building boom crosses the river
zoom in once-blighted areas
By WENDY FULLERTON
Published by news-press.com on
September 13, 2004
A developer spends $1.5 million on a teardown.
The asking price for a waterfront lot is $895,000.
And a couple of high-rise condo units command $1 million or more.
Fort Myers Beach? No.
North Fort Myers.
The waterfront phenomenon gripping the miles of shoreline throughout
Southwest Florida has descended on this land of trailer parks and
ailing strip center storefronts. And some suggest it could intensify
as the barrier islands recover from Hurricane Charley.
Development in downtown Fort Myers is breathing new life into its neighbor
on the north side of the Caloosahatchee River, largely unscathed by the Aug.
13 storm. Some call it affordable riverfront, if there is such a thing.
"It's phenomenal,'' said Wayne Rawlings, a North Fort Myers resident who dragged
his wife kicking and screaming across the bridge to live there 16 years ago.
"He could see the potential more than I could,'' said Marilyn
Rawlings. "Boy, he was very right.''
The couple paid $98,000 for their riverfront home on a road marked by a trailer
park, just east of the Edison Bridge. Now, three doors down, their neighbor
is selling his home for $875,000. Nearby is the lot with a sales price of $895,000.
The irony is
that the Rawlings' neighborhood - once deemed blighted
to qualify it for government revitalization money - "is turning
into a gold mine,'' Wayne Rawlings said.
"If they get $900,000, call us,'' added Marilyn Rawlings.
AREA HAS 'ALWAYS BEEN SECOND CLASS'
For decades, the North Fort Myers coastline has sat idly by as
the rest of Southwest Florida flourished.
"I hate saying that but it's always been second class and it still is,'' said
James Ink, 47, who grew up in North Fort Myers.
The overall area, which has about 46,000 residents, also has a
reputation more closely linked with its poorest neighborhoods,
Suncoast Estates and Palmona Park.
North Fort Myers' median home price is $91,500, about $20,000 less than the
county's overall $112,900. Its reputation as financially drained can be pinpointed
to the median household income of $33,508, substantially less than Lee County's
More than half the housing stock is made up of mobile homes. One
in 10 homes were built in the 1960s, ancient by Southwest Florida
A couple of 10- and 11-story condos tower over a dormant commercial corridor.
Between the Edison and Caloosahatchee bridges, small, crumbling
homes and trailer parks still monopolize the landscape.
Just outside those bridges, however - west of the Caloosahatchee and east of
Edison - property values are jetting like their counterparts on the south side.
These diamonds in the rough are commanding million-dollar prices the likes
of estate-size homes in Overiver Shores and Buttonwood Harbor near the Cape
Coral city limits and the Rawlings neighborhood to the west of the Edison Bridge.
And real estate experts say prices will keep rising.
'AN OPPOSITE LIFESTYLE'
No one can pinpoint exactly why North Fort Myers' waterfront developed
so differently from Fort Myers.
Many point to the traffic patterns. There's no First Street or
McGregor Boulevard that runs along the river.
In fact, North Fort Myers residents have gone out of their way to prevent thru-traffic
in their residential neighborhoods.
Residents were protecting what they equated to rural living on the river banks
far from the crowds that were forming elsewhere.
North Fort Myers residents march to a different drum, said resident
"It's kind of an opposite lifestyle,'' Tweed said. "Instead of entertainment
and dining out, it's more appreciating the surroundings you're in and making
the most of that.''
"I call it sleepy hollow,'' said Andy Smith, 50. "It's
almost like being out in the country 'til you look across the
Smith grew up on the north side of the Caloosahatchee River. His parents opened
a riverfront trailer park in the 1940s that he still operates today.
While he has no plans to sell it, "I'm sure someone will come by someday
and make me an offer I can't refuse,'' he said.
"It's out of
control,'' he said.
Rodney and Claire Roan can attest to that. They paid $41,500 for their home
off Moody Road 34 years ago. Now they're surrounded by million-dollar homes.
"We were told we were on the wrong side of the river,'' Claire
Roan remembers. "We've enjoyed every minute we've been here.''
Part of its newfound charm is born out of the downtown Fort Myers development
boom, about a mile away at its widest point.
from 22 to 32 stories are planned for more than 10 tracts of
land between the Edison & Ford Winter Estates
and Billy's Creek.
While the waterfront is sure to spark new development, it's not likely to be
on the same high-rise scale as Fort Myers.
For one, much of the property is zoned to allow for single-family
And unlike the city, which is encouraging high-rise development, Lee County
has a building height cap of 35 feet or about three stories. Projects can go
higher provided they increase their setbacks from the property line. That requires
larger pieces of property to build taller buildings. And that's becoming harder
"In today's market you're going to try to get on the river and go as high as
you can,'' said Ink, a planner by trade.
County officials expect it.
"There's a lot of developed land and a lot of land to be redeveloped over there,''
said Lee County zoning director Pam Hauck. "I'm just waiting. Sooner or later,
it will all happen.''
Already, it's starting. Earlier this year, a Baltimore-based developer
rezoned commercial property along Beau Drive to allow for condos.
Plans call for two 12-story condos on Hancock Creek.
Some see the waterfront becoming part of the downtown one day.
"There's not that many feet separating us,'' said resident Tim Berti, 45, whose
family has owned property on the north side of the river for more than 30 years.
Fort Myers Mayor Jim Humphrey said there are no plans at this
time but it's something he would consider if property owners want
Regardless, Jim Hooper said both sides of the river are ideal locations. His
company, Caloosa Properties, has gobbled up 50 waterfront properties, including
three in North Fort Myers.
One was the
$1.5 million in Overiver Shores, which Hooper called a "scraper.''
The property has a sprawling banyan tree and its own chickee
The price didn't surprise him.
"I could see through the trees,'' he said. "That big banyan tree is worth $1.5
Fort Myers and Port Charlotte, we're all growing together,''
North Fort Myers is smack dab in the middle, he said.