking to his “coastal contemporary” design. Eschewing the red barrel tiled roofs and arched windows of the Mediterranean Revival architecture that dominated the past building boom, Kragh began using a design vocabulary that pulled from Old Florida and West Indies styles with clean lines and transitional indoor/outdoor spaces.
In 2012, the new owners of Robb & Stucky International tapped Kragh to design a flagship store on U.S. 41 a block north of Fifth Avenue South. He brought the same look from the residential to the commercial space. Since then he’s been involved in several of the most noticeable new building projects scheduled to begin in the next few years. Naples Square and the new Hyatt House hotel rising from the ashes of the old Joe’s Crab Shack on Naples Bay are already taking shape showcasing his new style. Two of Naples ReDevelopment’s projects, St. George and 560 Ninth St., will add to the new aesthetic in the next year or so as well.
It’s a look that most feel the community will quickly embrace. “People are looking for a more contemporary Florida style,” Solomon says. “Matt was really in tune with that because of all the single-family homes he was doing for clients. He was already talking to people about what they were looking for. It made sense to bring someone with that first-hand knowledge onto the project.”
The St. George will have upscale rental units atop its businesses.
For his part, Kragh says the look makes everything feel a little more residential than the previous commercial designs in the community. “And as more of these buildings become clustered, you’ll see a bit of a transformation,” he says.
Because he’s a planner as well as an architect, Kragh is having more than just a design influence on the city. He’s one of the big proponents of the underground parking experiments that are sprouting up in the newest round of designs for some key properties. One of downtown Naples’ biggest concerns is parking. Barnett acknowledges the city needs at least one more garage in the Fifth Avenue South area. And while most of the people developing downtown are focused on residential development, enough commercial property is scheduled to make folks worried that the parking situation is only going to get worse.
“What is it like now during season?” asks Michael Fernandez, the principal of Planning Development and the one-time owner of a small part of the old Naples Daily News property on Central Avenue. Fernandez’s solution to the parking problem is sort of novel at this point, but it is important to think about it as Collier County’s population keeps surging. While downtown development is hot right now, it’s an icicle compared to the blistering heat projected for areas east of County Road 951 where planned communities of as many as 40,000 people could spring up in the coming decades. Fernandez says one solution to parking in downtown is to build more centers of attraction, similar to Mercato, farther east. Then not everyone would come downtown for entertainment and dining.
Barnett doesn’t see that happening anytime soon. “That’s why people are so excited about what’s going on downtown,” he says. “That’s why people are willing to spend $75 million on six buildings. That’s why Naples Square and Mangrove Bay and (McCabe’s) building are going up. Downtown Naples has always been where people want to be. And if all those projects that are being developed now were online tomorrow, we’d be able to handle it.”