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Zero in on Estero

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  • | 10:00 a.m. September 5, 2014
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Estero used to be the no-man's land between Fort Myers and Naples.

But the housing boom changed all that as new gated residential communities and a regional mall sprouted on an area that used to be dotted with farms and cow pastures. Now, car-rental colossus Hertz is building its global corporate headquarters in the middle of it all on U.S. 41.

Landowners are entitled to build another 7 million square feet of commercial space on the remaining land in the area, prompting widespread speculation on what will happen next. It's a staggering amount of space — enough space to fill nearly 122 football fields — much of it concentrated around three miles of U.S. 41.

Already, developers have built 4.5 million square feet of commercial space in Estero and many questioned whether there was enough demand to nearly double that. “The gut assumption was it wasn't going to be sustainable,” says Seth Harry, of Seth Harry & Associates, a land-use and planning firm based in Maryland that has advised a local community group called the Estero Council of Community Leaders.

Complicating matters, area voters will decide in November whether to incorporate Estero and create a new town. It's uncertain whether a town council will look favorably on any new development plan.

“What we're having difficulty with right now is that we're going to have to see who gets elected,” says Greg Toth, a real estate investor in the area.

This is important because the kinds of developments that residents and landowners are considering will require higher density than is currently allowed. For example, apartments for workforce rentals and senior housing may need to be 24 units per acre where only six per acre is allowed now.

The challenge was clear at a recent community meeting to discuss future development ideas. Even as Harry suggested that denser development could make it easier for people to get around without a car, residents still stood up to voice their concerns that allowing more dense development would cause more traffic congestion.

Landowners need higher densities because land they acquired during the boom years may not provide the kinds of returns they expected, even in today's recovering market. For example, land that was originally purchased for shops may not generate the kinds of investment return that an apartment building would today.

“Developers have been sitting on properties for a very long time and have a significant carrying cost,” Harry says. “They're trying to recover their investment in a way that is compatible with the community's interests.”

Because there's already so much retail and single-family housing inside gated communities, Estero residents have sought developers who might build apartments, senior housing and health care facilities.
Harry has helped them identify three areas that might be appropriate for higher densities: the area around the Hertz headquarters off U.S. 41 south of Corkscrew Road, the Coconut Point mall and land owned by Lee Memorial Health System.

The idea is to create a plan before the land is sold or developed. “If there's something you want that's not there, now is the time to make your desires known,” says Harry.

Follow Jean Gruss on Twitter @JeanGruss


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