OPEN LETTER FROM The Fifth Avenue South Business Improvement District
Dear Fellow Neighbors of Old Naples:
My name is Jim Smith, and I was born in Naples when it was a very small town of fewer than the 1,465 permanent residents that were counted in the 1950 Census. When I left for college in 1963, there were more students attending my university than people living in Collier County. Except for my college years, I have always lived in Old Naples.
I have great respect for our City because I was fortunate to be born into a politically active family. My mother served 16 years on the Collier County School Board. My father was Naples’ longest-tenured Mayor, serving seven consecutive terms. During his term of office, the City commenced aggressive mosquito control, beach reclamation, and street paving; landscaped its street rights-of-way; and, acquired and developed Cambier and Lowdermilk parks.
The achievement of which my father was most proud was the adoption of zoning long before much larger cities in the State, including Miami, Tampa, and Orlando. Although the town of Naples was platted in 1888 as a part of Lee County, there were no specified property uses and certainly no comprehensive plan. Adoption of zoning began in 1948 under the direction of renowned urban planner Harland Bartholomew. It concluded in 1953, shortly after the State approved the Charter for the City of Naples. Our zoning has saved Naples from the urban sprawl of the counties surrounding us that didn’t address planning until decades later.
One thing I have learned about Naples is that Naples is about growth. By the 1960 Census, the population of Naples had tripled in 10 years. In comparison, the population of the entire County, including Naples, had doubled to 15,753 residents. Most people then lived in and around Naples, which accounted for 30% of the total population. After Hurricane Donna in late 1960, federal grants and low-interest-rate loans drove growth into the surrounding county. Today, the City of Naples has about the same number of permanent residents as did the County, including Naples, in the early Sixties—and much of the gain was the result of annexation, a chapter in a book that was closed by Pelican Bay.
In fact, based upon official State source data—used by Naples’ government—our City has actually lost 1,245 residents since the 2000 Census as families have been replaced by couples. We now represent less than 6% of the total County population which today is estimated at just over 350,000 permanent residents; and, that does not count the influx of seasonal residents.
At build-out the County’s population will more than double again; and, at the current rate of growth some 80,000 of those new residents will arrive within the next 10 years. It should be clear that concentrating on stagnate growth within the City won’t solve our problem with the population growth coming our way.
Another thing I have learned about Naples is that Naples is about change. The Naples of today is not the town I was born in, went to school in, made a living and reared my children in, and it won’t be the same when I am gone. If you don’t believe it, drive through Port Royal, Aqualane Shores, Ridge Lakes, Coquina Sands, and the Moorings and see how many homes you can find that date back to 1977, the year we built our home on Gordon Drive. You won’t find many. What you will find instead are newer, brand new, or under construction “estate homes” that are multiple times the size of those built in the Seventies and Eighties. Why has a true Historic District never been created in Old Naples? Because property is very expensive; newcomers want to remove old homes in favor of modern ones, and long-time residents want to preserve their property rights to sell. And, yes our commercial—Cove, Third Street, and and Fifth Avenue—have been revitalized and changed to meet the shopping and dining demands of these new residents. The problem with maintaining the status quo in Naples is that even it keeps changing as new residents arrive.
Yet another thing I have learned about Naples is that it is never without controversy; always well intended, but sometimes misguided.
A few individuals, groups, and at least one association are of the opinion that stopping growth within the City limits will somehow protect Old Naples. Like others before them, they espouse laudable goals such as preserving our charm and character, but this approach has proven over and over again to be a failure. Worse yet, precious time and focus is being wasted on efforts to slow growth within the mostly built-out Naples instead of the source of growth—the County.
To put this in perspective, given the restrictions of the Comprehensive Plan in the area north and east of US 41 and deducting the number of units already absorbed, the maximum population would grow to fewer than 2,400 residents spread over several years. As for the growth of residences on Fifth Avenue, there have only been 53 built in the last 23 years. In the virtually impossible scenario whereby every one and two story building on the Avenue were to be redeveloped to three stories and used exclusively for residential use, then the maximum future growth would be limited to no more than 104 new residences—about 198 new residents to the City over years.
Put another way, the maximum aggregate number of existing and potential residences on Fifth Avenue would total 157, or 2.41 units per acre, which is single family density. Growth is inevitable, but rather than wasting our focus on the growth of fewer than 2,600 potential residents within the City limits over decades, we are much better served by concentrating on the hundreds of thousands of residents known to be relocating to Collier County!
Some have singled out Fifth Avenue as an example of development ruining its character. I grew up on the Avenue and have watched it grow from a collection of retail and office buildings into Naples’ main street. I opened my own business there in 1968, so I have had a front row seat to the Avenue’s market dominance through the Seventies; its eventual decline in the Eighties as the population moved north; and its near demise in the early Nineties as it struggled like most downtowns across the country.
During the late Nineties and into the first decade of the millennium, Fifth Avenue began to reinvent itself in the vision of another renowned urban planner, Andres Duany. Property owners made new investments and as consignment shops and adult book stores disappeared the Avenue became a strong main street of retail, office, hotel, arts venues, and residences. However, it lacked vitality, and by 2010 twenty of its businesses from six years earlier (2004 occupancy peak) had closed leaving empty storefronts. That is when the Business Improvement District was formed to market the Avenue. With hard work by professional staff and volunteers only then did its charm blossom—over the last few years.
Today, Fifth Avenue is recognized throughout Florida as the model main street for other cities to emulate. It is a place to live within the residential renaissance on and surrounding it; a place to work in its banks, investment and other offices; and, of course a destination to dine, stroll, and shop. A steady stream of local and national accolades from Trip Advisor, Travel & Leisure, USA Today, and others recognize Fifth Avenue as one of the top shopping and dining locations in the nation. This reflects well upon our City, and upon our home values; just look at the increase in prices of residential closest to Fifth Avenue
Will Fifth Avenue continue to grow and change along with that of greater Naples? Of course it will, but let’s not be misled. Changes too will come to Third Street and the Cove, especially as the Plaza and the aging Cove Inn and its surroundings are revitalized; their vacant properties are developed; and, parking garages below or above ground might become a necessity.
In conclusion what we, as neighbors in this paradise we call home, must do is to join our voices in demanding more from our City and County officials. Naples needs new infrastructure and management tools with which to accommodate the growing tide of population coming to our beaches, pier, parks, and shopping venues without clogging our streets, parking on our lawns, increasing our crime, or worse.
I have the pleasure of serving as President of the Fifth Avenue South Business Improvement District which represents almost 30 property and over 200 business owners. We recognize that Fifth Avenue is a vital part of Old Naples—always has been—and we will continue to work with local governments to assure that they are planning for the growth we know is coming to our neighborhoods. We welcome your input and your cooperation in this important endeavor by calling us at 239.692.8436 or emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The most important thing I have learned about Naples is that it is at its best when we work together instead of against each other.