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Architect About Town

Big plans for Fort Myers go way back

Architect About Town - Special to the Fort Myers News-Press

Imagine the growth of an area without regulations to guide the height, the area and use of buildings to designate open spaces and to propose recommendations for roads, vegetation and plantings.

In fact, that is exactly what was happening in the early 1920s when the Coastal Railroad arrived and the Tamiami Trail linking Tampa to Miami through Fort Myers was completed. This area was booming. Fortuitously, city officials followed the lead of other growing cities and recognized the importance of creating a master plan to direct growth. Well-known city planner Herbert S. Swan of New York City was wisely appointed to prepare the very comprehensiveFort Myers Plan in 1926.

“If one circled the globe, he could not find a location for winter months more conducive to health and enjoyment than is to be found on the Western coast,” Swan said of Fort Myers. Of the downtown, he noted, “First Street was one of the most attractive streets in the world” and he praised the use of the royal palm as a street tree claiming, “one of the greatest assets of Fort Myers is the luxuriant and tropical character of its vegetation shown alike in its gardens and its streets.”

Appreciating the inherent beauty of the area, Swan proceeded to outline an outstanding development plan for the whole city. He placed a high priority on coherently connecting the city with a comprehensive traffic and railroad plan and suggested the acquisition of specific sites for more parks and parkways. He also pushed for a major public recreational area on reclaimed riverside land with an integrated yacht basin and public pier, which would become vital to visitors and residents alike.

The plan also contained advice on schools, street cleaning, sanitation and a planting plan, and recommendations to regulate public buildings/housing and zoning, including the establishment of a building department and a code specific to construction in South Florida.

Prophetically, Swan warned attention should to be paid to its neglected river. “The Caloosahatchee River is, second to its tropical climate, Fort Myers’ greatest natural asset. Yet the city has up to the present practically turned its back upon the river as if it is ashamed of it,” he indignantly noted. His advice was to immediately prevent further pollution and begin the river park, cautioning against waiting too long.

The Fort Myers Downtown Plan, prepared in 1986, for the new Downtown Redevelopment Agency, kick-started the renaissance of downtown after years of decline. Don Paight, executive director since the inception of the DRA (now referred to as the Fort Myers Redevelopment Agency), feels it was a vital plan that provided the catalyst for creating Centennial Park, the building of Harborside Event Center and encouraging the public acquisition of private land, ensuring city and county government offices would remain downtown.

This plan too emphasized the development of the riverfront.

Most recently the 2003 Duany Plater-Zyberk Plan seeks to re-establish an urban character downtown and, with the completion of the downtown streetscape project, has successfully brought the city visually back to its original splendor.

Currently in the approval stage, another master plan spearheaded by design firm Populous focuses on the area adjacent to the river. It is this proposal that may finally bring to fruition the most urgent project of the Swan plan: the development of the riverfront, providing an opportunity for Fort Myers, in Swan’s words, “to become the most attractive city in South Florida, unrivaled in many respects.”

From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Jan. 16, the city will celebrate The Anniversary, a historic celebration of the architectural, social and cultural significance of the downtown Fort Myers River District and the 20 years it has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

At this event, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects will be hosting an exhibition of Downtown Master Plans — including the Fort Myers Plan of 1926 — in the McCrory Building, 1525 Hendry St. Here you will be able to see the evolution of the city and the plans for the future.

Joyce Owens AIA RIBA