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South Cape development project gets funding, needed approvals

By Staff | May 1, 2010

Jan. 17, 2006, the Community Redevelopment agency sent out a Request for Proposal, hoping a developer would heed the siren-like call to build something that would revitalize the Cape’s downtown corridor.
Robbie Lee was the only developer to answer, doing so with the so-called “Village Square”, a mixed-use facility that would hopefully please diners, shoppers, event go-ers and most importantly, condo-hunters, at the corner of Southeast 8th Court, and Southeast 47th Terrace.
Four years later, the project has finally cleared all the necessary municipal hurdles, the last of which was city council’s approval of a conveyance agreement and rezoning on Monday night.
But, the project has also cleared another hurdle, of sorts: it remains the only major development to survive the boom and bust of the Cape Coral land speculation bubble, and now has the chance to achieve what that long ago the RFP had hoped for.
“I think it’s going to be a mental jumpstart for the whole community to see a major project in the CRA moving forward,” said CRA Chairman Don Heisler. “It’ll be a new place to go and part of the village concept we want to create.”
The April 10, 2006, proposal submitted by Lee and Island Development unveils an ambitious goal, to make Village Square “the identified place” in, and “synonymous”, with downtown Cape Coral.
The development is planned as a multi-phase project, kicking off with a parking garage plus retail and office space.
A recent drive through the district unveiled a place that desperately needs identity as much as it needs a thriving business and social scene.
For Rent and For Lease signs dot the district’s major thoroughfares, and the windows of some of the area’s most recognizable businesses.
The downtown locations of Scorz Sports Bar and Grill, Bikini Joe’s, 850 Lafayette, Eddie Fishbowl’s, Sushiyaki, June’s Hallmark, Pine Island Travel, At&T and Custard’s all sit empty for one reason or another, those sites having closed in the last few years.
If Village Square is really successful, it will help to build up the entire area, not just the city block the development will occupy, raising adjacent property values and renewing interest.
“One building won’t create that,” Don Heisler said. “But as the project moves forward, they’ll see this is real, and great things will come out of that.”

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Valued at $150 million, Village Square will boast 152 residential units, more than 250,000 square feet of commercial space, a public square, six-story parking garage with 938 parking spaces, 127 of which will be for public use.
According to AMB Planning Consultants in North Fort Myers, the project will also create 871 direct and indirect new jobs, pump $62 million into the local economy, and $25 million in wages.
AMB’s Annette Barbaccia said that Robbie Lee, her client, structured the deal with the city in a way that will protect both sides.
On Monday, city council finalized the deal, conveying land to Lee at the price of $78,198.
The city also agreed to a TIFF rebate for Lee, in which he receives a 70 percent return rate in TIFF funds on the first phase of the project — the parking garage and shopping aspects — once all taxes and fees were paid, and the first phase is complete.
TIFF — tax increment financing funds — come from property taxes paid on properties in the downtown. TIFF are the difference between taxes that were paid at a determined baseline and taxes paid after valuations increase, usually from development.
Lee also had about $2.2 million in impact fees waived over the course of the entire project.
“The risk is lower for the city,” Barbaccia said. “They’re not giving the money up front, there’s not an out of pocket expense.”
Mayor John Sullivan said he commended Robbie Lee for showing what he described as a “tremendous” amount of patience with the city while they worked through the process, but did not support the impact fees being waived.
“I think in this budget cycle we’re going to have to cut wages or cut jobs … how do you do that to a city employee, and we just gave this guy $2.2 million?” Sullivan said. “Those impact fees will have to be made up.”

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The project will eventually introduce another 152 condominiums into a housing inventory that is still trying to reduce its bloated numbers. That portion of the project, though, is not projected to break ground for another few years.
The inventory has contracted some during the first quarter of this year, and foreclosures have slowed, according to Encore Realty’s Paula Hellenbrand, who also represents the Cape Coral Association of Realtors.
She said that right now, there are 8.7 vacant condominiums on the market for every buyer, which is down significantly from 2007 – 2008, when there were 50 – 60 condominiums per buyer.
She said nothing like the Village Square project exists in the CRA, so it will have to create its own demand based on the product itself.
As the inventory continues to reduce itself, she said, there could be a strong demand for the units.
“I think it will be transformational,” Hellenbrand said. “We don’t have a product like that right now … it’s unique and new, and hopefully will create more opportunities like that in the CRA.”

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The idea of a “transformational project” is something the CRA has needed for a while, but the CRA Board has been doing its part to transform the district. It hasn’t seen large-scale projects like Village Square, but a number of smaller efforts, like alleyway paving, rental assistance, and facade grants have been undertaken.
During the CRA’s current calender year, they have expended $23,905 in facade grants, and have another $180,463 awarded, though checks have not yet been written.
The CRA board also will be working with the city on a funding mechanism that will finally bury transmission lines after a 10-year struggle.
In addition to the Village Square project, one of the more visible happenings in the district are the renovations taking place at Gulf Coast Plaza, former home of Publix.
The CRA board has put $100,000 of facade grant funds toward the total renovations cost of $350,000, to turn the former Public into a new Sweetbay Supermarket.
Leapin Lizard owner Mary Ann Evans said she happy with all the moves being made in the district, especially after watching businesses close up all around her.
While she doesn’t think Village Square will have a serious impact on her business –she thinks Leapin Lizard is too far away — she said the boost and renewed faith it will create.
“It isn’t personally going to do anything for me, but the renewal overall will help downtown,” Evans said. “The minute it pops up, others will follow.