The Hendry Street Pedestrian Mall could link Midtown to Downtown Fort Myers
City leaders have been trying to link Midtown to Downtown Fort Myers since 2018.
Matthew Leger presented the Hendry Street Pedestrian Mall as a possible way to accomplish the goal of linking the two communities. He put forth a plan at the Fort Myers City Council meeting on February 22.
“Downtown has got its physical limitations, because we're hemmed in by the river with residentials to the east and west,” Fort Myers City Council member Liston Bochette said. “But when you go towards Midtown, it's wide open. So this is an area the city is counting on to be the new shine, the new ember in the fire, and there's no doubt it will happen.”
A pedestrian mall is defined as streets that are lined with storefronts and closed off to most automobile traffic.
The Midtown area in Fort Myers is a 240-acre district just south of the historic downtown core. Midtown is characterized by an eclectic mix of buildings and street conditions.
These physical conditions, along with a significant amount of under-utilized property, the lack of investment, and its adjacency to downtown, make this area an ideal candidate for redevelopment, according to the City of Fort Myers.
Bochette said the issue with downtown is that it is almost built out. He added that with Midtown nearby, the city can find more opportunities to enhance development and livability.
“I'm a real proponent of quality growth, not quantity growth,” Bochette said. “Density means more but more doesn't always mean better. We can find that balance, but we've got to get across the street.”
There are three main roads in downtown Fort Myers: Hendry Street, Jackson Street and Broadway. Hendry Street was chosen for the pedestrian mall because it’s the narrowest of the three. In addition, the city owns most of the land and can connect the street from City of Palms Park north to the yacht basin on the Caloosahatchee River.
Chair of the Fort Myers Planning Board, Matthew Leger, created the project. Throughout his career, Leger has travelled to other cities and studied what makes those cities so successful. The common denominator for all the cities was a strong pedestrian-oriented core.
“Of all of the various civic improvement projects I've seen, the mall seemed to be the best fit to draw that energy off of the successful river town neighborhood into the Midtown neighborhood,” Leger said.
Some residents, like local architect Vito Mazzariello, would welcome the project.
“A pedestrian mall is really good for the community especially since art walk and music walk are jammed up,” Mazzariello said. “We need a place where people can actually celebrate and have a good time in the area and that'll bring more money into the area as well.”
A new pedestrian mall on Hendry Street would run right through the heart of Fort Myers and many other major destinations in the city’s urban center.
The planning board believes this pedestrian-only route would improve accessibility and mobility, and also lead to more business activity.
“By creating a pedestrian mall in Fort Myers, we would bridge the popularity of the River District into a catalyst for quality development in midtown,” Leger said in the presentation.
Backers of the concept believe Hendry Street businesses would not be hurt by the loss of auto traffic.
“There's no real businesses on those streets that are traffic dependent,” Bochette said. “No one needs to be parking on those streets.”
Some residents of Fort Myers, like Terry Moore, agree that opening a pedestrian mall would benefit the businesses along Hendry Street.
“The real estate along Hendry Street would become really attractive,” Moore said. “People who own that real estate are going to make a lot of money.”
Moore moved to Fort Myers last summer and said a pedestrian mall would benefit the community.
“Opening that up wouldn’t hurt anything, it just costs money,” Moore said.
The financial aspect is not only on the minds of residents, but on the minds of the people behind the project.
While Bochette said the pedestrian mall would have great potential, he did say the "devil was in the details."
He said there were three steps to every project. The first step is the vision phase, where good ideas produce good outcomes. The second is the feasibility stage, when questions about logistics, land and infrastructure arise. Then there’s the final step: money to make it all happen.
Bochette said the city was looking for new sources of income. He mentioned that some cities have added bed taxes to help attract visitors and pay for some improvements.
Lee County collected about $53 million dollars in bed tax in fiscal year 2021. That fiscal year ended September 30, 2021. Lee County collects 5% tax on each hotel or resort room rental. Bochette said bed tax money could help Fort Myers. “We can earmark these funds for this exact type of project; not for the nuts and bolts, but for the infrastructure, the arts, culture, and tourism," Bochette said.
The addition of a pedestrian mall could be an attraction for city visitors. But supporters said it is also an attempt to attract younger people to the area. Many young people enjoy living closer together in an area that has an active downtown lifestyle. The mall could expand that downtown vibrancy southward to Midtown Fort Myers.
“Southwest Florida in general has always been seen as God's waiting room,” Bochette said. “But it's changing very quickly.”
Many of the people moving into the community are young professionals who want active lifestyles.
“Right now, this is the opportunity. It's dynamic. It's fun. It's profitable. Our state income taxes low, our property taxes are reasonable... It's a great place for young people to want to live and to say, I'm just not following the leader; I am the leader,” Bochette said.
Alexa Lopes, a front desk agent and new resident of Fort Myers, agreed.
“This is definitely something I’d like to see,” 22-year-old Lopes said. “It would be nice to have something else to walk around to see and do.”
Lopes is a recent graduate of Penn State University and moved to Fort Myers in June of 2021.
However connecting the two areas with a mall raises questions about the safety of pedestrians.
“Safety is always my concern, and it should be valued for everyone’s sake,” Fort Myers resident Irina Veron said.
Other residents said they feel that linking the two communities would not pose extra risks.
“I think there’s crime everywhere, but I don’t think it would affect the area too much,” 23-year-old Emmanuel Monroy said. “It’s not like we’re divided by a wall right now. If it wanted to be here it would be here.”
Fort Myers resident Nick Moroso said a pedestrian mall would be beneficial to residents, and concerns about safety should not hold back the project.
“They have to assure safety no matter what’s done,” Moroso said.
“Beauty is everywhere; charm is very unique,” Bochette said. “The pedestrian mall would be an aspect that keeps our city charming and unforgettable and makes it a quality place to live for the residents and that others would want to come back to.”
Bochette said the Hendry Street Pedestrian Mall looks like the best initiative to connect Downtown to Midtown Fort Myers.
Some people said they are ready for it.
“Can’t wait... when do we break ground?” Moroso said.