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Less is more? Grand Resorts unveils some new looks it hopes will please, but seawall remains a sore subject  

January 18, 2016
By John Morton ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Scaling down and softening up. Those were the philosophies in play Thursday as Grand Resorts developers updated about 300 residents at the Bay Oaks Recreational Center with a revised game plan.

Many significant changes have been made, most notably the removal of a floor of the Hilton Hotel, from seven floors to six and eliminating 43 rooms, and also the removal of a floor of a parking garage, from four to three and eliminating about 350 stalls.

Next, developer Tom Torgerson said the Hilton will take on a "Key West" look instead of the "South Beach" look it originally had.

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The new conceptual renderings show what developers are calling an 'old Floridian' look.

"We're going with an old-Floridian kind of look," he said to thunderous applause at what was the second local public outreach meeting, with several more to follow on a monthly basis. Thursday's two-and-a-half hour meeting was the first in which the public could ask direct questions in a public setting, with the sea wall and architecture being the topics, and the response varied from complimentary to contentious.

Still, the gathering was far calmer than the initial meeting on Dec. 14 at the Chapel by the Sea's Silver Hall that brought boos and grumbling over a lack of seats and a lack of air conditioning.

"In the last 30 days, I've sensed some level of fear eroding people feeling, 'Hey, this project isn't moving at the speed of light.' And it's not," said Torgerson, who has yet to file an application with the town and the county for his 10-acre, $250 million massive redevelopment of downtown Fort Myers Beach.

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It will feature three hotels, a pedestrian mall extending from Times Square complete with a 1,000-seat convention center, dozens of street-level retail storefronts, a roundabout and re-routing of Estero Boulevard, a parking garage with elevators, plus a half-mile 8-foot-wide boardwalk and seawall complete with dunes. It will run between the Mermaid Lounge's current location and where the Sunset Tropical Grille now stands, with the seawall extending all the way to the end of Lynn Hall Memorial Park.

"We've made an awful lot of adjustments and what you see today still is unlikely what will be proposed. We still want and need the public's input to help us massage it. We want your fingerprint on this."

On next month's agenda (date to be determined) will likely be the topics of traffic, parking and zoning, Torgerson said. He felt it important to break down the project into great detail, step by step.

"It was too much to digest in just one presentation," he said in reference to the hour-long overview at the tumultuous first meeting.

Adjustments are many

The other changes now in place:

The recent purchase by Torgerson of the 62-space parking lot that used to serve the former Top o' Mast Lounge allows for the Hilton to be moved 100 feet to the north, now occupying that space and part of where Crescent Beach Family Park now sits. Lee County owns the park and has yet to sell it to Torgerson. The move allows the Hilton and Marriott AC buildings to be spread apart, providing for an open-air plaza that will allow for better pedestrian flow; an 11th beach access, this one large enough for emergency vehicles; public bathrooms; more natural light; and gulf views from both land and the Sky Bridge.

Speaking of the Sky Bridge, an artist's rendering of what the developers says is fit to scale of how the hotels look from the bridge's apex now shows views of the gulf beyond the Hilton's rooftop, thanks to one fewer floor. To its left, the plaza area now allows for an entirely open view from the bridge.

A Hampton Inn, first proposed to be within the Hilton, is now out of the equation, leaving just the Hilton, Marriott and a Holiday Inn at the southern point of the development. The totals number of rooms has dropped from 562 to 519.

Coming off the bridge, creation of an open-air causeway will take bicyclists and walkers directly to the parking garage at street level. However, a proposed sky walk from the garage to the Hilton has been eliminated.

The recent purchase of the Ocean Jewel property gives breathing room for the roundabout, which can now be as wide as two lanes but change is yet to be determined. For now, however, it allows for the addition of a dedicated lane for taxis, buses and trolleys to access the development for drop-offs.

The parking garage's loss of a floor brings the spaces to about 1,100 - 600 of which the developer projected would be limited to hotel use. The structure will also feature a "softening" of its concrete look with the addition of retail space at the pedestrian-mall side and non-retail commercial space (such as medical or law enforcement) along Crescent Street. Landscaping has also been added to the mix.

Fountains first designed for the center of the roundabout have been deemed a driving distraction and have been moved to the entrance of the pedestrian mall, next to where replicas of the beach's iconic arches are designated.

The hotels, at both gulf side and pedestrian-mall side, will now feature an abundance of balconies and colonnade supports to deliver the Key West look.? ?

A wall of great debate

With the aesthetic changes apparently well received, the seawall, however, remained a topic of concern. Needed to allow for the permitting for building at street level, many residents voiced their objection. And several cases, they suggested that properties to either side of it would be inundated with the water now redirected.

"What happens when there's erosion to the north and south of it?" asked resident Casey Upton. "Who's going to pay for the beach re-nourishment for that? Our taxes?"

The development team argued the wall would be in place for a 100-year event and would not harm other properties through normal situations.

Furthermore, the team dropped the use of the term "seawall," stating the town's definition of it being a protruding-above-ground structure was far from what Grand Resorts is proposing. Instead, it adopted the term "coastal protection system" and "armoring wall."

Consultant Ron Flick said the wall will be more than 90 percent submerged, with dunes at least 20 feet in width leading up to the exposed portion's top, in a berm fashion. Therefore, it won't be visible much from the beach. On the land side, the exposed part of the wall will stand about 3 feet in height, or at sitting level, along the boardwalk's edge. It will all sit about 6 feet above sea level.

Residents asked Torgerson how the wall will be paid for, and the developer said it is likely to be negotiated, noting an argument could be made that it's a public benefit.

When pressed to say whether he'd still pursue the project with permission to create a wall of whatever its name, Torgerson said "probably not," adding that the town's desire for downtown does not call for raised developments.

Resident Bob Desmond showed little sympathy when he took the microphone.

"I'd rather see you're your buildings on stilts," he said. "Leave our beach alone."

Another resident accused Torgerson -- who has already spent more than $40 million in property acquisition, public relations, engineering, consulting and studies -- of not giving straight answers regarding how the project will be funded.

Said Torgerson, "This should not cost you a penny. We're paying our own way."

He explained the revenue generated by the guests and new businesses will ultimately pay for the development.

And without it, he said the already dilapidated downtown will die.

"There's not vitality in that area," Torgerson said. "And this will dramatically change that."

Resident Tom Schulze commended Torgerson on his mission.

"When you go over the bridge our downtown is our doorway, and it's in need of a lot of help," he said. "I think what you're proposing is just great."



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