The winning developer in a three-way race for the Grand Central Station property in Naples will likely build a mixed-use complex with shopping, dining and residential components after Regions Bank closes on a deal in the coming weeks.
A public records request for emails from city officials shows that at least three developers are interested in the 19-acre downtown property.
They are: Pennsylvania-based O’Neill Properties, The Ronto Group of East Naples, and Planning Development Inc. of Naples, according to city emails.
Miami-based commercial real estate intermediary HFF is facilitating the sale of on behalf of the bank, which acquired the property and its associated $47 million of debt in November. A spokesperson with HFF said the company is no longer actively marketing the property for sale.
Recent ideas for the long-vacant site have included everything from a convention center to a public park.
Michael Fernandez, president of Planning Development Inc., said he wants to turn about 3.75 acres of the property at the corner of Goodlette-Frank Road and U.S. 41, into a parking lot.
Fernandez has been in talks with the bank and the city about buying a chunk of the property, but would consider buying the entire lot to build more than 200 rental properties along with shopping and dining.
Deadlines for a sale have already passed but he expects the price point to be between $20 million and $25 million, he said.
Should he lose out on the property, he said he’s looking to purchase the old Daily News site off Central Avenue.
“If we can get a hold of (Grand Central Station) then great,” Fernandez said. “If we can’t and whatever is being proposed is compatible with our plans, we’ll see if we can buy the other property (along Central).”
HFF coordinated January meetings with city staff to review the proposed developments.
Both O’Neill Properties and a spokesperson for The Ronto Group declined to comment for this story. Each has a history of building mixed-use properties with shopping, dining and residential components.
The Ronto Group has redeveloped the TwinEagles golf community. They also built the single-family homes community of Grey Oaks in East Naples and high-rise condos along the Gulf Coast.
O’Neill Properties specializes in multifamily communities with residential, commercial and leisure type features, according to its website.
Their Pennsylvania projects span dozens of acres and promote the New Urbanism lifestyle, where residents can live in the same concentrated area where they also work and play.
While vetting buyers, the city should be looking for the use that most benefits the community, said David Farmer, chairman of the Southwest Florida chapter of the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit research and education group that looks at the best ways to develop land in an urban environment. That might not be a park as some advocates have suggested.
“As human beings, we all need to see grass and have a place to go play Frisbee,” Farmer said. “If there was nothing else (around) I might be the first one to jump on board and say we need a bandshell.”
Because the Grand Central Station property already benefits from city infrastructure such as water, sewer and roads, the best use of the property will likely be one that incorporates those amenities, he said.
“Turning the whole thing into a park would be cool, but on one hand, maybe it’s not the best use of the taxpayers’ money,” Farmer said.
Those pushing for more green space say they aren’t deterred at hearing a sale could soon be finalized — they say their fight is just beginning.
Neville Williams and Paul Arsenault continue to push for their vision of a central park on all or most of the 19 acres.
Arsenault is the Naples painter who helped save the lily ponds at the Naples Zoo last year. Williams is a Collier County resident with a background in a solar energy and consulting.
With growing support from residents, Williams is confident those in favor of the park will begin to have an even stronger voice once the property is sold.
“Until there’s a closing, the public can’t take much action other than just propose ideas,” Williams said. “If there’s not a closing, there’s a good chance a private group may want to buy it and deed it as a park.”
Williams said he would consider building a parking garage on part of the lot to draw people to events that would inevitably be held at the proposed park.
But development beyond a garage is a slippery slope toward the overdevelopment he said is seen in some of Florida’s east coast cities.
“If you don’t stop it now, it’s the last chance in history to make this place different,” Williams said.