Joseph Cranney, firstname.lastname@example.org; 239-213-60354:37 p.m. EDT July 17, 2016
With news that a real estate investment group owns a swath of land near a neighborhood park in Naples, Vice Mayor Linda Penniman is lobbying for an amendment to the city charter that would prevent the City Council from selling park land to individuals who want to use the land to build.
The proposal comes in light of reporting by the Naples Daily News that a Manhattan property-flipping firm acquired the Gordon River Apartments next to Anthony Park as part of a round of purchases in the low-income River Park neighborhood.
The apartments have long been thought to be eyed for a redevelopment that would include the acquisition of Anthony Park or a swap of the land with the city.
Penniman said her proposal, which she’ll likely bring to the council after budget deliberations in the fall, is partly designed to help protect low-income River Park residents from more profitable developments in the park area.
“If we’re going to protect these older families from private enterprise wanting to encroach or purchase or swap, that’s the only way I know how to do it,” Penniman said.
A charter amendment would have to be approved by city voters through a referendum. Mailed ballots would cost the city approximately $50,000 and could go out as early as next February, City Manager Bill Moss said.
Penniman has made calls to heads of city neighborhood associations to try to gain support for her measure. John Lehmann, president of the Old Naples Association, has signaled an endorsement.
“Ms. Penniman and I are in agreement that selling or swapping park land for the benefit of private development is a bad idea,” Lehmann said.
Willie Anthony, a longtime River Park resident whose late brother carries Anthony Park’s namesake, said he hadn’t spoken to Penniman but called her proposal an “excellent idea.”
Anthony said preventing the park from being used for a redevelopment of the apartments, the most valuable property in the neighborhood, “would be a good first step” toward dealing with his concern that neighborhood residents will be pushed out if more properties are acquired and redeveloped.
“In order to make this to its truest, most profitable value, somebody would need to get it all, and therefore they would be able to raze everything,” Anthony said. “It might take three or four years, but they’d make it happen. Then they’d build luxury condos and they’d put a lock on it and make it a gated community.”
Anthony Park, a roughly 4-acre peninsula on the Gordon River, sits at the end of the neighborhood that extends east on Fifth Avenue North from Goodlette-Frank Road.
River Park was built in the 1960s as a segregated community to house black workers. About 90 percent of the city’s black residents live there, according to the census.
The Daily News reported last week that hedge funds managed by Axonic Capital LLC, an investment adviser that identifies a goal of “ultimate sale of multiple family residential properties,” in the past three years has acquired a dozen properties in River Park, including the apartments and nine single-family homes.
The purchases amount to the largest acquisition by a common entity in the history of a neighborhood that’s long been the only place in a city known for its wealth where a low-income family can afford to live.
Penniman’s proposal would likely come as a hurdle to a new offer from a group exploring an option to buy the apartments and use grant money to tear down the 96 units and rebuild them as affordable housing.
Plans haven’t been drawn, but the idea from the Clearwater-based Brookline Companies is to build a mixed-rate project with the potential for some rent-controlled units, said Rob Carroll, Brookline’s broker. For the project to work, Carroll said, the city would have to allow Brookline to expand the apartment’s footprint and build on parkland.
The project would be done in phases to keep residents from being displaced, Carroll said.
City leaders who want to add affordable housing to the city’s only low-income area would be “shooting themselves in the foot” if they kept Anthony Park out of the discussion, Carroll said.
“They would create a situation where nobody is going to be able to come in and do something to the Gordon River Apartments to better the community,” he said.
Carroll and Brookline manager William B. Yeomans Jr. spoke to about a dozen residents at a meeting at the River Park Community Center on June 29. At the meeting Carroll floated the idea of building park facilities, like a basketball court and new community center, as part of the redevelopment.
“We want to come in at the ground and see if there is, at least initially, buy-in from the community,” Yeomans said at the meeting.
Notified by a reporter of Brookline’s interest, Penniman said her proposal could allow for a public-private partnership on the Anthony Park land, while protecting the rest of the city’s parks from redevelopment.
“Nobody is going to touch that park until we have some sort of legal arrangement,” she said. “There has to be some sort of arrangement as to how that’s all going to work.”
For Brookline’s part, Carroll said the group wants to work with the city to use and maintain the park land, not purchase it.
“We’re talking about a redevelopment of that peninsula that includes the park as a part,” Carroll said.
Council members, without knowing the specifics of Penniman’s proposal, hesitated to support it.
Mayor Bill Barnett said the city should see a development plan before taking Anthony Park off the table.
“Park land is sacred, but then on the other hand, what would the tradeoff be?” Barnett said. “I think that has to be explored. It could be a phenomenal deal for everyone involved.”
Councilman Doug Finlay, who recently persuaded the council to hold an affordable housing workshop in the fall, said adding a protection for the park is “worth exploring.”
“It’s time to be a little bit concerned about the preservation of the park,” he said.