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Waterfront building boom crosses the river

Property values zoom in once-blighted areas

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.


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 $40,319.

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 standards.

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.


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 Tom Tweed.

"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 river.''

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.

Condos ranging 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 homes.

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 to find.

"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 it.

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 hut.

The price didn't surprise him.

"I could see through the trees,'' he said. "That big banyan tree is worth $1.5 million.''

"Naples and Fort Myers and Port Charlotte, we're all growing together,'' he said.

North Fort Myers is smack dab in the middle, he said.

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