Writer: Laura Layden, Naples Daily News
England native Mark Wilson’s vision hasn’t changed since day one of starting his luxury homebuilding business more than three decades ago in Naples.
He’s still laser-focused on unparalleled quality, design and finishes, just the way he’s been since founding London Bay in 1990, along with his wife Gemma.
Not everything has stayed the same: His wife “retired” from the business after 10 years.
He recruited his brother Stephen Wilson, who serves as an executive vice president and chief financial officer for the company, from England to join him in the business more than 20 years ago, so it’s still very much a family business.
“We have been building the business together since then,” he said.
Building the business has meant branching out.
London Bay doesn’t just build custom single-family estates on prime lots anymore. Its projects have grown in scope and cost over the years, involving more risks and requiring much bigger investments.
The company’s expansion and diversification include building ultra-luxury high-rise towers.
“We’ve got a thriving, growing single-family home business, but now we’ve got another stream of business on the development side. So, it also allows us to grow the overall business,” Wilson said.
The Ritz-Carlton Residences, Estero Bay
Recently, London Bay announced the launch of The Ritz-Carlton Residences, Estero Bay, which will sit on one of Southwest Florida’s last stretches of prime waterfront land still available for development, at the end of Coconut Road in Bonita Springs.
The swanky project will feature 224 residences in two 22-story towers, sitting within 500 acres of lush lands on the bay, the state’s first aquatic preserve dedicated in December 1966.
The luxury condominiums will range in size from 2,628 to 3,885 square feet, with “dinner-for-everybody-sized balconies,” according to the project’s website at www.saltleaf.com. Residences start at more than $2 million.
There won’t be a hotel attached to the community, but the Ritz name means the condominiums will offer five-star living, from their grand architecture and amenities to their white-glove services, including fine dining in-residence.
“In terms of the staffing and the team, the level of luxury service that you are getting within the residences is at a totally different level,” Wilson said. “It’s not what we’ve seen in typical luxury condos in Naples and Southwest Florida.”
The community — dubbed Saltleaf and described as a coastal village — will include a top-of-the-line marina and a golf club with a championship course, thanks to London Bay’s purchase of the adjacent 475-acre Raptor Bay property along Estero Bay from Lennar.
As promised by the developer, the new marina will be open to all, replacing the popular public boat launch shuttered in 2014.
London Bay’s purchase of Raptor Bay— completed near the end of 2020 — included the community’s golf club and its 18-hole championship golf course, which will be reimagined. Changes will include a family-friendly short course.
The golf course and clubhouse will remain open to the public, as part of Saltleaf.
The new club has been marketed as an innovative public gathering spot, offering “good things to drink, eat, play and learn.”
On-site services for residents at Saltleaf will include everything from personal training sessions to spa treatments — and even pet grooming.
Outside, the amenities will include three pools, two heated spas and an expansive lagoon.
Inside, the amenities will span 36,000 square feet. That will include a whiskey and wine room with temperature-controlled storage, a beauty salon, a card room and a large wellness center, as well as adventure and techno rooms for the kids.
Residents will have private elevators and private storage.
A "slam dunk" partnership
Landing the Ritz name — involving the approval of licensing and management agreements — took about 18 months, which is telling of the brand’s pickiness, Wilson said.
“They are very stringent. They are not going to put their name on something unless they are going to be very proud of it,” he said.
Randy Thibaut, a founder and senior broker with LSI Cos., a commercial real estate brokerage and advisory firm based in Fort Myers, agrees.
He described London Bay’s partnership with Ritz as a “slam dunk” — that’s fitting for such a desirable waterfront location, overlooking both the bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
The twin towers will be built at the former Weeks Fish Camp, which sits north of the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa.
“I think they will sell out right away to high-end buyers, who have gotten priced out of the market, particularly the south Naples market. I think it’s a value,” Thibaut said, acknowledging the irony of his words.
After opening the first tower to sales last month, London Bay achieved $150 million in sales within the first 14 days.
“It’s moving quite well,” Wilson said. Thibaut helped Wilson find his first plot of land to build his first custom home on in Southwest Florida decades ago.
Even then, Thibaut said Wilson was ahead of its time in the market, focused on superior quality and service — and commanding a high price for it.
“They were just pioneers,” Thibaut said of London Bay.
As for Raptor Bay, London Bay’s plans for it are still unfolding. The zoning allows for up to 503 residences in four 20-story towers.
With both projects, London Bay faced neighborhood opposition, but the developer stuck it out. Neighbors raised myriad concerns, from increased traffic to blocked views of the waterfront.
It took about 3 1/2 years for London Bay to get all of its city-required approvals for Saltleaf — following 70 to 80 public meetings held by the developer to explain its plans and to hear and respond to neighbors’ concerns and complaints.
The previous zoning made “no business sense,” as only 50% of the property was entitled for development, Wilson said, severely limiting its potential.
The delays the developer faced in redeveloping the former fish camp actually worked in London Bay’s favor, as home and condo prices have skyrocketed in Southwest Florida over the past few years, due in part to a wave of migration from up north to smaller cities and towns spurred by COVID-19, such as Naples and Bonita Springs.
The company has the financial capability and the staying power to hold on to property until the timing is right for development, which is crucial, Wilson said.
“You need a very good capital base to be able to do projects of this size,” he said.
It’s the right time for high-rise condos, he said, as new projects have been few and far between in recent years, and demand has picked up.
Fort Myers Beach Development
London Bay is also developing Grandview at Bay Beach, a high-rise on the southern tip of Fort Myers Beach. While it won’t have a connection to the Ritz, the modern 11-story building will offer resort-inspired amenities designed for Florida’s outdoor lifestyle, health and wellness, and connecting with nature.
Grandview is the final condominium tower to be built in the gated community of Waterside, offering sweeping views of Estero Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The project continues to gain momentum, with more than 60% of the building now sold and construction reaching the final floors.
The tower is the first to be built on Estero Island in more than a decade. It sits off Estero Boulevard, two miles north of Lovers Key State Park.
“As we get closer to the topping out, people are realizing Grandview presents a rare opportunity in the real estate market — new condominium residences, next-level amenities and occupancy by spring 2023. It fills a void in the area for new luxury condominiums in the tower market,” Wilson said.
London Bay started building Grandview in July 2021. Over the past two weeks, it has generated more than $10 million in sales.
Grandview will have 58 luxury residences, spanning from 2,400 to 2,900 square feet with three and four bedrooms and up to three-and-a-half bathrooms, with a den and covered and open-air terraces.
Each home comes with private elevator access..
Grandview’s six top-floor penthouses will have 11-foot ceilings and each will offer a private two-car garage. Other residents will have dedicated parking in the main garage.
The EL, Grandview’s amenity hub, will include a fireplace, card tables, various seating areas, and a catering kitchen and bar.
Residences start at more than $1 million.
Moorings Park Grande Lake in Naples
London Bay is also behind the development of a luxurious retirement community in Naples, known as Moorings Park Grande Lake, on 55 acres off Golden Gate Parkway, between Airport-Pulling and Livingston roads.
In a first, the developer teamed up with Moorings Park, the nonprofit continuing care retirement community, to create the project, which will feature 275 residences in 17 buildings.
All of the buildings will be seven stories. The contractor Suffolk expects more than $175 million worth of construction to be completed at the lakefront community by the end of this year.
The campus broke ground in December 2018.
“We are excited to continue our partnership with two valued clients, London Bay Development Group who is a premier luxury residential developer, and Moorings Park Communities, the leader in the boomer and senior living market,” said Josh Christensen, general manager of Suffolk’s Florida Gulf Coast region, in a statement.
The first three buildings at Grande Lake opened in April 2020. To date, a total of six have been completed and sold out.
“That project has been a great success,” Wilson said. “I think we’ve brought a level of design and luxury into that market that hasn’t been there to date.”
At Grande Lake, assisted living, memory care and physician services are part of the buy-in and they’re provided on-site.
Amenities include a lakefront clubhouse with casual and fine dining, a resort-style pool and spa, a poolside bistro and cabanas, a state-of-the-art fitness center, and a yoga pavilion.
Entry prices start at $1.5 million and are 70% refundable.
Wilson hinted there might be more of these senior-type projects in the company’s future.
Cambridge Park at Orange Blossom
London Bay recently launched a private gated boutique community known as Cambridge Park at Orange Blossom, off Airport-Pulling Road in Naples, just south of Orange Blossom Drive.
The community will have 17 single-family luxury estates. It offers a choice of five distinctive floor plans, featuring London Bay’s signature coastal contemporary architecture.
The open-concept designs span from 2,800 to 4,100 square feet, with up to five bedrooms.
Prices start in the high $2 millions.
Additionally, London Bay has been building homes in Sarasota for years, including ones at The Founders Club, a private, luxury golf community.
Asked what has made his company so successful, Wilson gave a lot of the credit to his employees, especially those who have worked with him for a decade or more.
“We’ve got many people who have now been in the business for over 15 years and that longevity and knowledge base that you build with a great team helps you operate the company,” he said.
Also, the company has done well by sticking to its focus on the higher end of the luxury residential market.
“We have not tried to be all things to all men,” Wilson said.
London Bay team grows
London Bay has ancillary businesses built into it, including an in-house team of interior designers, architects and renovation specialists, which has also fostered growth.
Over the past year, the company has added more than 30 new positions. Despite the labor shortage, it’s finding new employees, which Wilson credits to his company’s great reputation and culture.
In an effort to reward and keep his hard-working employees, Wilson said he strives to offer them some fun and relaxation, through company parties, and other events and activities, such as senior management serving drinks to workers from a bar cart on Friday afternoons, a few times a month, to help everyone wind down as they wrap up the week —and to allow time to socialize.
While supply chain disruptions have caused headaches, London Bay’s years of experience in the home building business and its ability to plan ahead have paid off, reducing the harmful impacts, Wilson said.
“At the moment, it isn’t easy,” he said. “Are we still able to get what we need? The answer to that is ‘generally, yes.’”
Clients, he said, are having to wait longer for their homes to get built, but the company has been up front about it.
London Bay has many happy customers. That includes Larry McPherson, who lives in Grande Lake in Naples with his wife.
They lived in Pelican Landing, an expansive, gated golf community in Bonita Springs, for more than 20 years.
He said he first learned about Grande Lake when Wilson gave a talk at Pelican Landing about his plans for the old Weeks Fish Camp, and someone asked whether it might be another life plan community like its first one in Naples.
When he later read about an open house at the community in the newspaper, Larry decided to check it out.
After giving it some more thought, he and his wife decided to make the move when the property was nothing more than dirt, for peace of mind. Larry said his wife Charleen discovered she had breast cancer around the time they put down a deposit, but she’s doing better now.
The couple moved into one of the first buildings in April 2020. Their condo has three bedrooms, spanning 3,000 square feet. Their porch overlooks a lake and the nearby golf course.
“We have been extremely happy,” he said. “The quality of construction has been exceptional.”
The McPhersons, who are in their 70s, didn’t just make the move for themselves. They wanted to make sure they didn’t become a burden to their three children, who have kids of their own, if or when their health failed. “They’re very happy that we’re happy,” Larry said of his children. “And they don’t have to worry about us at this point.”
That’s because the couple can stay and age in place.