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Final Grand Resorts meeting brings more debate

Large crowd questions parking, traffic, zoning

February 24, 2016
By John Morton ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Yet another floor has been removed from the Hilton Hotel, leaving Grand Resorts' room total at 509.

The update was among several on display Monday as more than 300 residents filled the Bay Oaks Recreation Center for the third and final installment of the development team's public outreach series. The three-hour meeting began with a video presentation flashing the words "vision, timing, commitment, partnership, trust" while also saying, "Fort Myers Beach, this is your moment."

An elaborate virtual-reality computer demonstration took viewers on a ride through the $250 million, 10.4-acre downtown development that features three hotels, a pedestrian mall, a three-level parking garage, a roundabout and a seawall/boardwalk system. Like the meetings before it, however, an impatient and often confrontational audience fought developer Tom Torgerson tooth and nail on many topics.

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This rendering shows the Grand Resorts complex from the Gulf of Mexico. From the left are the proposed Hilton, A.C. Marriott and Holiday Inn hotels.

Still, despite saying his proposal is 95-percent complete and will be going to application soon, Torgerson said he is listening. He noted in his opening remarks that he's incorporated 129 suggestions and/or critiques into the ever-changing plan, including the installation of banyan trees in the 100-foot-wide plaza between his A.C. Marriott and Hilton hotels, which he'll call Banyan Tree Square.

The topics covered were parking, traffic and zoning.

Regarding height, the project now asks for a deviation from the Fort Myers Beach comprehensive land-use plan of 3 feet for the Holiday Inn and 13 feet for both the A.C. Marriott and Hilton."

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"In scale, they are smaller than the Lani Kai and DiamondHead," said Torgerson, in reference to a Sky Bridge photo that superimposed his hotels against the other nearby high-rises.

Now, the Hilton stands at six stories - five of which consist of hotel rooms above street-level commercial space. In order to reach that, Grand Resorts removed a level of rooftop venues including VIP suites and a sky bar.

Height remains a focus

Torgerson's team did acknowledge one long "shoebox" hotel was an option it had considered, allowing it to be shorter in height and within the town's code, but explained that by going up in height it could improve viewing corridors of the gulf by using less of a floor-area-ration footprint that says the higher you go the more breathing room there is between the land and the structure. Also, he said he preferred three hotels instead of one big one so there could be variations in architecture.

It was among many topics that brought debate regarding zoning. Torgerson's team said the only areas allowed for such development are downtown or at Santini Marina Plaza at the island's south end, and that Grand Resorts would be asking for its own zoning designation. When residents suggested an exception for Grand Resorts would mean exceptions for developers who would surely follow in its footsteps, opening the door to the flood of high rises the town has tried to avoid since incorporation two decades ago, Torgerson said the application process would ensure that his proposal would be considered "unique, and not to be repeated."

Regarding traffic, Torgerson said the only way to eliminate Estero Island's congestion would be to build a freeway system above it. In lieu of that, he said his resorts would add no additional traffic thanks to on-site captures from his garage, along with pedestrian, bicycle and trolley emphasis. "We 100 percent mitigate an increase on the roads under current conditions," he said, noting his traffic study showed it would result in 33-percent fewer vehicle trips per day.

Further, he said his plan - which calls for the re-routing of Estero Boulevard around his resorts and toward the bay, offers solutions to the island's worst area of gridlock.

"We're fixing where the bottleneck is for the whole stretch," he said.

Another addition to the plan calls for an elevated pedestrian causeway that takes people from the Sky Bridge to the second level of the complex and eventually to the pedestrian mall or the beach. Several residents scoffed at the notion of having to take an elevator to get where they want to go.

On to parking, Grand Resorts' garage, which went from four levels to three last month, now holds 1,108 spots - 600 of which will be needed by the hotels for its guests and employees.

He said a study showed the peak time of noon on a weekend will call for a maximum need of 895 spots.

One resident noted the 200-or-so spots left in the balance already existed in two pieces of land Torgerson has already purchased.

Heated questions

Speaking of which, Torgerson's inventory of land purchases now stands at more than $37 million. When asked if his plan would work, especially when only about 60 percent of his rooms will have gulf views, he acknowledged he's taking "a huge risk" but reminded people he's not forcing build rights on his acquired properties that could bring more than two times the traffic in any other form, he said.

"We maybe feel a bit poked at here, so I'm sorry if you sense any frustration," an exasperated Torgerson said during the question-and-answer period, twice referring to residents comments not as questions but rather "grandstanding."

Still, the intensity and combativeness of the questions increased, including accusations of secret meetings with Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker over the acquisition of the county-owned Crescent Beach Family Park - a piece of land Torgerson will need and has yet to acquire.

Torgerson countered by saying the redevelopment of that land is part of the town's and county's vision and it had been home to three hotels before 2004's Hurricane Charley wiped them out.

When others questioned his proposed sea wall, which will now receive a decorative cap to ward off skateboarders, he said that without it Times Square would someday fail to exist.

When resident Jay Light asked Torgerson to take a hand vote from the audience of how many would approve the project as is, and then how many would approve it if it fell entirely within the existing comprehensive land-use plan, Torgerson refused.

"There's so much work ahead. It's an unfair question because of that," said Togerson, who did say some online media polls showed an approval rate of about 80 percent.

Meanwhile, resident Coleen Hendrickson asked Torgerson how he could expect the public's trust considering he built at his Palermo Circle home what she called a boat dock that exceeded limits.

At the end, Torgerson said despite the conclusion of the series of public forums he'd still be willing to meet with small groups to discuss his plan.



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