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Second wind

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  • | 11:00 a.m. November 27, 2015
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Executive Summary
Industry. Development Trend. Urban revival Key. A second wave of development is coming to downtowns such as Fort Myers.

Bob MacFarlane is a pioneer — for the second time.

In 2004, the developer was the first to build a condo tower in downtown Fort Myers in two decades. “Most people thought he was crazy to build this tower,” says his daughter, Rebekah MacFarlane Barney, director of operations with The MacFarlane Group. The hugely successful Beau Rivage led to two more condo towers along the Fort Myers riverfront before the real estate collapse halted new development.

So it's no surprise that MacFarlane is back with several more residential projects in downtown Fort Myers in the second wave of development now that the recovery is firmly underway.
“Now they're leading us out of a recession,” says Don Paight, executive director of the Fort Myers Community Redevelopment Agency. “They're really the pioneers.”

Fort Myers is experiencing a similar revival happening in other downtowns on the Gulf Coast, including St. Petersburg, Tampa and Sarasota. Baby boomers and young millennials are seeking urban lifestyles that let them walk from home to work and play.

According to city officials, MacFarlane and others are planning $500 million worth of new condos, shops and offices in the downtown Fort Myers area. “We're post recession and there's a lot of capital to be deployed,” says Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson, himself a real estate investor downtown.

During the recession, city officials continued to spend money on infrastructure such as a water-retention basin that would solve water-runoff issues for future development. “Now, we can permit a 225-room hotel,” says Henderson, referring to a Sheraton-flagged convention center hotel that is scheduled to be built next year adjacent to Harborside Event Center.

“Now, the city is super prepared,” says Barbara Bengochea-Perez, sales and marketing director for Jaxi Builders, a Miami-based developer that is planning to build 292 waterfront condos downtown in two towers called Allure.

Bengochea-Perez notes that recent resales of existing condos in downtown Fort Myers have reached $300 a square foot, an important threshold that will give developers confidence they can build new condos in the area. “Sales [at Allure] will start next month,” she says.

Already, downtown is home to 56 restaurants, bars and nightclubs and 39 shops. Some complain parking is tight, an indication of its appeal as a destination. City officials are working on planning for a new 600-car garage.

Farther south, the downtown area is anchored by the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, which hosted about 250,000 visitors over the last 12 months, up 5% from the year before, says Chris Pendleton, the president and CEO.

Adjacent to Edison Ford, the once-dormant First Street Village project on a vacant eight acres is getting renewed interest from developers who want to build 340 residential units and 75,000 square feet of shops and restaurants.

Restaurants have already moved into the area in anticipation. For example, the Phelan family that owns Pincher's Crab Shack acquired a yacht club adjacent to Edison Ford and opened a waterfront restaurant and banquet facility there. “The restaurant is doing better than we expected it to, and the banquet facility is getting busier,” says Grant Phelan, co-owner of Pincher's.

More apartments and condos
Paight estimates 1,200 new residences are in various stages of sales and development. “That's leading us out of the recession pretty quickly,” he says.

MacFarlane is currently spending $60 million in the first phase of redevelopment of a 24-story shuttered hotel that's long been a pink eyesore into 323 rental apartments for older people called Campo Felice. The second $44 million phase will include an adjacent assisted-living and memory care apartments.

In addition, MacFarlane says her development firm is planning 176 condos in two riverfront towers called Prima Luce and plans to close on the land in January. MacFarlane says she expects buyers from as far as Naples and Bonita Springs to consider the Fort Myers condos.

Both MacFarlane and Bengochea-Perez are encouraged by the fact that resales of condos have reached $300 a square foot in downtown Fort Myers. “They're moving up, that's what's great,” MacFarlane says.

“We want to be right within that range,” says Bengochea-Perez. Already, she says, condos in Bonita Springs and Naples are commanding prices more than $500 a square foot.

Fort Myers City Councilman and architect Michael Flanders has been spearheading a project to create a vehicle corridor from U.S. 41 via Edison Avenue to the Edison and Ford Winter Estates. That would steer more traffic to the southern area of downtown, including First Street Village.

“That Edison Avenue alignment is going to be very important,” Flanders says. “I know in the planning stages there's more on the boards now than in about the last five years.”

On another waterfront parcel, New York developer Steve Israel plans to resurrect another condo tower called The Vue. That 18-story tower will have 133 condos, Paight says.

Still, don't expect the go-go years of the mid-2000s to return. The condo projects likely will need to sell half the units before construction begins and lenders will scrutinize the buyers to make sure they're not speculators. “It's still tough to finance projects,” Paight says.

Key to hotel
The city and Lee County are spending $9 million to renovate Harborside Center, which could host conventions once a 225-room Sheraton hotel is built next door. City officials say construction on the hotel could begin next summer.

“When the hotel breaks ground we'll get a written commitment to get Columbia Restaurant,” says Mayor Henderson, referring to the well-known Tampa chain.

Others are watching, too. “That is a real important part of this equation,” says David Fry, the former CEO of WCI Communities who is considering building a mixed-use development downtown. “A lot of people are hanging their hat on that hotel getting started.”

Fry says he's considering building a seven-story building with retail on the ground floor, offices on the second and third floors and condos on the remaining floors across the street from the Sidney and Berne Davis Art Center. He's reserving the seventh-floor penthouse for himself. “Living where you work and living where you play is kind of cool,” Fry says.


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