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Are Walkable Communities Viable in Southwest Florida?

Richard Borge

Imagine driving from your house in the morning and then parking your car where everything—and place—you’ll need for the day is in close proximity.

You stroll to a coffee shop, order the usual and sip on it while walking the next block or so to work. When 5 p.m. hits, you take a short hike to the neighboring pub to join your coworkers for happy hour or to the restaurant down the block for a bite to eat with your spouse. Your feet, not car, become your vehicle. That’s the life Southwest Florida officials and planners envision.

“What they’re trying to do is reduce the amount of traffic by providing residents with commercial opportunities that are close enough to them that they can walk or bike to them, and would be inclined to do so,” says Steve Hartsell, chair of Urban Land Institute Southwest Florida.

Southwest Florida’s population of 1.2 million is projected to reach about 1.5 million by 2023, according to the Southwest Florida Economic Development Alliance. “The vision and goal is to prepare for [growth] in high-quality ways,” says Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson, who held an October symposium on walkable urban communities.

Baby Boomers and millennials are currently fueling the growth, Henderson says. Creating walkable, mixed-use areas would make it easy for retirees to rejoin the community, and the independent businesses that urban areas support would be an incentive for young entrepreneurs and college students to come—and stay—here.

Downtown Naples and Fort Myers already include the basic makings of a walkable urban community: a mix of business offices, shopping, dining, arts and entertainment, and onsite or nearby residential options.

Henderson says the City of Fort Myers has spent $70 million of public money to make the downtown area attractive to people and businesses.

Planners in other parts of Lee County, such as the Village of Estero and Bonita Springs, are factoring interconnected urban spaces into development projects.

In addition to livening up downtown with office, dining and entertainment options,

Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson wants to design pockets with mixed-use buildings that are short car or bus rides away from one another.

Estero planners are working with landowners to create a mixed-use village center, anchored by a new Lee Memorial Health System campus that will sit south of Coconut Point. It’s expected for completion in mid-2018.

Currently, the only hint of walkable areas near the village include Coconut Point, Miromar Outlets and Gulf Coast Town Center. “About 60 percent of those huge retail centers are coming from outside of Estero, so from an economic standpoint, those are the engines that are driving the area,” says Village of Estero Vice Mayor Howard Levitan.

But those shopping centers primarily consist of national stores. “If you build a big mall, you have a lot of things that small businesses can’t provide, and it’s not really great because there are not small businesses available,” says Bill Spikowski of Spikowski Planning Associates, who is a lead consultant in Estero’s development projects.

Creating other mixed-use communities would give small local business an opportunity to thrive, he says.

There are some issues to be addressed when planning projects in Southwest Florida, and one of them is lack of density. “When you have population centers that are higher densities, it promotes mixed-use development. But you have to have people to make it work. You need people to make the commercial aspects work,” says Hartsell.

But Nelson says the old saying, “If you build it, people will come” can be true in walkable urban development. If interconnected communities include spaces for businesses to rent and places for people to enjoy, they will.

“There’s a synergy that happens and I think that it can be a delicate balance but sometimes it’s hard to get kick-started,”

Nelson says. “But the city has invested a lot of time and a lot of heart and a lot of money, and I think we’re right on the cusp of it." GB

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