Old Naples charm part of the focus as candidates for mayor, council debate redevelopment

By Joseph Cranney of the Naples Daily News

Often asked about concerns with a recent surge in downtown redevelopment, Naples mayoral candidates Bill Barnett and John Sorey have both taken a consistent stance — the plans to revitalize Fifth Avenue South have worked, and the city should be careful not to abruptly turn its back on those plans.

Their position stems from their longevity. They lived in the city in the 1990s when many stores on Fifth Avenue were boarded up. They remember the situation was so dire that a renowned urban planner, Andres Duany, was hired to study the avenue and offer a vision to save it.

Two decades later, Duany's plan has been realized. Fifth Avenue is now the city's prized business district, home to a working blend of window shopping, outdoor dining and mixed-use buildings with upper-floor condominiums.

But some argue the charm of Old Naples is being threatened. Last fall, the Naples City Council approved two condominium projects in a two-week span that propose to increase the number of residential units in the Fifth Avenue Overlay District by about 33 percent in the next two years. One of the projects, offered by local developer Phil McCabe, would install underground parking below the building, a first for Fifth Avenue. McCabe's project would also raze Café Luna and other popular restaurants.

Even as developers pump money into campaigns, McCabe's project and other recent redevelopments throughout the city have highlighted a divide among the candidates running for Naples mayor and the City Council.

In 2015, Sorey received more than $13,000 in campaign contributions from builders and real estate professionals, according to campaign finance reports. Among the same field, Barnett received more than $11,000.

Barnett and Sorey have consistently voted in favor of redevelopment and expressed support for connectivity for the city's walkers and bikers.

Sorey said he's worried about the future of such a policy, considering the controversy of recent projects and the lukewarm stances of council candidates. He also said redevelopment projects stand to lose one of their supporters on the council when either Sorey or Barnett vacates their seat after the election.

"The fact is we've had so many 4-3 votes, I think that's a real issue," Sorey said. "And I think it's unfortunate that one of us is going off council."

James Moon and Wynn Phillips, both running for the council, are against what they call too much development. Moon is an attorney who says the city's zoning, including Duany's rules, need to be updated. Phillips is a longtime Old Naples resident opposed to over-congestion downtown.

Council candidates Reg Buxton and Ellen Seigel have spoken favorably about redevelopment and voted to approve McCabe's project as members of the Planning Advisory Board. Similar to Barnett and Sorey, they praise the Duany plan for revitalizing downtown business.

Buxton received a $500 campaign contribution from McCabe's Inn on Fifth, according to campaign finance reports. Seigel's campaign received $1,750 from developers last year.

Michelle McLeod also received $500 from the Inn on Fifth toward her council run. But as the chair of the Community Services Advisory Board, McLeod has taken a broader look at redevelopment and suggested the city needs to update its comprehensive plan.

"What's happening now is we're approving site plan deviations and conditional uses without restrictions, which are getting us to a point where there are things that are happening that don't meet the vision of Naples," McLeod said during a council debate on Jan. 27.

Council candidate Terry Hutchison is running partly on a platform to conserve building design restrictions.

"My direction would be one that doesn't compromise on what we've built," Hutchison said. "If we start compromising, we start compromising ourselves right out of the uniqueness that we have. So let's be careful about that."

In the mayor's race, City Councilwoman Teresa Heitmann is concerned about the council's building-approval practices and developers who frequently request deviations from downtown building codes. She took a vocal stance on the issue during the mayoral debate on Jan. 25.

"To me, there has been a powerful group of developers that think that they are entitled to the favor of the council," Heitmann said. "And I think we need to stop and take a look at what we have approved, how it has affected the community and realize that people moved here because they don't want to be Miami. They moved here for the simple elegance that we are in this city."

Heitmann voted no to McCabe's project in November and another downtown development that was approved by the council in December. She also voted against Naples Square, the residential complex on Third Avenue South. The project was one of four high-value projects recently approved that will add more than 560 residences downtown.

But there is a worry the uptick in residences will have unintended consequences on downtown traffic and parking.

Moon said the solution is for the council to fully realize its vision of creating a more pedestrian-friendly city. Since Sorey has been mayor, the council has approved several projects that support the policy, including the redesign of Central Avenue and streetscape improvements in front of Naples Square.