Affordable Fort Myers townhomes ‘Towles Gardens’ planned in Lee County
Towles Gardens is in the works at the intersection of Veronica Shoemaker and Edison Avenue.
Andrew West and David Dorsey, Fort Myers News-Press
A 7.63-acre Fort Myers parcel is slated to become an affordable housing community that will be known as Towles Gardens and will have 140 units.
Prince Jones, a native of New York, moved to the area and became CEO of My-Canvas Inc. He is collaborating with Frankie Jennings, CEO of F.J. Services Sales & Marketing, which is spearheading this project with the help of area developer Robert MacFarlane.
Roy Kennix also has been involved with the project, expected to cost at least $30 million.
Slated to be built at the southwest corner of Veronica Shoemaker Boulevard and Edison Avenue, Towles Gardens will give low-income residents the rare opportunity to buy townhomes and villas and have the chance to earn equity on them instead of helping a landlord to pay his or her own mortgage with rent.
One-, two- and three-bedroom units are being designed.
“We assembled a team,” Kennix said. “We went to Robert MacFarlane. We asked about his interest in the project. He had done affordable housing. He could build it, and we could operate it. This would be a collaboration. We came together and put together a proposal.”
The result: 51% of the Towles Gardens buyers must be making 80% or less of the median household income in the city.
Jennings, who will be marketing the units with the assistance of Yvonne Hill, needed a broker. She kept hearing about Jones.
“We talked, and he accepted the leadership as our listed broker,” Jennings said. “This is really a story for Fort Myers. The diversity we have in building this, it’s rare for here in Fort Myers. But we have been fortunate enough to collaborate with a strong developer.”
Jones said he couldn’t wait to get started. But the developer is running into red tape delays on getting the permitting in place to begin construction. Until MacFarlane can break ground, Jones cannot hit the ground in selling these units. He has set up an office at 2400 First St. for those interested to gather information.
“You’re going to have job creation for the minorities who work on this project,” Jones said.
Jones wants to see commercial brokers looking to improve the brands available for his community. Adding a name-brand grocery store, for example, would help.
“There’s nothing along Martin Luther King for people to buy groceries,” Jones said, other than corner or dollar stores. “We’re just trying to help the economy. So Grandma can walk to the store.”
Fort Myers city councilman Johnnie Streets has been championing this project.
“The government doesn’t work fast,” Streets said of some of the delays. “Sometimes, we don’t work fast enough for the people. We need to remove some of the red tape.”
Bob DeSantis works for McFarlane as the executive director of Towles Gardens LLC. He said he hoped to break ground by the end of this summer.
“There were lots of delays in transferring the ownership of the land and the development agreement between ourselves and the city,” DeSantis said. “Our engineering is almost done. And the financing is almost done.”
There are environmental aspects as well. The property is full of native trees, including oak trees.
“We’re going to save as many as we can,” DeSantis said. “The big oaks, of course. And 20% of our land that we’re getting has to be used for stormwater storage. We can’t build on it.
“But this project is not just another affordable rental housing. This is one of ownership.”
Affordable housing projects near these neighborhoods are needed, and DeSantis said he didn’t want to stop developing them after this one gets going.
“We’re actively pursuing a lot of property right now,” DeSantis said. “We want to do more projects like Towles Gardens right now. We want to do some projects for veterans. We’re in the middle of buying lots of land right now.”
Habitat Humanity welcomes six new families
Habib and Moulkheir Benali moved to the United States from their native Algeria 32 years ago.
For the past 14 years, they have been moving from one rental home to another, four times total, in Lee County.
All that moving will end this summer, when the family moves into their new Heritage Heights home, a Habitat For Humanity community across from the Kelly Road soccer complex, just south of Gladiolus Drive and near Harlem Heights.
“It’s amazing,” said Habib Benali, who works in an ice cream shop at Coconut Point in Estero. “It’s a dream come true. It’s what we’ve been working for. The American dream.”
The Benalis were one of six families on hand Friday morning for a dedication ceremony, the kickoff to a planned community of up to 150 homes. About 50 homes on the north side of a water retention lake will be built first. Development on the south side will take place in future years.
Habitat for Humanity purchased the 20-acre site for $1.4 million in 2016.
Companies like SHIP, FineMark National Bank & Trust and FHL Bank of Atlanta were instrumental in funding the project among many other donors.
“I would call this a full circle moment,” said Habitat for Humanity of Lee and Hendry County CEO Becky Lucas. “Nine-hundred feet in that direction was our first Habitat home in Lee County, 41 years ago. And the family is still living there.”
Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller, who died in 2009, visited Fort Myers more than four decades ago and set up shop here.
“He had a bullhorn and a poster board for Habitat for Humanity,” Lucas said. “He inspired people to help out and build homes.”
The generosity gets contagious. Homeowners moving into Habitat homes agree to 300 community service hours. They are able to purchase them at appraisal value, which in this community is in the $180,000 range.
Home buyers must be making less than 80% of the annual mean income.
“There is a no-interest mortgage, and that makes it affordable,” said Vince Modarelli, Habitat’s vice president for strategic partnerships. “Habitat for Humanity’s mission is to help other neighbors find homes.”