After the Bonita Springs City Council unanimously decided recently to pursue demolishing the former Everglades Wonder Gardens restaurant on Old 41 Road, the city’s Historic Preservation Board and Historical Society have been speaking out strongly to save the building.
City Council based its decision on the high cost necessary to renovate the building, which has been vacant for three years, as well as future plans to develop that surrounding area of downtown Bonita. Historians argue that the building, built in 1947, was designated historic by the preservation board in 2017.
“I feel like, unfortunately, sometimes there is a lack of direction on what is occurring in Bonita between City Council, the businesses of Downtown Bonita and the redevelopment that’s happening,” Historical Society president Derrick Botana said.
The city has owned the land of Everglades Wonder Gardens since 2015. Now, as the old Bamboo Village property across the street is planned for the Imperial Crossings project, there are concerns about lack of parking for the Wonder Gardens. The longtime staple of Bonita Springs attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year.
Everglades Wonder Gardens President and CEO David Webb sees demolition of the building as what’s best for the quickly developing downtown area. “If they’re able to transform [the old restaurant] into public parking that will be great for our guests,” Webb said. “Otherwise, you’re going to have to walk up to half a mile to get to the Wonder Gardens.”
The empty building has been popping up on council agendas since 2019 when Wonder Gardens requested to transform the building into an educational center through a $100,000 pledge from a donor. The donor withdrew the pledge after the city took too long to get the project approved.
“Our board of directors decided that, especially after losing the pledge we had, that it was really just kind of a waste of time,” Webb said. “In order to fix that building up it would have cost much more than we initially thought because it sat there for another three years and deteriorated.”
In 2019, it was estimated the costs to renovate the building would be more than $100,000. The building has water leaking through the roof which has caused a mold problem.
“There’s a lot of issues with the property and if we even wanted to get it up and moving, there are so many things that we would have to do from a city level,” Bonita Springs Councilor Jesse Purdon said. “You have to ask the question, is the juice worth the squeeze?”
When the preservation board met late last month to discuss the potential demolition, other options were discussed such as relocating the building to another location or using its own funds to assist renovation of the public building. Bonnie Whittemore serves on the preservation board and was shocked when she heard council’s viewpoint of the historical site.
“The saddest thing of all is when the city, including the mayor, says they want to tear it down and make it a parking lot,” Whittemore said. “To me, that is a big sin.”
Although more parking is what has been assumed by many will replace the building, if demolished, there is not a confirmed plan for what will be done with the land.
“With such valuable real estate, we have to get the highest and best use and I just really feel like getting that building down is probably the first step,” Purdon said. “Parking with a bioreactor under it, to me, I would be pleased with something like that because you’re solving environmental problems and parking issues at one time, for a building that currently is not being utilized at all.”
Under city ordinance, demolition of a historic building cannot happen without a Certificate of Appropriateness from the preservation board. However, since the land in question is owned by the city, there is potential for this rule to be avoided.
“The historic board is under the city, we don’t have to ask them for anything,” Purdon said. “Everything that they have and do comes to us, not the other way around.”
Both the preservation board and the historical society have made plans to approach the council and the Everglades Wonder Gardens on what they think is best for the historic building.
“We have a one-time shot to do this right and if we don’t do it, Bonita is going to look like a hodge-podge mess,” Botana said. “I’m all for supporting revitalization, but we’ve got to be careful.”