Demolition on Fifth: Restaurants will close to make way for new project

By Joseph Cranney of the Naples Daily News

Employees will lose their jobs and several popular restaurants on Fifth Avenue South will close as part of a plan to demolish a stretch of businesses and replace them with condos and commercial space.

Café Luna, Bella Maria Café and Avenue Wine Café will close next spring, per the plan, in addition to real estate offices and Kohr's Family Frozen Custard, all between Fourth Street South and Fifth Street South.

Local hotelier Phil McCabe's proposal for a new three-story building includes 10,300 square feet of commercial use on the ground floor, 11 residential units on the above floors and an underground parking garage with 43 spaces. By razing three cafes, the plan would eliminate more than 100 seats used for outdoor dining.

The plan also stands to disrupt other area businesses, local restaurateurs say.

Café Luna, which was voted the second-best Italian restaurant in Naples in the 2015 Southwest Florida Choice Awards, will close before construction is set to begin next May. That's bad news for neighboring Paddy Murphy's, a bar that stays open in the summer and often picks up patrons after they dine next door.

"We all work together," said Cathy Leistikow, general manager of Café Luna.

Leistikow said Café Luna has plans to relocate next year, in addition to a new location opening in North Naples. She said some of the restaurant's 40 to 50 employees will lose their jobs.

"We'll do what we can," Leistikow said.

The demolition plan was met with indifference Monday by City Council members, who said they have limited power over the redevelopment of private property. The project requests City Council make an exception to the city's downtown code for the building's height and place on the sidewalk, in addition to approving the underground parking.

Council will hear those arguments during its regular meeting Wednesday.

For his part, McCabe, the owner of the stretch of property, says he wants to redevelop the block to diversify business on the street and put a modern structure in place of the old building. He also said the sub-level could set a precedent for a street where parking has increasingly become a commodity.

"I think for developers here who want to do a quality project, they'll take the extra expense," McCabe said about the underground parking garage.

A petition signed by close to 300 residents cautions against the underground parking, citing flooding issues, and objects to the removal of outdoor seating, among other issues. Bob Martin, an Old Naples resident who helped prepare the petition, said he will ask City Council to suspend its vote Wednesday and request an independent assessment of the parking plan.

"It's a major decision," Martin said. "And City Council knows that."

The Planning Advisory Board unanimously approved the redevelopment site plan in October. The plan also is endorsed by the homeowners association of Kensington Gardens, the condominiums that sit behind the site. The association said the elimination of the restaurants will lead to a decrease in waste and late-night noise.

Mayor John Sorey on Monday described the site's requested code variances as standard, and said the basic structure meets the requirements for mixed-use buildings.

"If (the petitioners) don't like the Fifth Avenue code, then council has to look at the Fifth Avenue code," Sorey said.

Other council members were skeptical of concerns coming from residents who live outside the city, and questioned the claim made by petitioners that the reconstruction would negatively affect downtown's viability for dining.

Fifth Avenue South 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 totals in 2004.

"I think the street needs more balance than just restaurants and ice cream shops and coffee shops," McCabe said. "It needs a proper mix. In my opinion, we have too many restaurants."

McCabe acknowledged the popularity of Cafe Luna, but said, "The success of those restaurants was because of me."

McCabe said he doesn't plan to include any restaurants in the new building's retail space, which does little to assuage concerns of restaurant workers who say they will lose their jobs or see a drop in business due to the redevelopment.

"I hope they do something," said a waitress who has worked at Paddy Murphy's for 14 years, but asked that her name not be used. "Because every one of us is going to be out of work."

A chef at Cafe Luna said, "We already have one Mercato. We don't need a second Mercato downtown."

Paula Powell is the owner of the nearby Citrus Seafood, which also leases its building. She said redevelopment will only deter restaurant-goers.

"It's going to be so prestigious people aren't going to come down here," Powell said.