In a scene reminiscent of the Lee County Commission chambers some 22 years ago – when hundreds of islanders protested the approval of the project that would become DiamondHead and later give birth to incorporation – Chapel By the Sea was packed Monday afternoon as residents gathered to hear about a major downtown redevelopment project. First presented at a joint County Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) – Town of Fort Myers Beach Council meeting on November 30 at Florida SouthWestern State University, this was the first airing of the project concept on Fort Myers Beach. Though there were scattered verbal protests, and at one point the crowd booed so loudly that Grand Resorts’ Public Relations representative Tina Matte actually had to quit speaking, after the meeting most people told us their main concerns are things that are fixable – the height of the buildings and their appearance.
Matte began by giving a condensed version of the presentation developer Tom Torgerson and his team gave the Lee County Board of County Commissioners, Town Council and the public on November 30th, outlining plans for four hotels, a 1,500 space parking garage, re-alignment of Estero Boulevard with a roundabout at the foot of the bridge and a ½ mile long boardwalk and seawall stretching from the Lynn Hall Park to Primo Drive. She explained the project’s benefits: improved pedestrian safety and traffic flow, 500 new jobs, aid to sea turtle habitat and addressing the Town’s parking issues.
“As far as the hotels, the Hilton will be a more traditional, Mediterranean style; the Marriott – a boutique hotel designed for couples – will be contemporary and modern and the Holiday Inn for families,” she said. “It’s all about creating a ‘sense of place’ in the redeveloped area.”
It was when Matte started displaying the conceptual renderings of what the project would look like that the crowd grew restless. By the time the image of the Pedestrian Mall on Estero Boulevard with the parking garage on one side and the 7-story Hilton on the other side appeared, the crowd became so loud that Tina was forced to pause. When everyone quieted down, she said, “Based on early feedback, it’s quite possible the garage would be smaller.”
Later developer Tom Torgerson would reiterate that the concept is just that, a concept, and the purpose of meetings is to gather ideas on possible changes to be considered.
“We also feel that people are sensing that they can have influence on this project’s design and outcome and it can be in a mutually respectful manner, not a divisive one.”
Matte reminded everyone that the project depends on the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) approval of the seawall and FEMA agreeing to remodel the floodplain maps for the area behind it – thus allowing it to be built at grade – a process expected to take about one year.
“We can’t even apply for DEP and FEMA approval without permission from both the Town and the County,” she said. “This is what’s called a ‘Proposal of Understanding’, and it only authorizes us to move forward with those applications – not for development to occur. There will be many more public hearings on this.”
Matte then introduced the head of the Grand Resorts Fort Myers Beach project, Tom Torgerson, who said he and his team welcome requests from smaller groups like homeowners’ associations to come speak. He then delivered the big news of the night – the recent purchase of two additional properties for the project.
“We have added a couple of parcels,” he said. “The first one is John Richard’s ‘Ocean Jewels’ building (1054 Fifth St.) which will allow us to make the roundabout larger, and the second is the current parking area for Sunset Beach Grill which we plan to leave as open pedestrian space.”
Torgerson explained that the seawall is ‘very different’ than a prototypical seawall in that it will be placed immediately seaward of the existing seawall and will not cause erosion except in the cases of extreme high tides and storms.
“Grand Resorts would like to come up with an ongoing beach re-nourishment project to go with the seawall – which will have dunes and vegetation in front of it,” he said.
“I cannot keep stressing enough that there has been absolutely zero negotiations with either the Town or the County, zero. And that we look forward to action by both jurisdictions that will open the door for us to present our concept in their jurisdictional normal formats. Our process has not begun with either of them!” he emphasized after the meeting.
After the presentation, the crowd was directed along the outside walls of Chapel By the Sea’s Silver Hall to speak with representatives of Torgerson’s team about their questions. We intercepted some residents to get their comments.
Former Surf Club owner and long-time downtown supporter Bruce Cermak said he likes the project and he likes Tom (Torgerson).
“I think the concept is good, it just needs to better fit into our community,” he said. “I’m tired of Helmerich Plaza looking like a ghetto.”
John and Linda Sanford said they find the whole thing ‘a little shocking’.
“This is our first time seeing the renderings, and I’m trying to keep an open mind but that picture of the view coming down the island has me scared,” Linda told us. “I’ve been coming here since the 1960’s and I don’t want to lose our small town.”
Steve and Cindy Johnson also said they are trying to stay open-minded as they believe the project will bring many benefits to the island.
“We’d just like it to be a little smaller – not so tall – and the project will have to relieve traffic,” they said.
Louis Monaco said he was disappointed that the public wasn’t allowed to speak at the meeting.
“They should have the next one at Bay Oaks and let everyone speak their peace,” he said. “Some people here know a lot more than me; I’d like to hear them.”
Elizabeth D’Onofrio wanted to know how current restaurants and hotels would be able to compete with the new development in the off-season, and two other residents said there should be open spaces between the new buildings on the beach so the public can see the water.
Former Town Manager Jack Green told us it’s too early to make a judgment call on this project.
“I’m keeping an open mind but we’ve got to go slow,” he said. “We’ve only got one chance to get this right, and I’m thinking this project as it stands right now is a little too big for us. Something between nothing at all and what they’re proposing is the right answer for this island.”
John Pohland agreed.
“This guy has a plan, and I’d like to see him continue with it, but he won’t get everything he wants,” he said. “And there are still some issues with pedestrian safety – how is someone going to get to the beach from the Lighthouse Tiki Bar or the top of Matanzas Bridge?”
Heather Regan summed up most of the comments we heard.
“The development is a good idea only if they’re careful with the scale of it and they keep the culture of our little island,” she said.
Reached after the meeting Torgerson felt it had gone well, adding that he was grateful to Chapel by the Sea for their offer to use the sanctuary for the next meeting. It holds at least 500 people and has a great public address system, he said.
“We felt exceptionally good about the meeting, we know people want to be heard and express themselves and we want and need them to. I think the format we had for the meeting, avoiding a few people dominating the floor, and rather allowing for many people to interact with us directly worked well at this juncture.”
He also addressed concerns about height and architecture, “We went into the meeting knowing that we need to transition now from a focus on ‘a sense of place’ to a focus on architecture, which could include height as a part of that. We are focusing on that direction now through year end.”
Torgerson also reflected on concerns about seawalls and traffic. The boardwalk and integrated seawall is a system that will enhance the beach, renourish the beach and improve turtle habitat, he said.
“Our future guests stay an average of 5 nights and rarely leave the island in a personal vehicle during their stay. The 500 employees don’t all work at the same time and travel to and from work during the slow traffic periods as they are on the job during the busy traffic periods.”
Torgerson added, “The Town’s Comp Plan does have specific language addressing the Times Square and the Pedestrian Corridor area of which our proposed project is within. And it does have procedures to support and incent what we are proposing. Additionally, the Seawall is not forbidden from use by the Plan either.”
The next morning at the BoCC meeting, a number of residents spoke and Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker made a motion – which passed unanimously – to defer any action on Torgerson’s permit application until the project and the process could be better communicated to the public. Town Council has yet to grant permission, either, though they did authorize Attorney Dawn Lehnert to prepare a resolution for that authorization at their last meeting on December 7th.
Keri Hendry Weeg
The original presentation of the downtown concept at the joint BoCC and Town Council meeting on November 30th can be seen at bit.ly/FMBCountyDowntown. For more information on the concept visit GrandResortsFMB.com.