The land is prime for redevelopment. The roughly 6-acre patch is stationed just a short walk from a top beach spot in Naples. The northern edge has water access. Much of it is vacant. All that currently stands are a few small buildings. An opportunity like this to redevelop west of U.S. 41 doesn’t come along that often.
And no one ever said it was going to be easy.
The land now is slated to become the luxurious One Naples development, right at the corner of Vanderbilt Beach Road and Gulf Shore Drive. Thousands walk by this plot of land on a daily basis during tourist season, to get a drink at the Beach Box Cafe or stop in at the Beach Store or dine at DaRuMa. But in the near future, it will be towers of condominiums: two rising up to 165 feet in the air, and three other mid-rise buildings. All in all, it’s 140 units offering views of the water or the landscape of Naples. The marina on Vanderbilt Lagoon will give residents a place to dock their boats. Bike paths wind around the community, and a small cafe and sundries shop will make it feel like a world of its own.
It’s luxury living Naples-style. Or is it Miami-style? And that’s why this development has been at the center of a heated discussion for the last four years or so. What started as a development with a 21-story condo tower and about 300 units total has been whittled down to its existing state, causing an uproar in the Vanderbilt Beach community in the meantime. A citizens group called Save Vanderbilt Beach garnered thousands of members and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight the development, saying it would lead their community toward a future in which high-rises dominate the skyline like South Miami. Naples-based developer Stock Development navigated years of community meetings, governmental hearings and plenty of angry emails and phone calls. “Something needed to be done there,” says developer Brian Stock. “At the end of the day, we felt like we did the right thing.”
Stock Development is known locally for its high-end single-family homes and communities, such as Lely Resort and Quail West. Stock and his father, K.C., started the business about 20 years ago and have branched out into developments across the state. More recently, they’ve ventured into commercial and condominium development. Which brings us to One Naples, which wasn’t even supposed to be a residential development at first.
Stock first eyed the land for a commercial space, for which the land was zoned. The idea was something like Mercato—an entertainment district with half a dozen restaurants. But the tide turned against that idea quickly. As much as 175,000 square feet of commercial space could have been built under the existing zoning, but the traffic it would have attracted to an already congested area would have been nightmarish, and its fit among the small condo developments would have not been pleasing to its neighbors. “I think it could have been successful there,” Stock says now. “But I didn’t think it was right for the area.”
Once Stock purchased the initial 3.55 acres of land for nearly $20 million in July 2017, conversations had already started about a residential plan. Hundreds of Vanderbilt Beach residents came to an open house of sorts at The Ritz-Carlton, where an initial plan for One Naples was presented in all its glory. It was 18 stories of condo units over a three-story parking garage. The 300 residences were spread out among the tower and several lower-rise buildings.
Buzz Victor came to that meeting. He’s a seasonal resident of Vanderbilt Beach, his home less than a mile from the development. He also has nearly 40 years of experience as a commercial developer, specializing in self-storage units. He took a look at the plans, asked a few questions and came to a conclusion: “It’s big; it’s really big.” He figured he had to do something.
They came to government meetings, to protests, wearing red. Their shirts had the words “Support Responsible Development” and listed the website of their organization: Save Vanderbilt Beach. Typically, when a controversial development is proposed, there’s some blowback from the neighbors. Perhaps a few dozen will speak out at a council meeting, maybe write a few letters to the editor or email their local representative. But Save Vanderbilt Beach was beyond typical. “I had no idea it would turn into what it turned into,” says Victor, who became the organization’s president.
Over time, more than 1,200 residents had registered to receive updates from its website. By the end, the organization had raised $140,000 in donations, spending it on legal consultants, traffic studies, architectural renderings, local ad buys and more. They posted detailed blog entries and videos against the development. Their efforts would serve as the greatest push-back on the developer (and one point during a county meeting, its lawyer claimed the group spread misleading information about the development; Save Vanderbilt countered that the developer was misrepresenting the size of the project in its renderings).
The terms “Miami-fied” and “Miamification” became commonplace. High-rise condos are popular in the Naples area—in fact, the developer is quick to point out that there are nine condo towers with 20-plus stories within half a mile of the One Naples site—but opponents say that One Naples would be setting a new precedent north of Vanderbilt Beach Road. If approved, it could lead to a snowball effect of other developers seeking approval of similar plans, leading to a “canyonization” of Gulf Shore Drive—high-rises lined one after another on both sides of the road. In a letter to county leaders, the president of the Vanderbilt Beach Residents Association wrote that One Naples would essentially give “Carte Blanche to developers to rebuild Vanderbilt Beach in the image of Miami Beach.”
All in all, Stock says this has been one of the more complex situations he’s had to navigate in his career. By his count, the company had been in communication with almost a dozen different neighborhood organizations, and held around 50 community meetings. The scaling back of the towers represented concessions he says he made after listening to the concerns of the residents. Stock also agreed to a series of commitments to the nearby area, including upgrades at two of the neighboring communities, improvements to Vanderbilt Beach Road and Gulf Shore Drive, extensive landscaping on the exterior and the addition of multi-use paths and pedestrian-friendly corridors along the community. “There were a lot of people involved, and there was a sensitivity to their concerns,” Stock says. “We wanted to go above and beyond.”
The wall was raised the Saturday before the final vote. In an act of protest, Save Vanderbilt Beach proponents raised a faux 35-foot wall near the One Naples property in late February 2021. It was just PVC pipe with a canvas covering, held up with the aid of a cherry picker, but it made their point: The wall alongside One Naples as proposed was going to be too tall for the area. It would create that canyon effect that they warned against. The opponents, dressed in red T-shirts and matching red masks, handed out fliers to tourists and residents passing by. The stunt was a stroke of marketing genius, a perfect visual for local media to consume. It was also their last chance to make an argument to deny One Naples before Collier County commissioners met on that Monday to decide its fate.
THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
After years, the final decision was here. It had taken a long route, not to mention some interesting turns of events during the governmental approval process. The county’s planning commission actually split the vote 3-3 on the recommendation to the commissioners to essentially approve One Naples, after chairman Edwin Fryer recused himself from the vote. The developer’s attorney had objected when Fryer circulated information he had compiled about the development before the meeting.
Then, the day of the special meeting to consider One Naples, the commissioners were thrown a bit of a curveball. In an 11th-hour change, the developer came forward with a new plan that reduced the number of units and height of the buildings, increased setbacks from the road and limited the number of slips in the marina. The developer also noted the intention to acquire the adjoining DaRuMa property, giving the property extra green space. The changes sent county staff scrambling to review the new plan, ultimately coming to the conclusion that the additional reductions allowed for a development more amenable in the neighborhood.
The meeting lasted 12 hours, with opponents speaking their minds in three-minute chunks during the public input session. However, supporters also spoke out. They frequently pointed out how appealing the project was compared to the expansive commercial property that could exist if the zoning wasn’t changed. One supporter was a next-door neighbor: Kevin Dugan, owner of Buzz’s Lighthouse restaurant and the Lighthouse Inn. The quaint establishment had been family-owned and operated for about 40 years. “I fully understand the controversy surrounding this development,” Dugan told the commissioners. “And it does not matter what is proposed here. All will be met with opposition.
I was born and raised on Vanderbilt Beach. Times sure have changed. If we could only have stopped development in the ’80s—unfortunately, that was not an option and will not be an option. … We don’t want to turn into a South Beach. And that’s what commercial (development) would do.”
Commissioner Andy Solis, who represents Vanderbilt Beach, expressed the same concern: “I’ve lived in District 2 since 1993. I understand the neighborhood. I also understand what being in a development like Mercato is. My office was in Mercato for many years. Having this developed intensely as commercial property would fundamentally change the neighborhood.”
Commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of the zoning change and the other amendments that allowed One Naples to move forward. Commissioner Penny Taylor was the lone dissenter, objecting to the lack of time to consider the last-minute changes and the development itself. She noted the strong opposition to the project. “This has been an unfortunate day for Collier County because what we weren’t doing is working with the people in the neighborhood where this will sit,” she said. “I’m not saying this is a bad development. I’m saying this is too intense for the area.”
Stock Development is now looking forward to breaking ground on the high-rises, possibly next year. It wasn’t what they first dreamed up, but Stock is excited for what the final iteration will look like. “I feel good about the scope and the scale,” he says. “This will add value to the community.”
Victor says the opposition should feel proud of the influence they had on the proceedings. Overall, he still thinks the development is a bit too out of scale, but it’s not as bad as it could have been. He plans on keeping Save Vanderbilt Beach around, too. He thinks the county is too developer-friendly. The organization’s next move may be to exert its influence on the next round of elections via endorsements, or maybe even putting up candidates of their own. “We have some political clout,” he says. “We don’t want to lose it.”
Victor still enjoys living in Vanderbilt Beach, but he can’t help looking around at those smaller condo units built decades ago that developers will be eyeing. Before you know it, he said, new high-rises will crowd the landscape and the neighborhood will have a totally different vibe. “It won’t happen next week,” he says, “but it will happen.”