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First Street in the River District is paved with reclaimed bricks.

Can a brick be a work of art? How about 500,000 bricks? Yes, they can be when they’re part of Streetscape.

What Is Streetscape?

Streetscape was part of an ambitious project that involved removing and replacing all the underground utilities and streets in the 52 block core area of the downtown Fort Myers River District.

What’s so Artsy About That?

Bricked side alleys add to downtown's charm and overall aesthetic appeal.

Two things. First, without modernized water, sewer, electrical and high-speed communication service, the art galleries, boutiques and restaurants in the River District could not provide the level of service they do today. Nor could the area have sustained the 10,000+ residential units that flood the River District at night with art lovers, shoppers and diners. Secondly, a beautified but historically preserved downtown possesses a unique aesthetic appeal that helps draw residents from other parts of southwest Florida as well as tourists and out-of-town visitors to events like Art Walk, Music Walk and ArtFest Fort Myers.

Who Did the Work?

The project was a joint effort involving the Fort Myers Public Works Department and the Fort Myers Downtown Redevelopment Agency and handled by Kraft Construction, a statewide commercial contractor headquartered in Naples that has more than 40 years of industry experience. It impacted over 140 storefront businesses and the more than 10,000 people who work in the River District each day.

Was it Really Necessary?

Without question. The downtown had become an unsightly, run-down, non-functional part of town. The 70-80-year-old underground utility system no longer worked properly, with dirty, discolored water, line breaks and sewer backups being daily occurrences. The streets were in need of repair and the system of one-way traffic made driving downtown a confusing, unpleasant experience. People were avoiding the River District, forcing many retail businesses and eating establishments to close their doors or relocate.

The City has plans for an 80,000 square foot addition that will more than double the size of the Harborside Convention Center.

Put simply, it would not have been possible to lure visitors and new businesses downtown without first modernizing the utility system, repairing the streets, making them work more efficiently, and beautifying the area. These steps were also vital to the city’s long-term plans to transform the River District into convention center and tourist destination by adding a 1.8 acre river basin, doubling the size of the Harborside Convention Center and adding a 12-story 220-room convention-quality hotel with additional shopping and dining locations along Hendry Street.

So What Exactly Was Done?

Below ground, new water, sewer and storm water drainage systems were installed, and Florida Power and Light Co. ran conduit so that they could replace unsightly overhead electrical lines with invisible, underground service. Conduit was also installed for telephone, cable and high-speed internet.

Widened sidewalks accommodate more cafe-style streetside dining.

Above ground, the streets were narrowed, street profiles lowered and sidewalks broadened to accommodate both increased foot traffic and café-style dining by streetside restaurants and bistros. Brick-accented sidewalks and crosswalks, landscaping and lighting were added. Smaller, more historic traffic signals, park benches, unobtrusive waste receptacles, decorative bike racks and landscaping were employed to enhance the downtown’s charm and ambiance.

So What About Those 500,000 Bricks?

Prior to the Streetscape project, the roads throughout the River District were covered in asphalt. But the asphalt had been laid over thousands of old bricks. The Downtown Fort Myers Redevelopment Agency decided to recover and recycle more than 500,000 of these bricks because of their historic significance. Today, those bricks not only pave the streets and crosswalks, they surface many of the sidewalks and plazas throughout the downtown Fort Myers River District.

Was the Result Worth the Effort?

The downtown combines historical and aesthetic appeal.

Absolutely. The City of Fort Myers’ Downtown Utility and Streetscape Improvements Project received the Project of the Year Award in the Historical Restoration/Preservation category from the Florida Chapter Awards Committee of the American Public Works Association (APWA), beating out 79 other projects submitted for consideration.

During the final months of construction, 15 new businesses moved back downtown and realtors have witnessed renewed interest in River District retail, office and residential locations.

The project has drawn national attention, as well. “I received a call from Wrangler Jeans,” Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Don Paight recalls. “They’d been scouting locations to do some of their catalogs and commercials and absolutely fell in love with downtown Fort Myers. They said it was like a Hollywood stage set. They sent a crew down here and spent four days in front of the businesses, along the brick streets, down along the waterfront. We’re hoping to attract more of that type of activity.”

Wide ADA-compliant sidewalks help make Art Walk a huge success.

But perhaps the project’s most pervasive influence has been its connection with Art Walk, which was an event that a number of River District art galleries conceived in order to lure people back downtown who’d been alienated by four years of construction and road closings. Streetscape not only provided a venue conducive to crowds of art and music lovers, but the impetus for the River District businesses to launch and maintain the monthly events that are turning the dream of revitalization into a reality.

Related Articles and Links

  • Like Parallel Park, necessity gave rise to Streetscape beautification project
  • River District rebuilt on the backs of art, galleries and art events
  • Art Walk’s impact on River District businesses after three years
  • Weighing the significance of Art Walk
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