When Mercedes-Benz of Gainesville opted to move from outside the Gainesville city limits to the auto mile inside the city in 2006, it seemed like a smart strategic decision.
It would put the business close to its competitors and give the owners a chance to build a second dealership as part of an auto mall.
Things didn’t go as planned.
The owner, Scott-McRae Group, suffered through months of delays before finally getting city approval for the property in April of 2008. Because of the delays, combined with the economic downturn, the company decided to modify the planned development zoning the city had granted.
The modification process began in March 2010, and only now is the city approving the changes, making the undeveloped part of the property ready for development.
Meanwhile, across town and on a smaller scale, the historic house at Northeast First Street and Eighth Avenue that’s the home of the Fat Tuscan restaurant and Jay Reeves’ architectural office is also a planned development, a zoning mechanism typically used only for larger projects that are completed over a number of years.
Welcome to life in Gainesville. While the city may brag about fostering high-tech development, some local business leaders say red tape and heavy handed bureaucrats are hindering growth of that innovation economy.
“We hear it time and time again from developers who have worked in Gainesville: ‘I’ll never do a project in the City of Gainesville again,’” says Gerry Dedenbach, a private planning director who chairs a city advisory committee looking into planning and development delays.
And while the advisory committee and city staff are trying to unravel the red tape, for the time being, when it comes to development, Gainesville is still known as the city of “No.”
Hurdles Costing City Business
Few local business leaders are willing to publicly complain about their own problems with the city, saying they fear retaliation. But some people involved in development are making their concerns known to the city, and staff is listening.
Much of the dialogue is taking place in the advisory committee, which the city commission appointed at the request of Commissioner Thomas Hawkins. “The process could be much better,” he says.
Dedenbach says the committee’s goal is simple: “We want to erase any perception or reality that the process is slower in Gainesville.”
But to improve the perception of a slow pace, the city will have to overcome years of complaints over the way the system has been operating. Examples of projects that never were built because of lengthy delays in the development process, according to development professionals, include:
- A multi-story residential development planned for downtown that an out-of-town developer abandoned after investing more than $1 million in it.
- The expansion of a local manufacturing company that the company halted because of what it viewed as excessive environmental concerns.
- Expansions of several local businesses that the companies called off, opting instead to move to Alachua’s business park because that city was more welcoming and affordable.
“If the city truly wants to be the catalyst for the innovation economy, it needs to be able to provide a reasonable and accountable timeframe for development,” says Dedenbach, the planning director for Causseaux, Hewett & Walpole, which specializes in land development.
Time that investors lose is money, adds John Hudson, another member of the advisory committee. “If you have a $5 million loan from the bank, you need to be able to hit milestones,” he says.
When the Scott-McRae Group first looked into developing 18 acres of land at the northwest corner of North Main Street and 39th Avenue, it had plans to create an auto mall with more than one dealership. But, getting City of Gainesville permits for the various phases of the original project approval dragged on for approximately two years.
When the company wanted to modify that adopted planned development, city staff demanded that the business plant trees throughout the area planned for the second dealership. “They would have created an area similar to a pecan grove to meet city requests,” says Dedenbach, who is now the planner involved in the project.
After months of back and forth, the city staff agreed to allow the land use that would make it possible to have the second dealership and relaxed the demand for trees.
But amending the approved planned development zoning on the undeveloped land lagged for nearly 20 months. City staff didn’t agree with a University of Florida wetlands expert over the planting of trees or restoring and preserving wetlands. What’s more, minor changes in documents were in the city attorney’s office for half a year, Dedenbach says.
In the end, the city accepted the UF expert’s approach.
Lawrence Calderon, the city’s lead planner on the project, says the delays weren’t all the city’s fault. “Planning could have moved faster if the land owner had responded more promptly to concerns the city raised,” he says.
Contrast those problems with working in the City of Alachua, which is directly competing with Gainesville for economic development.
“Alachua staff has the attitude of not saying ‘no,’” says Sandy Burgess, an Alachua planning commissioner and the leasing agent for Progress Corporate Park. “They say, ‘Maybe we can work this out.’”
Gerry Dedenbach says you can’t justify Gainesville’s planning delays just because the city is larger that Alachua. Jacksonville has a relatively smooth and speedy planning process, he says.
Watching Out for the “Gotcha”
For example, a local grocer had installed a used backup generator, but GRU refused to hook up the natural gas line to it, claiming that the grocer hadn’t met a requirement for noise certification.
Hudson had to arrange for the police department to test the noise level in order to get the gas line installed. “There was a lot of background noise from motors running in the area when the test was being done,” Hudson says. “That noise wouldn’t be present if the power was out and the generator was needed.”
Another example: A city inspector refused to approve a piece of electrical equipment that one of Hudson’s clients had installed because it didn’t have a “UL” label, indicating it was certified by Underwriters Laboratory.
Hudson arranged to have a UL sticker delivered overnight, and the inspection went through.
While that situation was resolved quickly, some local businesses face more vexing delays over approval of equipment, people involved in development say.
Sometimes the best equipment—whether it be a brewing device or machines used in manufacturing—is imported.
“Some machines that are fine to use everywhere else aren’t satisfactory for Gainesville inspectors without a whole lot of haggling,” says one person involved, who did not want to be named.
John Barrow, an architect who’s on the advisory committee, says some of his clients fear that their work will be stopped or delayed at the last minute.
“Although a plans examiner has signed off on something in a project, sometimes a city inspector will come up with a different requirement at the last minute,” Barrow says.
The rules and regulations of the city are too dependent on the interpretation of individual planners, says Rory Causseaux, the founding partner of the firm Causseaux, Hewett & Walpole.
“Planner A can interpret a rule differently than Planner B,” Causseaux says. “Sometimes the rules are used to say ‘no’, and other times they’re used to a project’s favor.”
Causseaux illustrates the point by noting that the regulations sometimes call for a visual barrier, which could be either a wall, a fence or a hedge, but not all of the above.
“Although other planners in the past have interpreted this as meaning we had an option, the planner on a recent project said, ‘You have to have all three barriers,’” Causseaux says. Causseaux was able to get the planner’s interpretation overruled.
A Daunting Maze
Developing in Gainesville is complicated by an unusual amount of regulations, some of which are outdated, Hudson says.
For example, the city has 11 “overlay districts,” which impose special requirements beyond those required by the citywide planning and zoning code.
Over the years, the city commission created the overlay districts to recognize the need for different standards for different parts of the city, says Ralph Hilliard, the city’s chief of current planning. For example, the downtown district has special requirements that are different from the University Heights and College Park district.
Dedenbach says planning, including the overlays, has gone overboard in Gainesville. “The city has modified its regulations excessively,” he says.
Innovation Square as Model
The issues with local development may not reflect the future, however. The city, the University of Florida, Shands HealthCare and private developers are cooperating on an ambitious plan to develop 40 acres around the former Shands at AGH site into a combined work, live and play area.
This vision couldn’t happen under existing zoning, the people involved realized. So, the city hired Perkins & Will, a consulting firm with global experience in designing science and technology developments, to rewrite its regulations affecting Innovation Square.
The process has resulted in a new mixed-use zoning district that is much more flexible about having housing, shopping, offices and light industrial uses typical of high technology side-by-side, Commissioner Hawkins says.
Many of the city’s current zoning districts were adopted when the city was growing in a suburban style, with clear separations between residential, business and industrial use, Hawkins says.
Today, bringing back the mixed uses that were typical before the automobile is important, he says. “We need to have a variety of uses cohabitate so the community can be more walkable,” Hawkins says.
The city commission has authorized spending $200,000 for a consultant to help it update its zoning, but the commission hasn’t settled on what part of the zoning codes will be the focus of the project.
The zoning revisions should focus on the core of the city, the area roughly between UF and East Gainesville, Hawkins says.
As new zoning districts are developed, they should include relevant requirements from overlay districts, says planner Hilliard. “People want everything that pertains to a zoning district in one document,” he says.
Overuse of Planned Developments
Gainesville has turned a good planning tool into an overused hammer. That’s what leaped out when a local planning and engineering firm looked at how long project approval takes in Gainesville compared to other northern Florida cities.
The overused tool is what’s known as planned developments. With a planned development, the city commission grants unique zoning rights to a project, rights that override city zoning districts.
Planned developments work well for larger projects, but planned development zoning is often overutilized in Gainesville, says Causseaux, the head of the planning and development firm.
The city also has two types of conditional zonings—“planned use district land use” and “planned development zoning.” In Causseaux’s review of projects administered by his firm, one type took an average of 21 months for approval, and the other type took 26 months.
The 10 other cities that Causseaux’s firm included in its comparison don’t use planned developments for small projects.
The Fat Tuscan is an example of the over-use of planned development, Dedenbach says. “Doing a PD on a single parcel is excessive and onerous.”
The property where the restaurant is located is zoned for business and office use, but restaurants are excluded.
“City staff was between a rock and a hard place,” Commissioner Hawkins says, indicating that one choice would be to deny the restaurant the opportunity to locate in the area and the other choice was a planned development.
The city’s Hilliard agrees that broader zoning categories are needed and says that they would reduce the reliance on planned developments. “The zoning code hasn’t kept up with what the city is trying to do with mixed-use districts,” he says.
New Emphasis on Responsiveness
In late 2007, City Manager Russ Blackburn made a change in management. Blackburn appointed Erik Bredfeldt, who had been the city’s economic development coordinator, as the head of planning and development services.
Bredfeldt is focusing on improving customer service.
It’s important to fix problems such as city inspectors being uncooperative with businesses using imported equipment, Bredfeldt says. “I’m concerned about these issues,” he says. “More and more businesses in the innovation economy will be using imported equipment, and we need to work with them.”
Bredfeldt acknowledges that people in the community have felt the city went overboard on protecting wetlands.
Since Bredfeldt took over, the city has hired John Hendrix to handle issues with wetlands. Hendrix has a solid background in environmental regulation, and he has good rapport with the community, Bredfeldt says.
“He’s got a lot of expertise, and he’s good at taking a look at sites and verifying what the truth is,” Bredfeldt says.
Bredfeldt also is working to get staff to work together better. “We had an issue come up during construction of the Continuum, with a difference between different staff members,” he says. “We got everyone together and worked things out.”
Staff Making Improvements
In addition to the advisory committee’s work to re-think Gainesville’s development process, city staff is making improvements.
The staff-initiated changes include:
- Creating a common computer system for various city departments that review plans;
- Enabling customers to submit plans electronically;
- Allowing staff to review development plans—without the delay and expenses of holding neighborhood meetings—for projects up to 10,000 square feet, rather than the previous threshold of 2,500 square feet;
- Combining the timeframe for city and GRU staff to review a project; and
- Allowing a property owner to start work on a project before receiving a building permit, with the understanding that the owner must do what’s required once the permit is issued.
“Staff is moving forward,” Bredfeldt says. “We appreciate the committee’s work, but we didn’t need a committee to tell us many of the things that we’re working on.”
Advisory board members seem to agree that the city should create an ombudsman position in the planning department to facilitate development, but they haven’t settled on the details about the position.
Hudson sees the ombudsman as providing the “giant can of oil” to keep the process moving. Dedenbach uses the analogy of an air traffic controller. “He won’t be pumping the gas or the flying the plane, but he’ll make sure the paperwork gets handed off from one person to another,” he says.
Plan board member Bob Cohen became interested in Gainesville creating an ombudsman position as he saw dispute after dispute come to the board. Cohen is an inquisitive sort, and he set out to find which city had the best ombudsman.
Portland turned out to be the answer.
Much of the work of the Portland ombudsman has been on planning and zoning matters, Cohen says.
The Portland ombudsman is independent of other city departments and has free reign to pressure anyone in city government who’s presenting a roadblock for a resident, Cohen says.
“The ombudsman had dramatically opened up communications,” Cowen says. “He’s neutral, confidential and trustworthy.”
Over time, Portland has gone beyond the ombudsman approach to facilitate planning, Cowen says. Now, Portland has a project coordinator for each set of plans a property owner submits.
“It’s a move toward one-stop shopping, with the project coordinator following a proposal all the way through the process,” Cohen says.
Investing in an ombudsman will pay off, Cohen says. “The first lawsuit you avoid will pay for the position for the next few years,” he says.
Cohen presented his findings about the ombudsman approach to the city committee that’s studying the planning process.
Commissioner Hawkins says he believes the advisory board will use Cohen’s research as the basis for a recommendation that the city create an ombudsman.
The commission will get a detailed answer at the end of the year, when Dedenbach and other members of the Community Development Review Committee report their findings.
Committee member Bob Ackerman believes the work of the committee and city staff will result in speeding approval of relatively small projects.
“There’s a general consensus that small projects shouldn’t get the massive subdivision treatment,” he says. “When one or two houses are involved, things should be quick and easy,” he says.
On the other hand, projects such as the 1,800-home development that Plum Creek Timber Co. is planning along State Road 121 on the northern city limits should get a thorough review, says Ackerman, who chairs the city’s plan board.
“It’s going to have a dramatic long-term impact,” he says. “It should have a full vetting, and citizens should be involved in saying ‘yea’ or ‘nay.’”
City planning chief Bredfeldt suggests that Gainesville’s culture of citizen involvement means that controversial projects won’t move quickly. Public involvement in planning has paid dividends over the years, he says.
“People who visit here are pretty impressed by the physical environment,” he says. “It’s a good-looking place. That just didn’t happen. It didn’t magically appear.”
Cohen, the plan board member who advocates an ombudsman, says that no matter how much the process is improved, Gainesville always will be a challenging place to develop major projects.
“A university town has certain values,” he says. “We’re not Lake City, and we don’t want to be.”