Grand Resorts Holds Final Meeting Before Application Process Begins

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    Developer Tom Torgerson and representatives from his team of engineers and planners for the proposed Grand Resorts downtown redevelopment gave one final public presentation Monday night at Bay Oaks before they begin the application process in the coming weeks. But, despite having made new renderings and tweaks to the project – including lopping another level off the Hilton – many of the 400+ residents gathered in the gym still had concerns.

    Torgerson began the meeting by showing new slides on the two large screens behind a stage in the gymnasium. The first few depicted a view from a boat in the Gulf of Mexico looking towards the downtown area of the island. Skylines from before and after the proposed development were shown, as well as the relation to the existing Pink Shell and Lani Kai buildings.

    “That area where all the trees are – that’s the open space we’re calling ‘Banyan Tree Park’,” Torgerson said, pointing to the 100’ space between the Hilton and the Marriott. He also showed slides of the proposed ‘pedestrian crossing’ that would allow pedestrians and bicyclists access from the bridge over 5th Street to the proposed parking garage, with various exit points allowing access to any of the areas along Crescent Street or the street level pedestrian mall.

    “People could either use the crossing or descend the bridge as normal to go to places like the Lighthouse,” Torgerson said. “This came from one of the suggestions made on the Grand Resorts’ website.”

    In addition to the lowering of the Hilton – allowing for unbroken views of the Gulf from the top of Matanzas Pass Bridge – other new tweaks and additions to the plans include: a new beach access point for a total of 12, a widening of all view corridors – including the area between the Marriott and Holiday Inn, more trees and a new decorative cap on top of the Coastal Protection System (CPS) to discourage skateboarders. All new slides – including 5 new minute-long 2-dimensional ‘fly-arounds’ of the entire 10.4 acre project and information are all available on the project’s website – grandresortsfmb.com.

    “All mechanical rooftop elements such as air conditioning vents are now concealed, and we have a slide showing that people will not need to walk up any steps to get to the top of the CPS – the dune will have a walk-through area.”

    Torgerson’s investment partner, John Dammerman, told everyone that the rest of the presentation would focus on three areas of the project not yet discussed: Zoning, Parking and Traffic.

    “We had an inquiry today where someone asked, ‘why not do one big resort instead of three?’” he said. “We could do that – we could make it longer and keep the height down without changing the number of rooms, but on the flip side that would make for a much larger and longer ‘shoebox’ of a building as it’s far more difficult to develop variety and complex character on a single building.”

    Consultant Ron Flick from the Compass Group explained that the zoning for Grand Resorts is specific to the Downtown Zoning District only.

    “In 2007, the Town’s Comprehensive Plan created this new district in speaking to what happened when Hurricane Charley destroyed three hotels in 2004,” he said. “There is also a policy statement stating the Town’s desire to realign Estero Boulevard. This project finally gives us that opportunity.”

    Flick said that a project of Grand Resorts’ magnitude would not be possible anywhere else on the island.

    “The Comp Plan designates only two pedestrian commercial areas on the island and the other one on the south end is built out with Santini Plaza,” he said. “The remaining area for commercial development is downtown, and our project is focused on the core of that rather than on the boundaries.”

    Flick focused on the Floor-Area-Ratio (FAR) when talking about density, with a slide depicting how developers can reduce the footprint of a building as they go up in height.

    “FAR is used in districts where open space needs are desired as it allows for things to be stacked to preserve land use,” he said. “It creates a greater opportunity to preserve the view corridor and allows us fluctuation in elevation.”

    Though having addressed the Coastal Protection System at an earlier meeting, Torgerson touched on it one more time by explaining that it’s designed to prevent erosion, capture additional sand in the fronting dune and will not do anything adverse to the properties on either side.

    The team then moved onto traffic and parking, explaining how the project is designed to capture cars because it is a destination resort where – once having arrived – most guests will not use their cars as everything they need will be in walking distance, including the existing restaurants, shops and bars of the downtown district.

    “This reduces the traffic that’s there today – this reduces on-island vehicle trips by 33%, which is much lower than what would happen if all this space was used by retail,” Flick said.

    The proposed parking garage is now down to just over 1,100 spaces and four stories from the original 5-story building with 1,600 spaces. Flick explained that is because the team is now using a ‘Shared Parking’ methodology to determine how many spaces are needed, adding that – even at peak weekend times when the resorts are full and people are using parking for the convention center – as many as 200 spaces would remain open.

    Torgerson and his team then opened the meeting up for questions from the audience.

    One resident said he’d heard that PierSide Grill was planning to opt out of the CPS and asked how that would work.

    “We have discussed that with the state and it’s been done before,” Flick replied. “This would not effect the integrity of the CPS or the protection of properties in Time Square since our CPS would go right up to its boundaries.” Torgerson added that Edison Beach House has asked that Grand Resorts extend the CPS north from Lynn Hall Park to include their property and that is under discussion.

    Another resident wanted to know where the sand that will be used for beach renourishment will come from, and Flick explained that the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is very particular about that and it must be matched exactly to the existing sand.

    Flick responded to another question about the parking spaces by saying that the 180+ spaces that will be lost from Helmerich Plaza and the parking area next to Sunset Beach Grill will be replaced in the new garage.

    Other residents – including a local Realtor – questioned Grand Resorts’ ability to fill rooms facing away from the Gulf.

    “This is commercial resort, not a condominium resort like Pink Shell and Diamond Head, so we do believe that ‘double stacking’ corridors with 60% of the rooms facing the Gulf and 40% facing the back bay will work,” Torgerson replied.

    Another big concern was with the construction traffic the development would create in an area already being hit with loss of revenue due to Estero Boulevard reconstruction.

    “We have planned for a service yard in the back of the development for deliveries,” Flick replied, and Torgerson pointed out that any construction is a long ways off as Grand Resorts has yet to make any applications and some have estimated that approval for the CPS alone could take as long as a year.

    “Something has to work here, what we’re proposing is the least impactful for what we’re allowed to do with our building rights,” Tom said. “We are trying to work with you and we would still like to meet with you in small groups as we begin the application process.”

    Keri Hendry Weeg

    Photo by B. Layfield