Gainesville poised for center city makeover

OldStoryImageGainesville’s core—between the University of Florida and Williston Road—has suffered through some difficult times over the last 30 years, but now it is being reborn through a mix of private and public initiatives.
The changes that have already occurred in recent years and the ones on the drawing boards have the potential to combine the best of the new and the old, creating a vibrant commercial and residential center, people involved in the projects say.

“Gainesville is a city with good bones, and it has land ripe for redevelopment,” says Anthony Lyons, director of the Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency.

The cornerstones of the land primed for rebirth are as follows:

  • The 40 acres of mostly vacant land on Southwest Second Avenue that is becoming Innovation Square, a place where people involved in Gainesville’s growing innovation economy will work, live and play.
  • The 16 acres along Southeast Fourth Avenue—being named the Power District—that GRU is leaving behind as it moves its fleet, warehouses and maintenance buildings to its new operations center on North Main Street.
  • The 35-acre Depot Park that is replacing rundown property with a playground, a refurbished train depot, stormwater retention ponds, grassy surroundings and the planned Cade Museum of Innovation and Invention.

Redeveloping all these locations is an ambitious project and no one is sure how long it will take for the vision to become a reality. But downtown developer Ken McGurn, for one, has no doubt that the transformation will come.
While talking about the potential revitalization, he recalled the challenge that he and his wife, Linda, faced in 1980, when they purchased their first building downtown. At that point, few people thought the area could be brought back to life. But the McGurns persisted, and in the last 30 years they have proven skeptics wrong, spearheading a transformation of a failing city center into a thriving nexus of entertainment, professional offices and government buildings.
“You have to have a long-term vision,” McGurn says. “Cities are forever.”

One major advantage this time around is Gainesville is poised for the type of private-public cooperation that will be needed to bring transformational projects to life, Lyons and McGurn agree.


Off to a Good Start

Recent projects such as the following have helped set the stage for the next phase of development, Lyons says:
Completion of the Alachua County Criminal Justice Center.

Growth of Santa Fe College’s Downtown Center, which includes the Center for Innovation and Economic Development.
Work on the Florida Innovation Hub, the first building in Innovation Square.
Construction of nearly 2,000 new apartments and condos downtown.
“These projects are not just ideas anymore,” Lyons says. “They are not alone but are part of a well-laid-out plan.”
But to continue to the next phase of redevelopment, Gainesville needs to find a balance between the roles of government and the business community, McGurn says.

“Government can provide incentives, but the private sector has to make the needed investment,” he says.
Private investment is key to Innovation Square. Trimark Properties, the owner of many apartment units east of UF, has been buying up property in the Innovation Square area.

Trimark managing partner John Fleming is convinced the work/play/live aspects of Innovation Square will appeal to the new class of workers who will be employed there. “They are immersed in their work, and they want to live two minutes from work,” he says.
Gateway Development Services is interested in constructing buildings in Innovation Square, says representative Mack Reese. Gateway is one of the developers of Centergy, a similar project next to Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

The CRA staff is spearheading planning and zoning work on Innovation Square and the Power District. For the Power District, the rezoning will allow for the GRU property to be turned into residential and retail use.
In the planning process, the CRA is focused on being specific in some ways and flexible in others, Lyons says.
One specific that is necessary to make the projects succeed is an inviting grid system, with short blocks creating a walkable environment, he says.
Lyons and David Green of the design firm Perkins+Will discussed the importance of the layout of city blocks in a recent article on Gainesville’s core redevelopment in Fast Company magazine.

Green noted that the short blocks running north and south in Manhattan make the city comfortable for pedestrians. “People like to walk through a city that has small blocks,” he says. “That’s what we want to create in Gainesville’s redevelopment areas.”
Yet while it is important to make the downtown inviting to people, Lyons says planners should avoid being too explicit in their vision for the size and types of buildings in a redevelopment area. “If you’re too prescriptive, what are you left with that allows people to plan for their own needs?” he says.

Flexibilty. Balance. A public-private partnership. Like the city it covers, this plan for revitalization could have good bones of its own.

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