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Seven Islands: Think big

August 19, 2016
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

To appreciate the potential of the city-owned parcels dubbed the "Seven Islands," one needs to view the man-made "hammerheads" by boat.

Surrounded by water and connected to land also owned by the city via a series of earthen "driveways," the islands strung along the North Spreader provide a breathtaking view of preserve lands across the waterway.

Originally intended for more residential development in the northwest Cape, the parcels came into public ownership during the great real estate bust with the city picking up the 48 island acres and adjoining 46 parcels off Old Burnt Store Road as one piece of a $13 million foreclosure land buy.

With the real estate market back on the upswing, the city is seeing more green than is afforded by the seven grassy and weed-covered parcels eroding into the popular waterway that provides access to Charlotte Harbor.

That green is the color of money - money that the right kind of development can bring to the city through various types of tax dollars, economic development, or both.

We agree with council, and a majority of residents, who say the city should consider some type of development for the site.

As strong a proponent as we are for park land and green space, leaving the site as is or developing it solely for recreation does not make good sense in a community that has other areas prime for parks but scant sites for "destination" development.

The city can, as it has for more than two decades, continue to tilt at the windmill that is the primarily privately owned Bimini Basin.

Or it can capitalize on what it can control - the city-owned Seven Islands property that is wholly undeveloped, a blank slate limited only by imagination and market potential.

Cape Coral City Council will consider a handful of development concept plans on Monday. It's the last step before zoning and ordinance changes commence along with the seeking of proposals from private developers who might be interested in bringing forth a project along the lines of the option chosen.

With nearby residents weighing in for parks, waterfront dining and single family development and eschewing anything over three stories, council will choose a concept plan somewhere between the status quo - single family with the possibility of multi-family, no commercial - to 11- to 12-story high- rises, a six-story hotel/resort with up to 320 rooms, a convention/meeting center and 70,000 square feet of commercial along with a number of public amenities - community center, museum, rec center, park and possibly a marina.

At its last workshop, council leaned somewhere in the middle - mixed use, maybe mid-rise multi-family, a resort and rental cottages or "fish houses" and, perhaps, boat slips and/or marina space. Pedestrian trails, park land and a community or civic center also got favorable mention.

Well and good. We commend the effort that has resulted in a range of concept plans and the inclusion of some public-benefit components.

Still, at risk of committing sacrilege, if not here, where for "big city" development that incorporates, yes, high-rise mixed use that clusters density and embraces destination concepts like some of the rejected options do?

Think eminently walkable downtown St. Pete with its high- rise residential and boutique hotels, street-level dining and shops, across from a marina, museums and parks.

While we see that type of concept among the option plans we continue to hear, from residents and some council members alike, the same suburban mentality usually summed up with the statement, "We don't want to be the east coast."

Maybe not.

In fact, that's fine, if Cape Coral is content to maintain its place as not the biggest city, but the biggest suburb, between Tampa and Miami.

But if Cape Coral homeowners are tired of paying the higher property taxes that come with that choice, and if the city really wants to attract the kind of businesses that bring headquarters, office towers and tax dollars, projects like Seven Islands and Bimini Basin are key to that goal.

That means it's time to think on a whole new level.

Our thought on Seven Islands - and indeed any similar projects to come along - is the one shared by council members Jim Burch and Rana Erbrick, both of whom said the city should "think big."

We agree as well with Councilmember Erbrick's analysis of what the city needs to do to assure the best chance of success with the Seven Islands.

"Ultimately, it comes down to what developer comes here and what they want to do," she told her fellow board members. "This is a city project. It must become a destination."

Yes, yes and yes, with one addition - any development of Seven Islands must include a strong public component as public money was used to buy the land. To that end, we urge higher, clustered density to allow for the greatest amount of green space - Perhaps one public-only island? A linear park?- with public amenities, including those for boaters.

Our recommendation:

Choose more than one concept plan for possible Seven Island Development. Rank those plans so any would-be development partner or partners understand the council's priorities. Include a preferred wants-and-needs list. Then add a wild-card option for those who see the possibilities to submit a "destination" concept of their own for consideration.

Seven Islands has great potential.

That should not be restrained out of the gate.

Think big. With a projected buildout population of 400,000 plus, Cape Coral will one day be exactly that.

Surely there's room for a little development diversity.

- Breeze editorial



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