On Thursday night, developer Tom Torgerson and his team at Grand Resorts, LLC, held a public meeting at Bay Oaks where they revealed new architectural renderings and changes they have made to the proposed downtown redevelopment project. We got an early look at those changes this week so we could share them with our readers and ask a few questions regarding the Town’s Land Development Code (LDC) and Comprehensive Plan. Torgerson also appeared before the Marine Resources Task Force at their meeting on Wednesday night where he addressed the advisory committees’ concerns about the environmental aspects of his project.
“From this point on, we’re learning as we go,” Torgerson told us. “Whether it’s messaging or improving the project or getting the public’s opinion – this is a work in progress. The point is – no one is voting on this thing now. It has not been approved or disapproved. Right now we’re simply working to make it the best it can be.”
For our seasonal residents and visitors just arriving, our little community has been in an uproar since the end of November, when Torgerson first revealed his preliminary concept for the properties Grand Resorts FMB (Torgerson is CEO) purchased last year in the downtown area. The redevelopment project’s footprint includes the area from the Mermaid Lounge to the parking lot next to the Sunset Beach Grille, plus Helmerich Plaza, the old Seafarer’s location and a few other properties.
The conceptual plans originally included four hotels with 562 rooms, a 1500-space, 5-story parking garage at Helmerich, nine projected restaurants plus retail spaces, a fitness center and a spa, conference center and parking ramp – all projected to create 500 new jobs. Along the beachfront, a seawall is planned with a boardwalk that will stretch for almost a ½ mile from the Mermaid to Lynn Hall Park, with ten beach access points and public restrooms along it. In addition, the plans would re-route Estero Boulevard to eliminate the traffic light and create a roundabout at the foot of the Matanzas Bridge. That, plus a ‘fast ramp’ into the parking garage designed to funnel daytrippers off of Estero Boulevard, is designed to help with the island’s legendary traffic problem.
The plan includes property that Grand Resorts FMB now owns, plus land that the Town owns (Canal Street access) and land that Lee County owns (Seafarer’s Mall and Crescent Beach Family Park).
All of this is still in the conceptual stage only. No permits have been applied for, no land has been sold by either the Town or the County and no contracts have been signed and the project remains in the planning stages. Torgerson explained that he and his team have decided to facilitate that planning by holding monthly public meetings where they will address two specific topics within the project and get public comment on those.
“Instead of trying to work through the entire project at once, we’re going to take one bite out of it at a time,” he said. “Since it takes about a month for us to digest all the public input and prepare for another presentation, we’re going to do this monthly.”
The two topics Tom’s team presented on Thursday were two of the most controversial elements: the seawall – now called a ‘Coastal Protection System’ and the architecture, which many islanders said ‘looked too much like South Beach’ after viewing the original conceptual renderings.
Coastal Protection System
“It was our fault that we originally called this a ‘seawall’ because it isn’t,” Torgerson said. “When we read about what a seawall actually is, we realized that description is a lot different than what we’re proposing.”
The seawall was of great interest to the Marine Resources Task Force (MRTF), too, and in addressing that committee on Wednesday evening with a full house at Town Hall, Torgerson revealed some new details about the CPS – which consists of a wall 9’ above sea level that would stretch from Lynn Hall Park down to behind where the Beacon motel now sits.
“Our engineer will explain the nuts and bolts of this better at our Thursday night meeting at Bay Oaks, but what we’re proposing is independent of the development,” Tom said. “It will keep the character of the downtown area while safeguarding civilian escape routes. We believe this can be done without a cost to wildlife habitat – in fact it will actually enhance turtle habitat – while allowing development at grade that’s not currently allowed there today.”
Torgerson explained that the critical component is the placement of what he calls an ‘armoring wall’.
“Right now, a seawall already exists at half of the 2,000 linear square feet of the project area,” he said. “That seawall is not consistent as it was constructed at different times in different places by different property owners. Our plan is to construct this armoring wall immediately seaward of the current walls, but in a coordinated plan and effort. It would be landward of the beach and would not accelerate beach erosion.”
He said that, while the CPS would be elevated to 9’, none of the wall would be visible to people walking on the beach.
“Keep in mind that Crescent Beach Park – right now – is elevated 6’,” he said. “This would have 15’ of dunes and vegetation in front of it, with the dune height reaching the height of the wall. From the landward side, it would stick up 42 inches – you can sit on it – with a public sidewalk or boardwalk that is between 6 feet and 12 feet wide.”
This boardwalk, he explained, serves another purpose as well.
“In the event of a catastrophic storm, waves breaking over the wall would come down on the boardwalk rather than scouring the wall system,” he said. “This would serve as the first area of protection in the event of a storm, and if/when the ‘big one’ comes, will protect structures landward of it and allow for rebuilding without having to adhere to the 50% rule. Since the system does not prevent flooding, we’ve created 11 accesses within the structure – varying in size from 6’ – 12’ – that are designed to allow floodwaters to come through the system. There will be a stub wall a short distance landward of these openings to serve as a velocity brake for the waves coming in.”
Torgerson said that he and his team have spent the last month and a half working with Turtle Time and Eve Haverfield to make sure the project will be safe for turtles.
“We want to make this project an example of how redevelopment can work with environmental groups to address issues,” he said. “There will be no direct light on the boardwalk, turtle friendly lighting on the buildings, and the buildings have been shifted so as to block the light from cars coming over the bridge from reaching the beach.”
After Torgerson concluded his presentation, MRTF members had a number of questions. When Tree Andre asked him how he came to be on Fort Myers Beach, Torgerson became a bit emotional as he described how passionate he is about our community.
“I started coming here in 1991 when I got sick of the frozen lakes in Minnesota,” he said. “My wife and I lived here for awhile on our boat, and rented a house while we were waiting for a new boat to be built.”
It was during that down time that Torgerson discovered that the Mermaid Club and the building housing the Cigar Hut were for sale, and decided to build ‘one last resort’.
“The mayor got wind of that and invited my partner and I to attend a meeting of the ad hoc committee tasked with looking at downtown redevelopment,” he said. “When we realized we had the opportunity to make some significant improvements, we started getting out the big scale paper and things got rolling. I love this area, and even though I may not have the long-term pedigree of some residents, I care deeply about what happens here.”
Chair Bill Veach asked what the CPS would do to the designations of flood zones landward of the wall.
“Does this turn a V-Zone into an A-Zone?” he asked. Tom replied that the wall results in the new buildings being able to be built at-grade rather then elevated 17 feet.
“Those buildings will be ‘dry-proofed’, which will be invisible to the public,” he said. “The whole island is in a flood zone, the elevation is so low that won’t change.”
Mary Rose Spalletta wanted to know about beach re-nourishment, and Torgerson replied the costs for that would be covered by Grand Resorts.
“For this system to work, there needs to be an additional 50’ of beach to what currently exists,” she said. “We’re going to have to add that, and probably redo it every 5-7 years.”
In the month’s time since the last public presentation at Chapel By the Sea, Torgerson’s team have changed the architecture of the proposed project a great deal – to the point where they’ve eliminated one of the hotels from the project entirely.
“Every rendering has been redone, and I believe we’ve added four new renderings,” Tom told us. “The first big thing we did was to remove the Hampton Inn entirely, and we took one story off of the Hilton building and the parking garage.”
That removal will now allow for an unobstructed view of the Gulf from the top of the Matanzas Pass Bridge – a view that many held sacred because they claim it convinced them to move to our emerald shores.
“We also ‘softened’ the look of the parking garage by adding tenant/lease space to the ground floor, which will make it look less like a giant wall,” Torgerson said. “These spaces will be perfect for services like law enforcement, and adds to the exterior view of the parking area.”
To address the issue of looking like ‘South Beach’, Tom’s team completely redesigned the Hilton from the ground up, and changed the Marriot to look more like Key West.
“One of the biggest changes we made was meant to address the ‘concrete canyon’ perception – we moved the Hilton into the area now occupied by Sunset Beach Grill’s parking lot, which leaves a 135’ wide opening going from the pedestrian mall to the beach in between the Hilton and the Holiday Inn. That area will become a plaza or a park.”
Another change is the acquisition of John Richard’s Ocean Jewel building, which will allow the roundabout to be made wider and easier to navigate.
“For pedestrians and cyclists coming over the bridge, we’ve added a ‘causeway’ that would take them over 5th Street into the first level of the parking garage, then to one of six different elevator banks headed to street level,” Tom told us.
When we asked specifically about the height restrictions contained in our Comp Plan and LDC, Torgerson replied that he believes there is some flexibility in the code where it pertains to the downtown area.
“While we plan to get into the topics of zoning and traffic at our February meeting, I would like people to look at vehicle day trips and the time of day they are made,” he said. “What we are designing is the type of usage that would generate the least amount of day trips. By creating destination resorts, our guests will not need or want to be in their cars. We are even planning a shuttle service to get them to and from the airport.”
To address the issue of Grand Resorts’ employees driving onto the island, Torgerson said they plan to run a shuttle for those who don’t live on the island to and from Summerlin Square.
“Not all employees will be coming at the same time, and they typically come before guests do and leave after they leave,” he said.
Torgerson once again asked everyone to ‘please keep an open mind’ and encouraged people to attend the monthly meetings and give feedback on Grand Resorts’ website – www.grandresortsfmb.com.
Keri Hendry Weeg