Locals passionate about saving the Everglades Wonder Gardens restaurant building gathered at Bonita Springs City Hall on Thursday night to use their voices to preserve history.
In May, the Bonita Springs City Council voted unanimously to pursue demolition of the vacant city-owned building that was once the Wonder Gardens restaurant. Since the building is designated historic by the city’s Historic Preservation Board, the city can’t demolish what’s on the property without a certificate of appropriateness from the board. The board met Thursday to determine whether to grant the city the certificate.
There are seven criteria that the board considers when reviewing a demolition request. Some of the elements include whether the building is one of the last remaining of its kind in the city, if the building promotes general welfare of the city and if the building’s condition is unsafe.
In 2019, it was estimated that the building would cost more than $100,000 to renovate and the City Council was told that it has a mold problem inside. Ashley Piper, fourth-generation Bonita native and part of the Piper family that ran the Wonder Gardens, says mold isn’t an issue and that it would cost even more to tear it down. “The restaurant’s condition is far from what [council] says it is,” Piper said. “She is built with pure concrete with railroad tracks in her walls. And as any person knows, mold does not grow on concrete.”
Although the city has not confirmed what would replace the building, many have suspicions that the space will be turned into a parking lot to accommodate the new Imperial Crossing development being built across the street.
Noelle Cancel is the eldest great grandchild of Lester Piper who started the Wonder Gardens with his brother Bill. She has lived in Bonita for 43 years and worries that demotion will cause negative economic impact for the city. “Fact: The Wonder Gardens Restaurant and zoo will always attract more visitors than a parking lot and condos,” Cancel said. “Question: How can one man in office for two years be rewarded for destroying 100 years of history?”
Bonita Springs Mayor Rick Steinmeyer has been a member of council for less than two years and started the conversation in May of demolishing the building. However, Steinmeyer was not present at this week’s meeting, and neither were any other council members.
“One of them should have been there to hear what we needed to say, what the locals needed to say,” Piper said. “That just shows how much they truly care what we think, by not being there. That’s the part that ticked me off yesterday, that none of them were there to hear our voices.”
Under previous Wonder Gardens leadership, former CEO David Webb expressed that transforming the building into public parking would be best for the city. Now, as the board of directors for the Wonder Gardens has undergone change, so has their view on the importance of the building.
“Due to the significant increase in interest by residents of Bonita Springs, the patrons and Wonder Gardens insisting the building not be demolished and because of its historical and cultural significance, we’ve reconsidered our view and believe we have a viable alternative for the use of the facility, which will be palatable for all concerned,” Wonder Gardens Board Member Dr. Alan White said.
Before White’s time at the podium, this change of stance from the Wonder Gardens was unknown by many in the Bonita Springs community. Councilor Chris Corrie said that new perspective could change council’s opinions on what’s best for the property.
“If [the Wonder Gardens] doesn’t want it torn down, then I guess there’s no reason that I would choose to tear it down,” Corrie said. “But I do think that it’s on them to find the investor, find the business, get the thing up to code to make it ADA compliant because for months and months we’ve been working with them and going down this path of getting rid of that building.”
The Historic Preservation Board voted unanimously to deny the city’s request for demolition. Now, it is up to the city to either support the Wonder Gardens in finding a tenant for the building or appeal the board’s denial of the request. Councilor Corrie is worried that due to increased business competition in the downtown Bonita Springs area, this dispute could continue to go in circles.
“I think it’s going to be a big challenge because there’s already restaurants in Bonita Springs and with the Bamboo Village project there will be even more restaurants and plus you’ve got the food truck park going in,” Corrie said. “I have a feeling that in about a year form now, it’s going to be in the same place and we may have to revisit it at that point.”
Piper knows that the battle to save the Wonder Gardens restaurant is not nearly over and she will continue to voice her passion for saving the 80-year-old building that’s so close to her heart alongside many others that have fond memories inside the Bonita Springs attraction that many say put Bonita Springs on the map.
“I have a daughter and a granddaughter. My granddaughter is sixth generation here in Bonita,” Piper said. “I want her to be able to go to down Old 41 and see the same things I’ve seen with my eyes my whole life.”