Fifth Avenue demolition of restaurants draws long debate, big crowd before Naples council approves

By Joseph Cranney of the Naples Daily News

There was rarely a doubt in the room Wednesday that Naples City Council would vote to allow a developer to demolish a popular stretch of restaurants on Fifth Avenue South and replace the buildings with his vision for a multiuse complex of retail shops and condos.

To be sure, council had very little authority to do anything about it. The request during its regular meeting only asked for a couple of exceptions to the city's downtown code, in addition to approving the placement of the avenue's first underground parking facility.

The petitioner was Phil McCabe, the local developer who helped rebuild Fifth and who, by one councilman's estimate, has already invested tens of millions of dollars into the avenue.

But the ubiquity of the discussion surrounding McCabe's new project, critics say, is part of the problem. As City Council continues to allow construction to extend beyond the city code's height limits, as it did by a 5-2 vote Wednesday, it threatens to create a new normal of flat-top low rises, the argument goes.

And the critics decry the losses when developers value retail and office space over neighborhood restaurants and bars. Café Luna and Avenue Wine Café, in addition to two other eateries and offices on the 400 block of Fifth, will close next spring as part of McCabe's plan to raze his property's existing businesses.

The fear is that the avenue will ultimately become something that resembles a major urban landscape more than the quaint district of a small town.

The fearful turned up in large numbers Wednesday. The council chambers were full at the start of the meeting. Twelve signed up to speak publicly about the issue. Roughly 300 signed a petition against it.

But near the end of a long discussion, when residents were given a chance to speak, half of them had left. Bob Martin, an Old Naples resident who helped organize the petition, waited four hours before his name was called. His three-minute time limit during public comment was enforced.

"While I respect the code, I think it's important that you need to understand how this is going to impact the community," Martin said. He asked City Council to suspend its vote on the project until an independent hydrologist could analyze McCabe's plan for underground parking.

For his part, McCabe said he thinks the sub-level parking sets the right precedent for redevelopment. And McCabe said the building's design, with a height approved 7 feet higher than the downtown code of 42 feet, is a "win-win."

"It gets us and it gets the community a whole lot better-looking building," McCabe said.

The underground parking will contain 43 spaces and be free to condo residents and the building's retail shoppers. By adding the availability to a busy stretch of the avenue, the sub-level parking was commended by some on council. Council at the end of its meeting agreed to a future workshop discussion on sub-level parking.

Mayor John Sorey tried, with little success, to move the discussion along as council's grilling of the petitioner and city staff continued into the afternoon. He said after the meeting that the discussion could have been cut in half, and that the conversation too often got off track.

"The legal responsibility [of council] was very clearly depicted," Sorey said. "But I have been criticized for not allowing council to talk about those things."

The length of the discussion, even as it came to its expected end, only added a feeling of frustration to the residents who attended. Janet Greene, a North Naples resident, said she moved to the area because she was attracted to the ambiance of downtown.

"I think they should just go by the code and what Naples fore fathers planned for their community," Greene said.

But neighbors to the affected property said they support the plan. Residents of Kensington Gardens, the condos that sit behind the site, are in favor of the sub-level parking because it allows for enhanced landscaping on the ground level. And Miriam Colson, who has been a tenant on Fifth for more than 20 years, said recent redevelopment has made the avenue more attractive to visitors.

"The street that I see now is so much more full of life and vibrant," Colson said.