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Downtown Fort Myers Renaissance

The renaissance taking place in Fort Myers River District promises striking architectural towers, a boardwalk along the river and even an island park


When Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson talks about what’s going on in the downtown River District, he has a hard time containing his enthusiasm. There’s no question he likes what he sees regarding the development of key projects there, and eagerly talks about the overall direction of the riverfront and adjacent areas.

            Henderson rattles off data about dozens of residential and commercial development projects underway or in the planning stages as if reading the info, until you realize it’s in his head. He has a thorough understanding of just how critical the development of the River District is, and what it means to the success of Fort Myers.

            The mayor is a firm believer in the direction the city has taken and is excited about the variety of residential, hotel and other real estate projects coming online in the future. Always giving credit to the Fort Myers City Council and the Downtown Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), along with so many other entities, Henderson speaks with confidence about what has been accomplished.

            “Back during the recession years, around 2000, our city leaders were able to foresee that it would not last forever, and moved forward with permitting and building the infrastructure that we would need …,” he says. “Road improvements, the water basin work, the telecommunication needs—we all had the resolve to make sure that when the downtown development came back, we were ready.”

            A key indicator of downtown growth is the Luminary Hotel, being built adjacent to Harborside Event Center. This project was the center of a title dispute between the city and heirs of the landowners who deeded the property to the city decades ago—with the caveat that it never be used as a commercial development site. When the city pursued title insurance for the property and construction, the dispute came to light.

            As of this writing, Henderson says the city has reached an agreement with the family members of the land’s former owners, to develop a 2.6-acre island park in the Caloosahatchee River in exchange for clear title to the land under the Luminary Hotel. “The final decision will come from the court, but we feel confidant that everybody—family members, attorneys for both sides, and the city—have come to a solution that will provide a living legacy to these prominent Fort Myers icons,” he explains.

Legacy Park

The island, to be called Legacy Park, is located just east of the twin-span bridge as you head north on what many still call “Old 41” into North Fort Myers. It will include a nature trail and beach area, and be operated under the Parks & Recreation Department.

            Tampa-based Mainsail Lodging & Development is developing the Luminary Hotel, scheduled to open in 2020. Plans call for a luxurious hotel, along with multiple restaurants, bars and other commercial businesses.  

            CRA executive director Michelle Hylton-Terry sees the Luminary as a catalyst to the continued growth in the River District: “I think many developers and investors were waiting to see what happened with that project. It has instilled confidence in others who were waiting for the right time to partner up with the city to create a downtown area that would be an example of how it should be done.”

            Well before these efforts, others dipped their toes into the waters of providing residential opportunities along the downtown riverfront, including the developers of Oasis, Riviera, High Point Place, Alta Mar and Pointe Royale condominiums. Dating back to the early 2000s, these developments faced adversity in marketing their products because of the global real estate recession, but are currently seeing renewed interest in the River District real estate market.

The Master Plan

The River District’s growth has been a long road. In 2002, Fort Myers enlisted the help of renowned architect/urban planner Andres Duany. Henderson says the city has been following Duany’s plan. The city also has state approval and the funds to rebuild east First and Second streets into two-way thoroughfares, with construction set for the second or third quarter of 2019. Henderson notes that residential developers have paid fees to support those construction projects, along with state and city funds, and the work is expected to take 18 to 24 months.

            MacFarlane Barney Development, headed by CEO Robert MacFarlane and his daughter, chief operating officer Rebekah MacFarlane Barney, is no stranger to downtown. Years ago, it developed the Riviera, Beau Rivage and St. Tropez condos along the Caloosahatchee. The firm’s development team was also involved in the Campo Felice project, and has since moved on to planning other major new projects in the district.

            MacFarlane Barney’s Prima Luce will be its fifth and sixth towers shaping downtown’s skyline—22 floors each, with 220 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom residences. It’s located at 2631 First St.; currently 50 units have sold, with several more under reservation. Situated on 325 feet of riverfront, Prima Luce features will include boat docks, a huge swimming pool, business center and social rooms. Owners may visualize their new condo via a high-tech, interactive process in which they select custom colors and high-end finishes to complete their home online. Prices range from the $200,000s to more than $1 million.

            Prima Luce has broken ground on construction of a new seawall, and site work permits are in place. Construction is tentatively slated to begin in the first quarter of 2019 and is expected to be completed by 2020.

            “The River District of downtown Fort Myers offers the best of everything—excitement and events of a big city, the quaint charm of a historic small town and the breathtaking natural beauty of Southwest Florida,” says Rebekah MacFarlane Barney. “People want to live, work and play in this uniquely vibrant community … It’s our home, too.”

 Boardwalk Along the River

Every riverfront development in that area of First Street is required by the city to contribute to a continuous public boardwalk directly along the Caloosahatchee. The boardwalk will be comprised of 10-foot-wide pavers, making it easy for people to access the growing social and business entities found downtown—while minimizing interaction with vehicular traffic.

            One of the most innovative new projects is the aforementioned Campo Felice, on Edwards Drive across from the city-owned Fort Myers Yacht Basin. The vision of Rob Harris and his former partner Robert MacFarlane, this once Sheraton and Amtel Hotel, now a beautifully renovated building, is an upscale, independent-living community in which people 55 or older rent well-appointed apartment homes.

           There are 323 units, 102 of which are already occupied. Residents of the 24-story building can dine in three restaurants and the Bar Luca, which all offer beautiful views of the water and sunsets. Residents can dance in the ballroom, catch a movie in the cinema, and take a dip in the large heated saltwater pool as well as visit the beauty salon and the fitness center—all without leaving the property. 

           Campo Felice’s executive director, Tara O’Sullivan, welcomes people to tour and indulge in a delicious, gourmet meal prepared by the chefs. “Our residents enjoy our continental menu that includes filet mignon, lamb lollipops and shrimp every day. We offer seasonal offerings in our daily specials and live music in our bar for friends to socialize and enjoy the life in downtown Fort Myers,” says O’Sullivan.

           Owner Rob Harris and his team have plans in place to also develop an adjacent property near the corner of Fowler and First streets. He anticipates a mix of assisted living residences in a nine-story building, with medical offices and other services related to the care of older residents.

           Just across First Street from the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center will be The Place on First, a building that will have a slightly different twist. The brainchild of David Fry, former top executive at developer WCI, The Place on First has done some adjusting to its master plan in order to better fit the market.


            “Originally, we were going to do a mixed-use type of building, with restaurants and retail on the ground floor, offices on the next three floors and condos above, topped with a rooftop pool,” explains Fry. “Over time, I decided to alter the concept to do away with the office space and instead look for the right partner to do a 100-room hotel there. We’re still planning on two floors of very cool condominiums there, but only 12 units.”

            Fry says the building is fully approved and he is awaiting design plans and drawings to obtain permitting. He’s negotiating with three hotel firms to ensure one will be the right match. “I bought the building in 2013 and was waiting to make sure the Luminary Hotel project was going to move forward. … The downtown Fort Myers area is poised for significant growth …”

            Miami-based JAXI Builders is another player, planning ONE, a 21-story, boutique-style building with two units per floor. Homes range from 1,500 to more than 5,000 square feet, and have expansive private balconies; energy-efficient, impact-resistant windows/sliding doors; smart technologies and private elevators. Sales and marketing director Barbara Bengochea-Perez says, “We have reservations on almost 50 percent of ONE residences, and we feel the timing is perfect for the unique type of project we’re creating.”

            JAXI is also marketing its Allure building, twin 32-story towers with 1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom residences, to be located at 2601 First St. The towers will be home to 280 homes, and Bengochea-Perez says they have more than two dozen units under reservation. Prices are from the upper $300,000s to more than $2 million.

            Bengochea-Perez explains: “We feel real estate is changing from ‘location, location, location’ to something I call ‘WTD.’ Walkability and waterfront are key components to our project, tech and transportation are what people want in their lives, and destination and demographics are revealing to us a new, younger buyer …”

More Signs of Growth

The mayor points to many other signs of growth. The shopping center called First Street Village is to be adjacent to City Walk, planned for just south of the Publix-anchored plaza along McGregor Boulevard near the intersection of Victoria Avenue.

            Covering just under 8 acres, the property is slated for a mixed-use blend of residential, commercial and hotel space in a multi-story design. It’s now a vacant lot and the developer has indicated the hotel there will carry one of the Marriott brand names. City Walk Fort Myers LLC acquired the land from Madison Ave Investment Group LLC, and hopes to break ground before the end of 2018.

            And although not technically in the River District, Henderson is excited about the city’s plan for what is now being called the Midtown District, encompassing Gardner Park and Dean Park. “We’re going to be looking at a $20 million to $30 million investment in the infrastructure there,” he says. “And utilizing smart growth initiatives and working with the right private partners to develop and repurpose that area into affordable housing for folks of all ages who want to live near downtown.”

            Henderson mentions the Bradford Block, also known as Smith Block because of its ownership and development by the Bill Smith family, known locally for a chain of appliance stores. The properties include some vacant parcels, and buildings housing a bank, the Arcade Theatre, a law firm and several smaller businesses. “North American Properties is planning some awesome things there, including apartments, retail and restaurant space, a parking garage and some exciting plans for the historic Hall of 50 States building along Edwards Drive.”

            The mayor clearly has a solid belief in the downtown area’s future. “I’m proud of the city and our people who had the foresight to ensure we had the critical infrastructure in place to accommodate the right type of growth we need downtown,” Henderson says. “In the next six to eight years, I see $1 billion in investment within 1 mile of the downtown Fort Myers.”

Kelly Madden, a 50-year Lee County resident, is a former TOTI Media managing editor and frequent contributor.