Underground parking still up in the air for Naples council

By Joseph Cranney of the Naples Daily News

Old Naples residents and others who frequent Fifth Avenue South want more public scrutiny of redevelopment projects that are setting a new precedent for downtown builders. But there was no finality Monday to the issue of whether plans that include underground parking should receive oversight from Naples City Council.

Council recently approved two redevelopment projects for three-story buildings that together include more than 60 spaces in underground parking, a first for the city's main business district. The approvals came after the city's planning department changed its mind on whether a project that included underground parking should require a conditional use petition.

The change made it unclear whether future projects with plans for underground parking would come before council. Critics of the redevelopment are concerned about the parking's environmental effects. They also say the parking — which makes it easier for builders to develop mixed-use sites with upper-floor condominiums — sets the wrong precedent for downtown.

During its workshop Monday, council passed the issue off to the city's planning board to ask for a recommendation on the underground parking's permitting designation. It was a continuation of council's hands-off approach to the two projects in the past month in which council approved variances to the city code's building limits.

One of the approved projects, planned on the 400 block of Fifth by local developer Phil McCabe, includes 43 spaces of underground parking and 11 condominiums on the building's second and third floors. A similar design approved by council this month will add 19 spaces of underground parking to a three-story building on Ninth Street South.

The projects will increase the number of residential units on Fifth by about 33 percent in the next two years. The city requires developers to include plans for two off-street parking spaces per residential unit.

Council has voiced support for the redevelopment projects because they satisfy parking requirements without adding to building footprints or taking up space on the street. But after a four-hour discussion on McCabe's project in November, council asked staff to prepare a workshop to discuss the underground parking's feasibility.

Engineers hired by the city said the underground parking can be designed in a structurally and environmentally secure way, which includes waterproofing sub-level walls and treating stormwater. They said the cost of the underground parking for builders is at least $30,000 more than surface-level parking.

"It's in the contractor's interest to build it correctly the first time," said Ryce Stallings, an architect who has designed underground parking in Miami.

Still, those assurances will likely do little to assuage the concerns of representatives of the Old Naples Association and other residents who have spoken up about the redevelopment. Lori Raleigh, who lives on Sixth Street, told council Monday that the mixed-use developments stray away from the goals outlined in the city's comprehensive plan.

"I would hope that everybody could think about where this is all headed," Raleigh said.

Greg Hoffmann, a principal in the real estate company that bought seven downtown buildings for $74 million in October, said the company wants to build a three-story building that will include underground parking at the corner of Fourth Avenue South and Fourth Street South. But it's unclear if council will have to approve the parking after the planning department changed its designation on the McCabe project.

Planning Director Robin Singer said the designation changed because the city doesn't define the underground parking as a "garage," or a freestanding structure that would require a conditional use petition. Council sent the direction to the Planning Advisory Board on Monday to come up with a definition for the underground parking.