Naples developer Phil McCabe draws praise, criticism as he forges ahead with new Fifth Avenue vision

By Joseph Cranney of the Naples Daily News

Jan. 17, 2016

It's an interesting time to be Phil McCabe. One of a handful of developers often credited for revitalizing the city's main business district, McCabe has made a living for much of the past 30 years investing millions into downtown retail, hotels and restaurants.

But last year, McCabe may have taken his most ambitious steps yet. He went public with plans for two projects that, by his words, would create a new look for Fifth Avenue South and the surrounding area.

One of the projects will raze several popular restaurants and other businesses on the 400 block of Fifth to erect a new three-story building with 11 high-value condominiums. The other project, which McCabe calls a "game changer," would add 57 condos, three town homes and a 51-room hotel in between Third and Fourth avenues near Seventh and Eighth streets.

The projects have been highly scrutinized by downtown property owners and others who tour Fifth. Among the concerns of critics are the worries that the new buildings detract from the city's vision plan and threaten to create a feeling of exclusivity within the most prized area of Naples.

But for McCabe, the time is right to invest. The housing market has rebounded quicker downtown than in other parts of the county, developers say. And studies have pointed to a lifestyle shift for suburban baby boomers who want to escape the sprawl and move to an urban environment with easier access to services.

McCabe, 67, says he is acutely aware of the shifts. He said he believes in redevelopment because he believes in augmenting property values on Fifth and pumping millions into the city's tax base. His new projects won't add $100,000 condos, McCabe says frequently, they will add multimillion dollar condos.

"These types of quality developments, we're absolutely blessed to have them right now," McCabe said recently. "Because they may not be here three years from now. It may be over three years from now. I think we want to capture what we can and get this city rooted, rooted into wonderful architecture and wonderful, classical development. We got to get it."

In interviews, McCabe is described as an aggressive visionary whose success has rarely stalled his proclivity for pushing the envelope. He turned a Fifth Avenue South office building, drive-thru and parking lot into the Inn on the Fifth, a project credited with jump-starting the city's downtown redevelopment effort in the 1990s.

In 2012, McCabe debuted an $18 million hotel addition that included 32 suites and a rooftop pool on the three-story building across the street from the Inn on Fifth.

But his proposed hotel, condos and town homes in between Fourth and Third, in the works for years, is his most expansive project to date.

The project was pulled from a Planning Advisory Board meeting agenda in September after city staff recommended several changes for stormwater and pathways. McCabe says the project is on hold indefinitely.

"I really want to build that," McCabe said. "That would be very, very significant."

McCabe also owns the building where The Brick coffee shop sits at 531 5th Ave S. McCabe said he wants to redevelop this property and start construction in May 2017.

McCabe's four properties in the Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District have a combined taxable value of more than $30.7 million, according to the most recent assessment from the Collier County Property Appraiser's Office.

McCabe may not be the largest property owner on Fifth (that distinction belongs to Hoffmann Commercial Real Estate from St. Louis, which recently purchased seven buildings for $74 million). But after the death of developer Jack Antaramian last year, McCabe is something like the last major player of an old guard that developed and redeveloped Fifth for the past two decades.

"He's certainly made a big impact on Fifth Avenue," said Jim Smith, whose family has owned property on the avenue since the 1950s. "The Inn brings a lot of out-of-town tourists and out-of-town future residents to the community. If I owned his properties, I certainly would be proud."

"Phil's the kind of guy that typically asks for forgiveness rather than permission," said Mayor John Sorey, who has received a $1,000 maximum donation from the Inn on Fifth during his re-election campaign. "I kind of like that."

In 2013, McCabe spent $1.7 million to replace his old beloved Irish Pub with an upscale restaurant adjacent to the Inn. In retrospect, the move seems like a turning point for those who want to preserve Fifth's small-town feel. The concerns were renewed last fall when residents learned that McCabe's mixed-use project on the 400 block of Fifth would close Café Luna, a popular restaurant on Fifth.

John Passidomo, a former Naples City Council member who is now McCabe's attorney, acknowledged the difficulty involved when new projects tear down old haunts.

"When we see things like Café Luna, that is a signal that the community is losing a sense of connection with its downtown," Passidomo said.

"When you look at it in terms of elitism, that is the issue," he later added.

But McCabe also believes Fifth has been inundated with restaurants. The avenue had 39 restaurants and other eateries in 2014, according to a study submitted to the Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District. Those numbers were a 56 percent increase from 2004.

The ground floor of the Café Luna property will be replaced with retail. McCabe hopes to land Microsoft and Nike as tenants. He says the new businesses would be affordable and, with fewer employees, would decrease the downtown parking burden.

In what would be a first for Fifth, McCabe plans to complete the project with 43 spaces of underground parking. The parking plan is untenable for Old Naples residents who are concerned about building density and traffic.

Bob Martin, a downtown property owner, organized a petition against the project and received nearly 300 signatures. Martin presented the petition to Naples City Council in November, but the council approved McCabe's project by a 5-2 vote.

McCabe said construction will begin in May and should be completed in 18 months.

Martin and Joan Fiore, another property owner, are suing the city over the project. They claim the council, in approving McCabe's plans for parking below his three-story building, allowed a four-story project that violates a provision of the city charter that limits all commercial buildings to three stories.

City Councilwoman Teresa Heitmann voted against McCabe's project. Heitmann said McCabe's projects lack balance, and she questions whether McCabe's gains in the downtown tourism industry blind him to the wishes of long-term residents in Old Naples.

"We want the people to reinvest into the community, but we don't want them to do it to the detriment to the community," said Heitmann, who is also running for mayor.

McCabe points out he's lived here for more than 30 years. He argues his latest Fifth Avenue project, approved at all levels of city government, complies with the spirit and letter of the charter, and he is unapologetic in his redevelopment vision. He considers himself, along with Smith and Antaramian, a "forefather" of Fifth.

"We created the charm and character and we want to improve on that charm and character," McCabe said. "We don't want you out there who have no vision. You're here for eight weeks a year. You come from Chicago or some place. We don't want you to suggest that we don't know how to improve upon our charm and character; or that you want to stop us from improving upon our charm and character."

Two weeks after the vote on McCabe's Café Luna project, the council approved another downtown mixed-use redevelopment on Ninth Street near Fifth. With a proposal for upper-floor condos and underground parking, the building owned by developer Christopher Schucart had plans that looked virtually identical to McCabe's. The council, again voting 5-2, approved the project.

In approving the projects, the council granted the developers' requests to extend architectural amenities seven feet above the 42-foot building height limit outlined in the charter. Such an extension is allowed through a city ordinance.

The Old Naples Association, among McCabe's critics, wants the council to use its power to vote against projects that some residents argue stray from the charter and the city's comprehensive plan.

"Fifth Avenue is now a beautiful street that serves a wide range of merchants and businesses alike," ONA President John Lehmann said. "We don't want to lose this near perfect balance with an endless series of deviations from the city's plans."

Heitmann, echoing Lehmann's worries about incremental changes, said she thinks McCabe has set a tone for other developers to come forward with similar projects.

"I think it's a dangerous path," Heitmann said.

But a council majority has been receptive to the projects, in part, because they fall within a policy to maintain a pedestrian-friendly city. During the past few years, the council has approved several projects that will add walking and biking pathways to streets and increase the amount of downtown residences.

McCabe wants to further support the policy by creating paths that will connect residents from Cambier Park north to Third and east to the yet-to-be-built Baker Park. Included in McCabe's plans for his hotel and condos project was a promise to make streetscape improvements to Third Avenue, Fourth Avenue and Seventh Street.

"This is all about connectivity," McCabe said. "This is reducing it down to a pedestrian community."

It's all part of McCabe's latest vision as he forges ahead with his most recently approved Fifth Avenue project that he believes will offer residents and visitors more than they have now.

"In my humble opinion, anybody objecting to this project versus what is there now should simply move out of our great city, and take their hugely appreciated home sale profits with them."