NAPLES — More than a week after he first pitched the idea for a new downtown park, Neville Williams said support is growing. Dozens have signed a petition at Paul Arsenault's gallery in favor of the concept, and a pro-park committee met Friday to concoct a plan going forward as developers eye the prime 19-acre parcel.
"We cannot do much until we learn who the developer is that acquires the property and what plans the new owner may have for the land," Williams wrote in an email.
But not everyone is keen on the property becoming green space.
Business leaders near the property said they'd rather have a mixed commercial and residential complex at the corner of Goodlette-Frank Road and U.S. 41 to spur sales and foot traffic for everyone in the downtown area.
Lise Sundrla, executive director of the Fifth Avenue South Business Improvement District, called the vacant lot "a missing tooth" in a row of storefronts leading into Fifth Avenue South.
"The redundancy of the buildings down a street like Fifth Avenue South is what draws the eyes," she said. "People lose interest with gaps and folks don't go further down the street."
Filling those gaps the way the new Robb & Stucky International furniture store did along U.S. 41 downtown, helps the entire area, Sundrla said.
"It's critical to think about what will create a mass of people and visual impact on a site ... Helping to fill in missing teeth along a commercial road front or street line creates a vibrant business district," she said.
Alabama-based Regions Bank bought the former Grand Central Station property at auction in November for $100, also acquiring the property's $47 million of debt.
Regions Bank spokesman Mel Campbell declined to comment on the property's price tag or an expected timeline for its sale, though Mayor John Sorey has said the bank planned to sell by March for about $20 million.
Sorey called into the Tourist Development Council's monthly meeting last week and said he couldn't be there because he'd scheduled a meeting the same day with the "prime contender" to purchase the property from the bank.
"They are going to be here this morning and hopefully we'll have an announcement on that property this week," he said eagerly at the council meeting Jan. 28. The announcement never came last week.
After hearing Sorey, a longtime member of the Tourist Development Council, say on the phone that he was meeting with a potential buyer for the prime downtown property last week, Murray Hendel, council chairman, remarked,
"It's a great spot for a convention center." Sorey chuckled, responding, "I think you will be excited about their plan" before he had to get off the phone.
A few days after the Tourist Development Council meeting, Sorey said there were still some loose ends to be tied up and that the buyers had some concerns, giving him less optimism about making an announcement about their plans last week.
"We're still working on it," he said. "We'll see what happens."
City Manager Bill Moss said Monday that no official closing had been made on the property, despite speculation.
"The bank has had several potential buyers and received offers, but in terms of closing, that has not yet happened," he said.Landscape architect Ellin Goetz, president of Goetz + Stropes, said it would likely cost more to acquire the land than it would to develop it into a park.
And whoever might buy the property couldn't expect to make a return without a commercial property, she said.
The family of Goetz' husband Michael Watkins gifted the land for Cambier and Lowdermilk parks to the city decades ago.
"That's when people were interested in giving a quality of life to the community," Goetz said.
Goetz has overseen projects at the Naples Botanical Garden where portions of the site had to be filled and a lake had to be dug.
"The cool thing about this piece of land is it's just there," she said. "It doesn't need to be filled or manipulated in that way."
Goetz said the property's location at the intersection of two busy roads is not pedestrian friendly, but that the space could be designed so that it became a magnet for visitors. Features such as a soccer field would make it an active park similar to Fleischmann Park where the community could gather for activities.
"Never say never, but I think the land cost is the real kick in the pants on this one," Goetz said.
Landscape Architect Jeffrey Curl said a park would not increase surrounding property values in Naples the same way it would in an urban environment such as New York City, as some have said. Naples is already in an "environmental context" and Central Park in New York City functions as one of the city's few green spaces.
"The benefit for city residents is better suited for a higher tax rate property," Curl said. "That's looking at the economics of it."
Bayfront Developer Kevin Stoneburner said he doesn't think a park would benefit Bayfront.
Instead, Stoneburner wants to see residential development so people living across the street can frequent his waterfront shops and restaurants.
He'd also like to see Third Avenue South continued east through the lot. The street now ends at 10th Street North.
"It would make it very pedestrian-friendly to walk downtown," he said.
Vin DePasquale, owner of Riverwalk Restaurant in Tin City, said he wants whatever is added to the vacant land to benefit all of downtown Naples.
He said a park might be nice, but paying to acquire the land would be difficult. He'd rather see commercial space that incorporated some kind of arts program.
"Whatever goes there would have to work to create a draw, not just from visitors but even people in Collier County," he said.
Despite a range of suggestion for the property, all agree the vacant shouldn't languish long.
"We need to do something with it, that's for sure," DePasquale said. "It just can't sit there like that."
Staff writer Laura Layden contributed to this story