The River District Comes Alive: Fort Myers
10 years after the completion of a $52 million downtown utility and streetscape improvement project, the visual results of clustering complementing development within a compact setting are beginning to pay dividends. Also known as the River District, Downtown Fort Myers has emerged as a dining, entertainment and nightlife hot spot.
An aerial of Downtown Fort Myers illustrating a 1/4-mile radius from the intersection of First and Jackson Streets.
The common belief that having 10,000 downtown residents opens the door to a healthy retail environment is a major revitalization misdiagnosis when the importance of population density isn’t taken into context. Modern Cities and the Jaxson have long supported what we call the Clustering of Complementing uses within a Compact setting (CCC) as a key downtown redevelopment tool. CCC is a subliminal key to successful urban revitalization that works by locating people, activities (like special events or outdoor dining), and uses (like restaurant or bars) together in close pedestrian scale proximity, allowing them to feed off one another, which in turn stimulates more market rate growth, activity and economic opportunity. With this in mind, Downtown Fort Myers has emerged as an excellent example of how CCC can activate urban street life.
Established in 1886, situated along the Caloosahatchee River and historically known as the former winter home of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, this Southwest Florida city of 82,000 residents has become the center of one of the country’s most rapidly growing metropolitan areas.
At its heart, lies the Downtown district, which is also known as the River District. The revitalization of this 540-acre area, stretching from the Caloosahatchee River to Victoria Avenue and from West First Street to Billy’s Creek, dates as far back to the 1986 City Council adoption of a downtown plan with a ten to fifteen year planning horizon. In 2001, Duany Plater-Zyberk (DPZ) was selected by the City to assist in the development of an updated downtown vision and plan based off public participation.
Adopted by City Council in April 2003, the plan stressed the need for increased residential density, creation of a pedestrian-friendly environment, and mixed-use development. However, the crown jewel of the downtown plan was a four year, $52 million utility and streetscape improvement project, that took the concept to another level with the complete replacement of water, sewer and storm drainage systems over a 54 block area. Funded through Tax Increment Financing between the City of Fort Myers and the Fort Myers Redevelopment Agency (FMRA), additional streetscape improvements included new sidewalks, crosswalks, parking spaces, and enhanced landscaping with new trees.
By 2009, with the streetscape project nearing completion, the CRA began to focus on the revitalization of the River District’s tired waterfront. Plans were soon developed that included the conversion of a surface parking lot into a new two-acre water detention basin, attracting restaurants and retail shops and enhancing a struggling existing convention center space with a new convention center hotel. This detailed riverfront plan and implementation program was incorporated into the Duany Plan and adopted in April 2010 as the 2010 Downtown Plan.
Since 2010, several development projects have taken place within a 1/4-mile walking radius of the River District’s center. Because of this compact pedestrian scale approach to clustering complementary uses together, the River District has emerged as a place where retail, dining and vibrant street life is flourishing, despite having less than 10,000 permanent residents. Here is a before and after look at the transformation of the River District within a five minute (or 1/4-mile) walk radius from the central intersection of First and Jackson Streets.
NEXT PAGE: The River District - Before and After
Looking east down First Street in November 2007 (Google Streetview)
Similar view looking east down First Street in August 2019.