The glasses weren’t rose-tinted but the town square viewed through provided virtual reality goggles was cast with a distinct visionary blush:
A large lakeside park with lush lawns, dock, boardwalk and band shell.
Splash fountains and pedestrian-friendly trails winding through verdant preserves amid standing swatches of pine and palmetto.
Babcock Ranch officials held a groundbreaking Tuesday to mark the start of construction for the first buildings to go up around Founders Square, the town center of the 18,000-acre community being developed off SR 31 just past the Lee County/Charlotte County line.
Tracy Hunt, vice president of operations, Skanska USA Building Inc.; Syd Kitson, chairman and CEO, Kitson & Partners; Tom Hoban, partner; Daniel Abou-Jaoude, GGP, project executive, Skanska USA Building Inc.; and Rick Severance, president, Babcock Ranch, symbolically break ground for Founders Square, the new town center, at Babcock Ranch Tuesday.
Work is progressing on what will be the largest Lake at Babcock Ranch. The lake, which was previously dug, was recently drained so that its shoreline could be properly sloped.
A scattering of buildings – waterfront restaurant, shops and cafes, wellness and discovery centers, a neighborhood school – designed to embrace the outdoors with pavered walkways and plenty of shady places to sit.
The computerized vision of what will be Founders Square overlaid the reality of bulldozed earth, pipes of all sizes and types, and the scores of heavy machinery working to turn what just months ago was pasture and rock-mining acreage into a “green,” sustainable, solar-powered city at Babcock Ranch Tuesday.
The development off SR 31 just across the Lee/Charlotte County line held a groundbreaking to mark the start of “vertical construction” – the building of its phase one commercial core – set to coincide with the completion of its first residences and the welcoming of its first residents, expected in the first quarter of next year.
The groundbreaking coincidentally came the same day Kitson & Partners, the developer, received its construction permitting.
“Literally, in a matter of hours, our Founders Square is coming out of the ground,” said Syd Kitson, Kitson & Partners chairman and CEO.
“Founders Square is the permanent lakefront anchor for the downtown district that will expand southward in future phases of construction,” officials said in a prepared statement distributed at the event.
At completion some 20 years down the road, the community that is about the size of Manhattan will add 19,500 homes and 6 million square feet of commercial, office and industrial space – adding “hundreds and hundreds” of permanent jobs – while retaining much of its green space. Of its 18,000 acres, about half has been earmarked for greenways, parks and lakes.
The first building, to be constructed on the west side of the Founders Square park, will be the lakeside restaurant. The discovery/sales center with offices for Kitson & Partners, and the outdoor outfitter store to accommodate residents and visitors looking to hike or bike the trails, or paddle the lakes will follow.
Close behind will be construction of the town’s first charter school, a planned K-8th grade facility, that will be open to nearby students from both Charlotte and Lee counties, thanks to an interlocal agreement that will allow for attendance from both sides of the county line.
Planned for opening next August, the initial student class is expected to be 60-80 students. They will be offered a STEAM curriculum, the standard science, technology, engineering and math of the STEM program with an arts component added in, said Rick Severance, Babcock Ranch president, adding a charter school board has already been established.
A half dozen builders have been lined up to sell and construct the first wave of single-family housing including Homes by Towne, Fox Custom Builders, KTS Homes, Stellar Homes and Stock Development with Florida Lifestyle Home and WCI also under contract.
Prices in the first wave of the first phase will range from the high $200,000s to $900,000 plus. When multi-family construction begins, prices will begin around $175,000.
All told, 1,100 residential units – 700 single-family homes, 70 townhome/villas and 330 condominium units – are planned for Phase 1, with the first neighborhood, Lake Timber, to be built adjacent to the downtown area which at completion will stretch for a mile.
“We really want to make it accessible to everybody,” said Severance. Accessibility was a theme that was heard throughout the presentation.
Babcock Ranch is not being constructed as a gated community, officials emphasized. “It’s open for the public,” Severance said. “No gates to get in.”That includes the amenities, according to Kitson.
“We especially hope people will come in and enjoy our 50 miles of trails,” he said. “Again, it’s open to everyone.”
And that includes existing residents scattered along the streets off SR 31 on small and large rural acreage parcels across from the town-in-the making.
“I would hope that they know that 90 percent of the ranch land has been preserved and that we absolutely understand their concerns,” Kitson said when asked what message he might have for nearby property owners now 8 miles from the nearest grocery store and a good 20 minutes of so from Fort Myers or North Fort Myers, the nearest towns. “They are legitimate concerns and we absolutely respect that.
“They have a way of life and that should be preserved and we respect that,” he added.
Kitson stressed that the acreage slated for development was impacted by either agri-business or rock mining well before the land was purchased. Meanwhile, they are being environmentally aware as development progresses.
“We are saving, literally, hundreds of trees, as many as humanly possible,” he said. In addition to preserving natural areas, they also are relocating trees that can be moved rather than simply taking them down.
“Hundreds have been transplanted,” Kitson said. ‘That’s part of the sustainability of what we are doing.”
The preservation/conservation component has roots back to the time of purchase.
The 18,000-acre town-to-be was part of a 92,000-acre purchase Kitson made in 2006 after the Babcock family put the ranch that had been in the family since 1914 on the market.
Kitson then sold the state, which had eyed the ranch for preservation but could not come up with the money for the entire site, about 73,000 acres of the most environmentally sensitive areas. That land will remain undeveloped.
He said it is his hope neighboring property owners will enjoy the positive things Babcock Ranch will bring while recognizing its efforts to preserve the land’s natural attributes.