Naples sets eyes on new vision for Design District

Laura Layden
Naples Daily News

Decades ago, a charette helped drive a new vision for Fifth Avenue South in downtown Naples.

Now, it's the Design District's turn.

Through the same collaborative process and the same well-known design firm, the city is turning its attention to the future of the district — a diverse area, more formally known as 41-10. 

The district is located to the east and the north of U.S. 41, to the west of Goodlette-Frank Road, and to the south of Seventh Avenue North. The area in focus spans more than 200 acres.

An in-person charette will begin Tuesday, Nov. 9,  and wind down a week later. It's been likened to a multi-day town hall.

The charette is a way to bring all stakeholders together, through a team approach, to create a design — and a plan to implement that design — with the help of a team of hired experts.

"It sounds like a long time, a whole week. But nevertheless, it's fast, for such a large area," said Galina Tachieva, a managing partner of DPZ, who directs the firm's work around the world.

Naples looks to redesign its Design District

All of the public events will be in a studio in The Collective at 111 10th St. S., with the exception of one. 

The closing presentation on Nov. 16 will be at the River Park Community Center.

A schedule of events can be found here: speakupnaples.com/key-dates

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While separate meetings are planned for residents, businesses, and commercial property owners, anyone can attend any or all of the public events, whether it's to share ideas, pick brains, air concerns — or just to listen.

The effort to reimagine the district is being led by the Naples Community Redevelopment Agency and Miami-based DPZ CoDesign, the world-renowned planning, urban design and architecture firm that developed the plan in 1993 that's credited with the rebirth of the once-sleepy, now bustling Fifth Avenue South.

The Naples City Council acts as the city's Community Redevelopment Agency. 

While the charette hasn't officially started, conversation and ideas are already flowing about what should — and shouldn't — be in the new master plan for the Design District. That's happening mostly through the online platform Speak Up Naples, created by DPZ, to encourage more public participation and discussion.

By noon Friday, 45 ideas had been shared on the online platform. 

Some of the ideas? More native plantings, moderately priced restaurants, unique shops, bike lanes, affordable housing, green space, events and art, including wall murals.

As for what's not wanted, some shared they're not interested in seeing the creation of another busy tourist district, the addition of more glitz and glamor or the construction of more high-rises.

Based on the online commentary so far, it's clear some are worried about the district losing more of its human scale and charm.

The Speak Up Naples platform will remain up and running through March or early April of next year, until DPZ is ready to make its final presentation on a proposed master plan for the district.

"The district has a lot of diversity and a wealth of different uses and different things are happening here, which are very interesting to us," Tachieva said. "We will use every minute while we are there to learn more." 

The first few days of the charette, she said, will be a bit chaotic, as it's the creative time, the time to put pencil to paper to illustrate competing ideas, coming from competing interests.

The district has seen a flurry of development since 2014, with the addition of Naples Square, a high-end mixed-use project that's still under construction, and there's more to come, including a high-end playhouse and a hotel. 

"There are projects underway. We hope to keep the momentum going," Tachieva said.

DPZ will look for ways to build upon the "urban fabric," she said, and what makes the district unique.

Ray Christman, Naples City Council candidate

"We will be looking at the character," Tachieva said. "We will be looking at the aesthetic, but what is more important is to maintain and improve and to nourish the liveliness and the variety of things that are happening there currently." 

Some city residents and business owners have raised concerns that the effort might just create another Fifth Avenue South. That won't happen, Tachieva said, because good urban planning must be based on and built upon an area's DNA.

With whatever plan emerges, improving mobility and connectivity to other parts of the city will be a priority, she said.

While the Design District has been attracting development on its own, Naples City Councilman Ray Christman, who serves as chairman of the Community Redevelopment Agency, said the city shouldn't just sit back and watch it happen, but rather have a hand in its future.

The plan will help the city determine what types of investments it should make in the area, from sidewalks and landscaping to parking and lighting, he said, and identify what zoning or land-use changes might be necessary to spur the kind of development that's desired.

Even more importantly, the planning process will create an overarching vision for the district. 

"We have two very successful commercial corridors right now," Christman said. "Fifth Avenue South and Third Street. This could be a third companion area to that."

Anyone who walks or drives in the district, knows it's unique, he said, and it's important not to lose that.

"It's really different from any other area you can think of in the city and really in Collier County," Christman said. "I think that's the exciting opportunity." 

Naples City Councilman Ray Christman speaks during a council meeting on May 25, 2021.

The area has become known as the Design District because it has a concentration of architectural, interior design, home décor and other design-oriented businesses. Those businesses are pushing to keep the name — and expand their presence.

One outcome of the district's new master plan might be the attraction of new shops and restaurants that may find it too costly to locate on Fifth Avenue or Third Street, Christman said.

"If that can happen, that would be a good thing for Naples," he said. "And for our residents and visitors to have that." 

No matter how good the outcome from the planning effort, he stressed much of what happens in the district will be determined by market forces.

"We live in a market economy," Christman said. "Decisions made by property owners, by business owners and residents, will ultimately determine how the 41-10/Design District evolves. The look and feel that it has." 

Naples Mayor Teresa Heitmann said the master plan really needs ideas and input from the public to create a clear vision for the future of the district, so she's been working hard to spread the word about it.

She hopes to see future development brought back into scale, with the enforcement of height restrictions, so the area can keep what's left of its small-town charm.

"It is a special place already," she said. "I would be very disappointed to see us lose what we have left of the locally-owned businesses that are very unique."