USA Today

March 31, 2017

 

Fort Myers land plan lacks true vision, development essentials

By Fort Myers citizens

 

https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2017/03/31/fort-myers-land-plan-lacks-true-vision-development-essentials/99749354/

 

The Fort Myers Council knows the acceptable process to initiate big community planning changes. They know that integrity starts with honest community engagement. They've done this twice before  - a 2002 week-long series of Interactive Community Workshops to create the Duany Downtown Plan, and again in 2010, two days of interactive community engagement to update that plan for a small 10 block portion with the new basin.

But, this current Administration doesn’t comprehend what good planning means. With half-baked reasoning it is attempting to rush through approval of sweeping changes to the Comp Plan and zoning code for the downtown and midtown areas.   A developer-devised packet devoid of understanding of realities of excellent city planning, short on citizen input and long on fantasy is being pushed into law.

There simply is no overall plan guiding any of this proposal. Midtown planning began several years ago with an inept, underfunded initiative and then premature cessation, assuring no final product. Now, these huge unplanned downtown/midtown changes have been glommed onto the active adoption process of the smaller Gardner’s Park Plan – itself a good document, evolved through sound community input process.

Unlike other thoughtful downtown redevelopment plans, ones based on economically sound community-building concepts like increased intensity along transit corridors, walk sheds (comfortable five-minute walk range) centered around mixed use business nodes and protection of existing neighborhoods; this plan is merely a glorified utility study with all growth calculations derived simply from the potential maximum number of toilets flushing on any given day in downtown. Utility capacity is very important and in good city planning is always a known-built-in assumption, but sadly, the thinking here went no further, and wastewater capacity is the only central organizing concept justifying these massive and permanent changes.

The proposal was ‘shown’ to citizens in two tightly controlled presentations. Only written questions allowed, no substantial answers available and little give and take or in-depth discussion of proposed changes of generational magnitude.

Yet, these same Comp Plan changes would allow heights limited only by FAA concern for airplane safety. And, without a single public hearing prior to a Council vote, they would double baseline densities with no negotiated exchange for public amenities so essential to supporting a burgeoning population; such as public parking, parks, plazas, civic open space, cultural facilities, recreational facilities, transit enhancement, landscaping and critically needed workforce housing.

Massive new projects would need only staff approval. And while we’re assured that “exceptional architectural standards” will be required, those too would be left entirely to the discretion of a single staff person.

Funding for essential public amenities – the ones that create great places to live - will be lumped together into a single Community Fund supported by a 1% construction cost fee on any “extra” dwelling units - beyond the possible 300% increase proposed (small units will only count as .5 unit or less). With so much to be given away as baseline, how many “extras” would ever be needed? And, even if purchases of these extras were maximized, a few calculations show that the revenue stream will fall far short. We’re told city staff “did the math” proving the viability of its funding scheme, but, despite multiple requests, no such data seems to exist.

A similar system initiated in St. Pete nine years ago has “not yielded any significant funding for workforce housing” according to their Housing Department Director.  Nor has its supplied significant funding for any of the other community needs listed. They didn’t get the anticipated revenues, but…they are getting a new 410’, 42 story tower, approved only by staff with no public hearing and no public amenities.

In the 15 years since the Duany planning process engaged some 1,500 Fort Myers citizens in community visioning some things have changed, just not the solid principles of good community planning. All plans and codes need regular updating to stimulate and direct high-quality growth. This council has allowed not only decay in its police department, but decimation of its planning and development services divisions, resulting in expensive and frustrating project delays. In extraordinary neglect of its own business the City has drifted for years without a single comprehensive planner and only two full time staff to handle all review and permitting.

Fort Myers needs to grow and increase its property tax base. We need more housing with much greater diversity in types, sizes and price ranges. We need a much denser, walkable, bikeable neighborhoods with viable transit connections, and a downtown and neighborhoods attractive to young innovators, retirees and most of all, families willing to make it home for decades to come.  But, first we need a visionary and thoughtful process of professional excellence to update our Smart Code and outdated Comp Plan, not some hastily devised extension of an engineering study.  A process born of integrity would begin by engaging residents in an interactive process of re-visioning; reaffirming commitment to the kind of city we want to build and live in… “It begins with asking the community to envision its own future”.

On Monday night, the Fort Myers City Council will vote on the first of several steps to advance these Comp Plan amendments into law when considering “Permission to Advertise.”

It is up to citizens to let our elected officials know that we expect more - that the important work of planning the future of our City is to be done right…not fast. And right means full citizen engagement.

Fort Myers citizens concerned about changes to Comp Plan and zoning code.