When I returned to Southwest Florida 22 years ago, I moved into the Miles Building on McGregor Boulevard, right downtown.
I loved that Fort Myers had such a unique center. The lure of historical buildings and a spectacular location on the Caloosahatchee River is unrivaled along on the west coast of Florida.
But in the late 1980s, the vibrancy of the past had been sucked out to the suburbs.
Still, there was so much potential. Fort Myers had all the makings of a great city: an interesting history, reasonably maintained buildings, a diverse economy. Most importantly, “time” had provided the opportunity for the city to evolve and grow without feeling artificial. Top that off with extraordinary waterfront real estate.
Then, I left for London. I returned 15 years later to find little had changed, despite major efforts over the years to bring downtown alive. I was disheartened but, on the positive side, no major disasters had occurred.
Currently, the new streetscape is helping the city break out of its dormant period — an important first step. Small improvements are cropping up everywhere. Collectively, these efforts contribute to the atmosphere that “downtown is back.”
But if Fort Myers aspires to the success of numerous cities around the country, larger objectives are necessary to achieve something more profound.
Downtown must become a destination and the riverfront location positively exploited for public use.
Chicago, though much larger, is comparable. A critical decision to reserve the lakefront for the public is the envy of other cities. Places like Detroit, which used its riverfront for manufacturing, struggle. Fort Myers remains a blank slate.
The city is making progress with Aquest Realty Advisors — brought on to create a development plan for the riverfront property.
Leading the team are local architects Parker Mudgett Smith; design firm Populous, formerly HOK Venue; and retail developer Boorn Partners.
Aquest’s objectives are to expand Harborside, construct an adjacent hotel, consider parking and incorporate mixed-use entertainment components. The five-acre area of public and private land parallels the river and is bordered by Centennial Park, Harborside and the Yacht Basin..
Aquest understands the challenges faced by struggling urban areas, and has experience in making public-private proposals financially viable.
So far, genuine optimism has been generated. But skepticism is understandable. Over the past 20 or so years, citizens have seen repeated investment without results.
John Shreve, lead architect from Populous, spearheading the master plan, believes that “by creating a distinct focus downtown, currently absent, people will gather, enjoy a stroll along the river, dine outside and collectively appreciate the things that give Fort Myers its unique qualities — fine historical buildings, an intimate scale, a distinctive heritage, the water, cool breezes, shadow and light, and layers of green.”
The current proposal makes the most of its location by extending City Pier, with an active boardwalk of restaurants and other attractions. This element pulls the city out into the river.
In a bold move, a major water feature cuts in at Hendry Street, all the way back to First Street — and the river finds its way into town. The rationale is two-fold: first, to create an active and vibrant water by increasing water frontage and second, as an environmental strategy to filter and clean stormwater runoff before it’s returned back into the river.
Centennial Park is expanded as a water park with walkways and a fishing pier around the mangroves — an emphasis on pedestrian access.
This scheme makes the most of the city’s great asset, the Caloosahatchee.
Parts of the new proposal feel confident and daring — these components will create the focus Shreve mentions. Other ideas are tried and tested principles of good city planning that make streets walkable, inviting and active.
This new master plan is exciting and looks achievable financially.
What we now need is leadership, vision and a cooperative spirit to make this attempt a success.
I have a thriving architectural business downtown. Selfishly, I want the city’s efforts to pay off.
For everyone else, the River District is the most precious community real estate we have. It makes sense to re-establish it as the center of our community. Not only will it visually enhance the city, but it stimulate the local economy.
The benefits of creating a safe and economically viable center for all ages to gather will be one of the most significant efforts we make for future generations.