Commissioners Spar Over Northwest 8th Avenue Project, University Corners

By Caitlyn Finnegan

Gainesville City Commissioners laid everything on the table for issues that have been off of the agenda for months during its latest meeting on May 2, including the Northwest 8th Avenue project and the University Corners mixed-use development.

Commissioners and public attendees debated on city issues for eight hours, with final ordinance votes taking place just before 2 a.m.

The majority of the meeting centered around discussions concerning the repavement and lane reconfiguration of Northwest 8th Avenue, a major project that has drawn a line of division through both city residents and the commission due to the cost of the project and its impact on traffic congestion and the potential impact on neighborhoods in the area.

The project is divided into three primary segments; Segment A from Northwest 40th Drive to Northwest 34th Street; Segment B from Northwest 34th Street to Northwest 23rd Street; and Segment C from Northwest 23rd Street to Northwest 6th Street. Several alternatives for each segment were presented to by city planners, but the section surrounded with the most attention was Segment B.

Public safety was repeatedly referenced as commissioners shared stories of seeing excess speeding and the bottleneck of traffic congestion that occurs at the base of the hill before Northwest 23rd Street. Commissioners also argued over how the changes would affect local residents and if they better served the interests of the west side of town or the east side.

After opening the floor for citizen comment, members of the public debated on road configuration plans for more than two hours as local representatives from cyclist groups, city organizations and residents of the surrounding neighborhoods cited concerns ranging from public safety to the probability that the lanes would not even be used enough to support the project.

Although the commissioners agreed on plans to resurface the stretch of road from Northwest 34th Street to Northwest 40th Drive and to add bike lanes and reduce on-street parking for the segment stretching from Northwest 23rd Street to Northwest Sixth Street, a consensus on plans for Segment B could not be reached. Commissioner Randy Wells proposed expanding the trial all the way to 43rd Street, but the motion was dismissed.

A vote of 6-1, with Commissioner Chase dissenting, passed a motion to proceed with a “test” of the proposed changes, a move that is projected to cost $25,000. The test is expected to start in July or August and continue for three to four months.

Bidding for the project will not take place until late summer 2014 or near the completion of the County’s project to improve Northwest 16th Avenue, another major east-west corridor, to ensure that the two projects will not overlap.

As debates dragged on into the night, commissioners voted to extend the meeting three separate times in order to address the rest of the items on the meeting’s agenda.

Representatives from the Swerdlow Group, the Miami-Dade developer who approached the city with plans to resurrect the University Corners project for the corner of 13th Street and University Avenue, presented their updated zoning and land-use plans to the commission around 11 p.m.

Now renamed “The Corner,” the project has been pursued by Swerdlow staff since its initial meeting with the city in January, with millions of dollars in updates to their initial plan including wider sidewalks, moving cooling towers to the interior of the building and adding screens or other visual buffers around mechanical and service areas.

David Coffey, the land-use attorney advising project developers, presented a series of slides addressing city concerns over the height of the building, which developers hope to push to 10 stories, two stories over the city’s eight-story limit. Without the additional two stories, developers argue that the entire project could be in jeopardy by not having enough space to house planned assets including a hotel, retail space and gourmet grocery store.

Several community members spoke in opposition of the project, including a former professor and the president of the University Park Neighborhood Association. The majority of concerns focused on the overall size of the project, the past history of the development group and the development’s impact on the surrounding neighborhoods to “cast a shadow” over what was already there.

When discussions over the proposed Community Redevelopment Agency property tax reimbursements were brought to attention, commissioners motioned to discuss the implications of such incentives at a later time.

Commissioners voted 6-1, with Commissioner Hawkins in dissent, to delay the decision on approving the requested land use change that would allow for increasing building height from eight stories to 10 stories.

The first vote on rezoning the land passed 5-2, with commissioners Hinson-Rawls and Susan Bottcher in dissent.

Moving forward, commissioners asked Swerdlow to hold community meetings to help gather more public feedback on the project and address issues including traffic flow and pedestrian-friendly design.

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