The Historic Downtown Fort Myers River District is a Hidden Gem on the Waterfront That Creatively Melds its Rich History with its Unique and Delightful Present to Deliver an Unrivaled Urban Destination
On Florida’s Gulf Coast, most people are familiar with the pristine beaches, PGA Championship golf courses, and the elegant, upscale shopping and dining in Naples; and the beautiful barrier island of Sanibel, known for its abundance of shells and great fishing; but now Florida’s West Coast has another treasure to be proud of — the recently revitalized, charming waterfront area of Historic Downtown Fort Myers. The culture and history-rich core of Downtown Fort Myers is the River District which combines walkable, waterfront neighborhoods with commercial and residential.
Long known for its rich history, most notably the winter residences of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, the sub-tropical area has taken on a new, exciting identity that beautifully blends the old and the new to create an area unmatched by any other on South Florida’s West Coast.
The City of Fort Myers just celebrated the 130th anniversary of its incorporation, but in the 1970s and 80’s its downtown was vacant and neglected. Now, thanks to a redevelopment plan launched in 2003 by the Community Redevelopment Agency, it has been reinvigorated and brought back to life creating a vibrant, thriving urban core. The plan, now an ever-evolving reality, created by internationally-acclaimed town planner and architect Andres Duany, was to develop a walkable downtown where residents could live, work, shop, dine, socialize, and be entertained.
Over the past 10 years, the area has been steadily attracting a versatile array of new businesses including many dining, shopping, and arts and culture venues. With over 65 new businesses including cafes, bars and restaurants, and unique shops and boutiques, as well as galleries and theaters, the quaint downtown has become an extremely popular destination for locals and visitors alike.
“Quality of life is the center point of Fort Myers. Citizens are finding favor with the new look and feel of downtown and beyond,” says City of Fort Myers Mayor Randall Henderson. “New-comers talk about ‘curb appeal’ and diversity of entertainment. Many are moving to the urban core which offers amenities and good food. The future is very bright,” he adds.
Also part of the city’s redevelopment plan is an award-winning water-retention basin that was completed in 2012 for $5.4 million and has since become a popular place for residents to stroll along the river, walk their dogs, or ride their bikes. The basin will be lined by eclectic retail shops, restaurants, and most recently announced, an Autograph Collection® Hotel, one of Marriott’s top lifestyle hotel brands.
The Fort Myers Yacht Basin is located on the Okeechobee Waterway, 15 miles upriver from the Gulf of Mexico. Owned and operated by the city, it is well-designed, providing easy access to boaters who would like to stop downtown for a bite to eat at one of the many dining spots, or to attend a festival or event at Centennial Park, which is located next to the marina.
Mainsail Lodging President Joe Collier, III, of the company that will bring the new Autograph Collection® Hotel to the River District, said that his company became interested in the area about a year ago. “The city had made such an impressive investment in the overall revitalization plan and we believe that the waterfront is now ripe to be activated. Our hotel will be a big draw and an important part of the evolution of the area,” he said. Since the Harborside Convention Center has been running as more of an event center, not hosting regular conventions, he believes the hotel will help to elevate everyone in the area. “We think the population in the area will get more than its fair share of growth.”
In addition to the Autograph Collection® Hotel, the City of Fort Myers will soon be home to: Millennial Brewing Company, a craft brewery; Izzy’s Fish & Oyster, a South Beach restaurant serving New England cuisine; Rebel Coffee and Roastery, known for roasting its beans on premises; and The Rocket Lounge, an incubator for start-ups and international technology companies.
Another exciting business that recently opened its doors is the Barrel Room, which is adjacent to the Twisted Vine Bistro. The hotspot features live jazz and serves a variety of hard-to-find whiskey, bourbon and scotch, and an exclusive late-night menu. Madame Peach Cobbler, a Naples-based commercial dessert operation, also opened a new café on Hendry Street, where patrons can enjoy delectable goodies while listening to a jazz guitarist. The newest restaurant to join the unique array of eateries in the downtown is Flat Top Larry’s, a classically-styled diner serving “Retro 50’s-style food with contemporary twists.”
In an effort to preserve the area’s treasures of the past, the City has designated Downtown, Edison Park, Dean Park and Seminole Park as historic districts, with 20 historic landmarks that are part of the preservation program. Streets are lined with original bricks from the 1920’s and historic homes such as the Burroughs Home & Gardens and the Lanford Kingston Home add to the area’s remarkable charm. The Edison and Ford Winter Estates is one of the most visited historic home sites in America. Referred to as “Uncommon Friends” by Author Jim Newton, Edison and Ford, together with Harvey Firestone, were fathers of the American Industrial 20th century and were instrumental in the development and evolution of the area.
Also part of the CRA redevelopment plan, is the creation of a new, unique identity for an older but steadily-evolving area called Gardner’s Park. Located just east of the Downtown River District, the area has become popular among locals for its unique variety of shops, restaurants and antiques, including the lovely Wisteria Tea Room and the beautiful Butterfly Estates. The exciting redevelopment plan will preserve the neighborhood’s history while creating a mixed-use urban arts district with community gardens and walkable, tree-lined streets. Gardner’s Park is expected to draw new galleries, arts-related businesses, and artists. The area is already home to UNIT A, a gallery space showcasing the works of internationally-renowned painter Marcus Jansen. With over 7,000 square feet of show space, it is the largest private art space of its kind in Southwest Florida.
The pedestrian and pet-friendly River District offers the best in arts and culture including the award-winning, nationally-acclaimed Florida Repertory Theater called “one of America’s Top Repertory Companies” by The Wall Street Journal. “The Florida Repertory offers a variety of musical, comedic and dramatic productions each season for all tastes,” says Renee Pesci, Florida Repertory development director. One of the historic, architectural treasures of downtown is the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center, hosting exhibitions, performances and educational events.
In addition to the plentiful entertainment options in Historic Downtown Fort Myers, the CRA also funds regular concerts and special events including Art Walk, Music Walk, Bike Night, Pet Walk, Mystery Walk, a farmers’ market, car shows, and a New Year’s Eve extravaganza that have become extremely well-attended. Recently, an international outdoor sculpture exhibit titled “Allure Your Senses,” by world-renowned artist Edgardo Carmona was brought to the downtown from Paris.
There are several annual events that residents and visitors look forward to each year including ArtFest, one of the area’s top art events featuring exceptional works by over 200 artists. The event is held the first weekend in February on the waterfront and, as a juried art festival, only the top artists are selected to participate. Later each year in November, the Fort Myers Boat Show, widely considered the premier boat show on the West Coast of Florida, comes to the city marina.
The combination of historic landmarks and architecture, preserved for coming generations to appreciate and enjoy, with new luxury condominiums, new businesses and the plentiful options for shopping, dining, and entertainment in Historic Downtown Fort Myers, has resulted in the perfect live, work, play urban environment, attracting people of all ages all year round.
The first condominium to be launched in the Historic River District of Downtown Fort Myers since 2008 is Allure. The new, luxury condominium opened its sales center early this year and has received an exciting reception. It will join a handful of other condominiums such as The Beau Rivage, Alta Mar, High Point Place, St. Tropez, and the Oasis, all built during or prior to the last condo boom from 2004 to 2007.
To rise 32-stories on the banks of the glistening, Caloosahatchee River, Allure will house 292 elegant condominium residences in two, architecturally-stunning towers. Esteemed Urban Planner Andres Duany has gone on record to tout the towers’ visually stimulating architecture and contribution to the aesthetics of the area.
Allure’s prime location will provide amazing water views and breathtaking panoramas from sunrise to sunset. Residents of this tropical, urban paradise can enjoy a theatrical production, followed by an elegant dinner, and top off the evening with cocktails at a popular nightspot, and it is all just within walking distance or a trolley ride away.
Barbara Bengochea-Perez, Sales and Marketing Director for Allure, says that buyers and brokers alike are extremely impressed and excited about both the neighborhood and the elegant condominium. “One local realtor has referred to Allure as the Rolls Royce of downtown, because it’s a building people usually dream of,” says Bengochea-Perez.
Andy Heygate is a buyer at Allure who says that he was attracted to the development for several reasons. “This is the first tower to be built in the Historic Downtown since 2008 and the location on the river is ideal,” says Heygate. “Downtown is a very exciting place with a great selection of restaurants and businesses, and even a new hotel planned,” says Heygate. A local Realtor who specializes in new developments in Southwest Florida, Heygate said he chose to purchase at Allure because of the excellent value it offers buyers. “The price per square foot is well below other towers being built in Fort Myers, Bonita, and Naples,” he says. He added that the value is even more impressive when compared to prices of condominiums on the waterfront on Florida’s east coast, which are more than double those of Allure.
With its charming, tropical feel; its urban vibe; its endless art, culture and entertainment options; its rich history; and a prime, riverfront location, it is no wonder the Historic Downtown Fort Myers River District is one of Southwest Florida’s best kept secrets.