One of the next frontiers of development in Southwest Florida actually will not be a frontier at all. It will be previously developed land, near the heart of downtown Fort Myers, that will be revisited, reimagined and redeveloped.
Midtown—a concept to transform 243 acres just south of downtown Fort Myers into a modern, high-density, urban community—soon will be coming into better focus. The area borders Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the north, Fowler Street to the east, U.S. 41 to the west and Edison Avenue to the south. It essentially will be an extension of downtown Fort Myers.
The city of Fort Myers partnered with the University of South Florida-Florida Center for Community Design and Research on a 2018 vision for change. Four years later, not much has changed at all. But change is coming. It’s beginning to happen this year.
“It’s exciting to see action,” says Matt Simmons, a property appraiser with Hendry, Maxwell & Simmons. “Midtown, it’s ready. That location’s prime at this point. The plans for what’s going to happen in Midtown are consistent with the type of development most everyone will support: Development in an already-developed area.
“There are people coming. There’s no way around that. It’s only a matter of where are we going to place growing areas.”
First on deck
Change will begin with two apartment complexes located across Central Avenue from one another in the northeast quadrant of Midtown.
Joe Bonora of Catalyst, a Cape Coral High School graduate, continues his serial creation of apartment complexes. Most recently, he developed and sold Grand Central off U.S. 41 and then West End at City Walk, off McGregor Boulevard. Up next: Montage at Midtown, a 321-unit complex that should break ground later this year. The complex will border Union Street to the north, Victoria Avenue to the south, Jackson Street to the west and Central to the east. Like others, Bonora considers Midtown to essentially be “downtown south.”
“It’s really a part of the downtown core there,” Bonora says. “One thing that’s unique about Midtown is you have a large area where a significant amount of land is owned by the city or the county. You’ve got an area where you can almost start from scratch in terms of laying out a plan. It can attract people to the area. You’re really almost starting out with a blank slate. There’s a lot of opportunity there. That’s why it really appealed to me.”
Longtime Fort Myers real estate developer Randy Krise is, like Bonora, among the first to be a part of the Midpoint Vision Plan. Krise assembled the parcels off Fowler for $1.565 million and at 2115 Central Avenue for $825,000 in September 2020. The Rams Plaza shopping center is slated to be razed by the end of this year, Krise said, creating room for the 305-unit Aldea (“village” in Spanish) apartment complex. He envisions it to have a 540-car parking garage, a taco restaurant, a microbrewery and 30,000 square feet of street-level retail.
“Well, the need for apartments is genuine,” Krise says. “All the market studies, the demographics say it’s not going to abate any time soon. The land was cheap compared to other areas. And it’s going to be incorporated into downtown. When that gets done, you’ll think you’re in downtown.”
When the presses stopped
Although two big changes appear to be locked in, there continue to be public debates about what to do with two keystone city properties in Midtown.
Exhibit A: The property at 2442 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., which served as home of The News-Press for most of the 1970s until the newspaper shut down its printing press and vacated the building in 2019 and early 2020. The city of Fort Myers purchased it for $8.9 million in December 2019 with the idea of building a new headquarters for the Fort Myers Police Department.
It’s an idea that baffled some real estate experts, because of its prime location as the gateway to both downtown and Midtown from Interstate 75.
“I think they’re going to end up with a beautiful development on The News-Press property,” Krise says. “It will not be City Hall or a police station. That’s what I’m thinking. They (meaning the private sector) could do a magnificent project. A signature project that would be the heart of downtown.
“You could put a police station almost anywhere. But you can’t put a signature development almost anywhere.”
“I haven’t been shy about this,” Simmons says. “I really hope that proposal does not go forward with it being a police department. The former News-Press site is literally the front door to Midtown if you’re coming from I-75 into downtown. You’d be taking the prime corner and putting it into a municipal use that sometimes is a little bit intimidating to people. I don’t think the Midtown plan really anticipated or would benefit from any type of synergy from a massive police department at the corner of MLK and Fowler. It seems like a misuse of the property.”
Not all the experts agree on what to do with it, however. “I would find it to be a great police station,” says Stan Stouder, founding partner of CRE Consultants real estate brokerage firm. “The location is really central. It’s near the current police station. It would still give them great proximity for the areas they patrol. I really don’t see that being an office tower. I don’t really see it as an industrial site.”
For Stouder, building a high-rise apartment or condo complex at the former News-Press site, for example, didn’t resonate.
“The question would be ‘What’s your consumer income in that immediate area?’” Stouder says. “That’s what drives value. Would you rather live on the river, or would you rather live on Fowler and MLK? I don’t think there’s enough consumer income, based on the absorption of the riverfront towers. Those units aren’t selling like hotcakes. And they are vastly superior to living at the old News-Press location.”
One other idea, though, did grab Stouder’s attention: Attracting a large corporation to the News-Press site. Along the lines of a NeoGenomics or a Hertz or a Chico’s, all companies that relocated their corporate headquarters to Lee County.
“It’s got enough size to where you could put a substantial company there,” says Stouder. “If anything, it would have to be a use complementary to the federal courthouse and the county functions and the city functions. Isn’t that what a police department is? It’s very complementary to other municipal services. But I don’t think that location would support a high-end, residential facility.”
Resistance to change
The fiercest Midtown debates have turned into a political tug-of-war involving Exhibit B: City of Palms Park. Built in 1993 as the spring training home of the Boston Red Sox, its future has been unclear after the Red Sox departed for the Lee County-owned JetBlue Park at Fenway South complex in 2012. Since then, multitudes of ideas were considered. None of them came to fruition. After talks of converting the ballpark into a swimming center stalled, Lee County courted the Washington Nationals to relocate their spring training home there. The Nationals instead chose the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, a shared complex with the Houston Astros in West Palm Beach.
Major League Baseball teams have shied from renovating City of Palms Park because the practice fields are about a two-mile bus ride away at the eastern end of Edison Avenue.
During recent years of this limbo period, the ballpark has served as the home of Florida SouthWestern State College’s baseball and softball teams, the latter of which won a junior college national championship last season.
But FSW pays $12,000 a year in rent, while the city is paying about $500,000 a year in upkeep of the ballpark. It also has hosted youth baseball tournaments and games. But the cost of the upkeep vastly outweighs any revenue generated.
And over the years, City of Palms Park just hasn’t generated any more developments in the immediate vicinity. The whole idea behind building the ballpark in the first place was to reinvigorate the areas surrounding it. Instead, those areas have been stagnant, while most of the redevelopment over the past 30 years has taken place downtown.
The 2018 Midtown Vision Plan calls for demolition of the ballpark and turning it over to the private sector for redeveloping. Lee County offered to pay $1 million for demolishing it. But new mayor Kevin Anderson and a new-look city council want to do due diligence before razing it, and the Fort Myers city council voted to push the pause button on demolition. The move countered everything the Midtown Vision Plan discussed four years prior.
In January, the council discussed hiring the world’s largest international real estate consulting firm to shop the site to developers. CBRE’s executive vice president, Mike McShea, flew to Fort Myers from San Diego to plead his case for the council to hire his firm.
“We want to evaluate the market potential of the entire site,” McShea told the council. “We want to do an assessment of the density on this site. We’ve looked at the vision plan very carefully. We are not advocating anything [about] whether the stadium should come down now or later.”
The city would have paid $5,000 a month to CBRE for 10 to 15 months to find developers for the ballpark and the 25-26 acres surrounding it. That money would be refunded, and CBRE instead would profit from “success fees,” taking 3% and down to 1.5% of the value of the total project. The success fee would fall as the total value rises, but CBRE would profit more the bigger and denser the development.
“What I think is going to happen is you’re going to get the best and brightest in the world,” McShea told the council. “And they’re going to come back. And they’re going to tell you, ‘This is what we think you can do in Fort Myers.’ Invariably, the very best proposals rise to the top.”
The seven-member council, including Mayor Kevin Anderson, voted 5-2 against hiring CBRE. Anderson and especially council member Lin Bochette urged caution, saying they wanted to make sure that the city benefits in the future just as much as any developer would.
“We’re not in a hurry to make mistakes,” Bochette said at the council meeting.
Bochette would like to look at changing the stadium from a baseball one to a multi-use one that could hold high school football games and track and field events.
Council member Fred Burson, however, liked better the idea of saving the stadium’s office structure while finding a different use for the fields.
“I would like to save the stadium portion of City of Palms,” Burson says. “It could be office or retail or whatever. It’s still in pretty good shape. If they could save that portion of the stadium, we can build something else around it. We can create some synergy between downtown and the south end. Hopefully the development community would come together and fill in what’s in between.
“The stadium seating isn’t really of any economic use. The fields would be either park space or green space. I would like to see that be a type of park space and build around it. I’m a baseball guy, but the reality is I don’t see any economic viability of keeping it.”
One thing seems certain: Although the ballpark has remained almost the same for more than a decade since the Red Sox vacated it, things are more likely than not to change as this next decade unfolds.
“I could see that becoming a common area for the Midtown,” Stouder says. “I’m not saying Central Park, but it could be a very naturalized, softening, space for what could be high-density development around it. It could be a nice amenity. A walking area. You could do a lot of things that are symbiotic with a Midtown vision.”