By: Ron Wayne
If you build it, they will come.
That’s the idea behind Innovation Square, created by the University of Florida on the former site of the Alachua General Hospital between UF and downtown Gainesville. University and city leaders hope this field of dreams becomes a thriving community where researchers can work, live and play.
So far the Square remains empty except for the Innovation Hub, a 48,000-square-foot incubator built by UF that will double in size in the next few years through an expansion funded by UF and a federal grant. However, Signet Development, a private company, has built Infinity Hall, a UF residence hall geared toward the entrepreneurial community, on the periphery of the Square. And the private sector has converted adjacent buildings into new offices and built lots of new apartments nearby.
Lee Nelson, UF’s Director of Real Estate, is in charge of Innovation Square and says patience is key.
“It takes the right combination of circumstances to have private development take the lead on these, but this is the most effective way to have a vibrant neighborhood area in the long run,” Nelson said. “Other university-sponsored office and research parks have gestated for two decades or more before reaching a critical mass, so Innovation Square is certainly not lagging on a historical basis.”
Nelson also said the recession has limited progress in the Square. Infrastructure was completed in 2014. “Nationally, most new development has been occurring in major markets with specific drivers like New York, San Francisco, and Houston,” he said.
“The other developments around Innovation Square have been done well and are a great asset to both the Square itself and Gainesville as a whole … they are indicative of a neighborhood that is being accepted in the business community, although they are at a lower price point than the type of new building envisioned for the Square,” he said. “The property owned by Innovation Square benefits from the activity generated by those buildings and conversely benefits them.”
Nathalie McCrate is a project manager for the Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), which led the development of the Square roadways and its “plug and play” infrastructure. McCrate sees many positive growth indicators already.
“We’ve seen a ripple of private investment in the land around the Square,” she said. She cited the Savion Park apartments, the Fracture building getting a façade renovation, the Parisleaf building, and others.
Nelson said the Hub’s expansion, announced in September, could help. It will create enough leasable space for up to 20 more startup companies.
“The Hub expansion is very good news, as the existing Hub has been full for quite a while,” he said. “Since the development is going to be better with more density, it is the next step in creating the critical mass that will make Innovation Square the place to be for new and existing businesses and the people who want to work or be near them.”
Nelson said the goal is to create a distinctive neighborhood with the elements that “industries of the mind” and their workers want: quality residential geared toward professionals, a variety of workspaces, and supporting retail and other amenities, all in a density that promotes a walkable environment with vibrant 24-hour activity.
McCrate agrees with Nelson about the need to create and maintain the desired vibe.
“In this age of digital nomads, young professionals can work from virtually anywhere in the world from their laptops,” McCrate said. “The cities most successful at convincing talented employees, investors and enterprises to stick around provide vibrant, compelling lifestyles.”
Ron Wayne is a freelance writer and editor in the Gainesville region. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org