Revitalizing Downtown Naples
Investments and projects spur a renewal in one of Southwest Florida's most coveted cities.
When David Hoffmann buys a property in downtown Naples, the first thing he does is a quick makeover.
“We immediately go in and renovate the buildings, inside and out, with paint. We attract new tenants,” says Hoffmann, chairman of Hoffmann Commercial Real Estate, which has purchased about 24 properties in the area and plans to buy more.
He wants to increase the appeal of his newly acquired property, of course, but the renovations also reinforce a bigger message: Downtown Naples is on the rise.
And that’s welcome news for Neapolitans, who saw their shopping and entertainment district fizzle during recessionary years and are now cheering its renewal, spurred by investors like Hoffmann (pictured left by Erik Kellar).
Hoffmann, originally from Chicago but now a Naples resident, says he started investing heavily in downtown about two years ago because he saw demand soaring and earlier investors flourishing under the development policies put in place by the city in the late ’90s.
Now, says Hoffman, whose recent purchases include the much-beloved Naples Princess sightseeing ship, “the Third Street district and Fifth Avenue South are both very, very unique environments in the country, in the world for that matter.”
Fifth is the “main street” of downtown with the bigger development projects, and Third Street is home to a variety of art galleries and retailers.
Hoffmann’s big presence allows him to branch into auxiliary services such as providing a shuttle between Fifth and Third and hiring musicians for live outdoor performances.
“What we have to do is continue to do these promotional things in town and continue to make it attractive not only for local people but visitors and seasonal people in the world market,” he says. “And that’s why we like to have a big footprint, so we can afford to invest in those infra- structure things that if you own one or two buildings, you can’t do that.” Hoffmann says downtown’s strong economy will spur a wave of real estate projects.
“There’s going to be a lot of activity in downtown Naples over the next one to two to three years,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of activity, a lot of new businesses, a lot of new attractions.”
He’s optimistic that some of those projects will be his own, including a bowling alley and an eight-screen, 35,000-square-foot movie theater with dining offered in the theater.
SURVIVING HARD TIMES
The downtown Naples spark didn’t rekindle on its own— after the recession of the early ’90s, it took a concerted effort by city officials to implement a consultant’s far-reaching recommendations. By 1995, downtown was failing and something had to be done, says Mayor Bill Barnett, who’s lived in Naples for 45 years.
“During the recession there were storefronts boarded up on Fifth Avenue South,” he says. “We were losing the heart of Naples. We were losing it. People were moving. They were going to Mercato. They were going other places.”
As a result, the city brought in Miami architect and urban planner Andres Duany as a consultant to recommend ways to rejuvenate downtown.
The city largely carried out Duany’s recommendations, which included changes such as restriping to create more parking and keeping storefronts lit up at night.
City officials and developers alike credit the new rules with sparking today’s vibrant business climate. Now major projects are underway for the first time in years, and there’s an air of optimism. Buoyed by the sheer affluence of Naples, the restaurants and art galleries that give downtown its edge haven’t been driven out by rising rents.
Anthony Solomon, executive vice president and owner of the Ronto Group, says downtown is maintaining and even enhancing its trademark atmosphere.
“You just don’t find the type of amenities that we’re offering,” says Solomon, whose company is now building the mixed-use development Naples Square at Fifth Avenue South and Central Avenue and the condominium project Eleven Eleven Central at Central Avenue and 11th Avenue North. That project includes fitness centers, social gathering spots, guest rooms and recreational amenities— “like a gated community but in a downtown setting,” Solomon says. “People are responding to that.”
The area is attracting a lot of smaller investors, Solomon adds.
“For a lot of private capital ... family money, it’s kind of a trophy legacy asset if they buy a few little buildings in that 10th Street area or on Fifth or Third or a block off I think they see it as a long-term bet.”
Duany attributes downtown’s success to the “consistency” exhibited by the city government in enforcing the development rules that allowed the rejuvenation in the first place.
Barnett agreed, saying that for him, the main goal is to stay consistent with existing zoning and a 42-foot height limit to make sure downtown keeps the small-town feel it already has.
“I’ve seen an awful lot and I’ve seen the trends, and to me, [it’s important to maintain] the philosophy of ‘This is our look, and we stick to our restrictions, our zoning,’” he says.
TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING?
Duany does have one bone to pick: the city council’s Oct. 4 decision not to go ahead with a $6 million contract to buy Hoffmann’s one-acre lot at Fourth Avenue South and Fourth Street South and build a parking garage there. The council is keeping the option on the table but did not want to spend the money in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma and its massive associated costs. Duany says a lack of parking has stunted development on the western half of Fifth Avenue.
“Only half [of Fifth] has been really restored, has reached its potential.” Now, he says, the city’s on borrowed time with no other suitable sites left. “If they don’t build this parking garage, they’re going to have a parking problem for the rest of history. It’s absolutely crystal clear that this is their last chance to get it right.”
Barnett agreed that congestion is a problem, although he noted the city has built two other parking garages downtown to alleviate the problem. “This is the busiest season I’ve ever seen in 45 years, and the only complaints you hear are about traffic,” he says.
Others aren’t so sure parking is a long-term problem, given the rapidly changing state of transportation technology.
“There’s a lot of talk about self-driving cars and of course more people using Uber and things like that so the future is hard to see,” Solomon says.
Hoffmann says he thinks the parking issue is more perception than reality.
“There is no parking problem,” he says, noting that after the city council took a pass on buying the Fourth and Fourth parking garage site, “We decided to move forward and allow parking there free and expand the space and to do other things to alleviate the perceived parking problem.”
Hoffmann also says his company is providing downtown valet parking, providing vehicles to shuttle people around downtown, and planning to produce a map showing all the available downtown parking.
But traffic is always a concern, Solomon says, and can get bad enough to damage a commercial area’s vitality. “It’s certainly a concern that you don’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”
THE FINE ART OF CULTURE
The Hoffmanns have spent almost a million dollars on sculptures they’ve deployed in public spaces downtown—a gesture both of beautification and support for the arts in downtown, which are also driving business back into the district.
“There’s so much going on downtown, between art festivals, theaters,” in addition to shopping and dining, Solomon says.
The Naples Square project will include the new location of the Gulfshore Playhouse, which paid $5.15 million in November for three acres there.
“The Gulfshore Playhouse benefactors understand that they wanted a premier location, they understood that they’d rather pay more for a premier location than go elsewhere,” Solomon says.
It’s rare for a community to have patrons of the arts with the resources to do that, he says.
Art galleries in Naples are in a class by themselves, says Bruce Barone, executive director of the Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District. “They have diverse product, really elegant, sophisticated artists who show their work there.”
Also, he says, “The Naples Art Association has some of the best art shows in the country, and we have artists who want to be here, who want to be showcased.”
FAMILIES WITH STAYING POWER
One of the oldest and most prominent family operations in downtown was founded in 1984 by Phil McCabe, who launched a string of successful restaurants and hotels including the Inn on Fifth. McCabe’s son, Joseph, vice president of project development at the family’s Gulf Coast Commercial Corp., says the latest McCabe project is coming to completion: Fifth and Fifth, a mixed-use development of retail and residential at Fifth Avenue South and Fifth Street.
“We’re trying to draw some quality tenants to the street for the 10,000 square feet of retail,” Joseph McCabe says.
With 34 restaurants already lining the street, he’s eyeballing retailers, women’s shops in particular.
McCabe says he would like to see foot traffic pick up on Fifth Avenue as it approaches the Gulf of Mexico. “We’d like to see pedestrian traffic shift west. Keep bringing it down toward Third Street.”
The problem is “the kind of tenants that are there at the moment,” he says: interior designers, cabinetry and other businesses that don’t draw many retail shoppers.
At the Fifth Avenue South Business Improvement District, where Joseph McCabe is a board member, “We were discussing maybe a shuttle service of some kind.”
Like Duany, McCabe would like to see the proposed parking garage at Fourth Avenue South and Fourth Street South go forward.
But the real trick to investing in downtown, McCabe says, is “really putting the effort into where you are and understanding the demographic that’s here, because it’s truly special. There’s nowhere like it. It is a bubble. And Naples has withstood the test of time. This financial crisis, the past financial crisis, shows that it’s a resilient town.”
The longest-lasting business in downtown is Wynn’s Market, a grocery store founded in 1948 by Don Wynn on Fifth Avenue South and now located on U.S. 41 between First Avenue North and Second Avenue North.
Now his grandson, Jeff Wynn, is president of the Fifth Avenue Business Improvement Group.
Jeff Wynn says that when Duany made his proposals in 1995 to transform Fifth Avenue, people in the business community sensed that they had a chance to accomplish something out of the ordinary.
“We’ve been on the avenue since 1948, seen it grow,” Wynn says. “We redeveloped in 1999 to what the building is today.”
Duany’s plan lifted people’s spirits in downtown when it was presented, Wynn says.
“I think everyone saw the vision of ‘Wow, we can take Naples, this little town, and turn it into something special, the little pearl of the west coast,” he says. “The vision, and that drive from having that, took us where we are today.”
BY DICK HOGAN - GulfshoreBusiness.com