Urbanism finally catching on

Published: Sunday, January 9, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 10, 2005 at 10:56 a.m.

When David Coffey first ran for city commission in 1985, his platform was somewhat ahead of its time.

Rather than continue to push new housing and development further and further west, Coffey wanted the city to begin actively planning for and promoting quality infill redevelopment, especially in some of the neglected and crumbling neighborhoods near the University of Florida.

Coffey lost his first bid for office, but was elected on his second try a year later. He became Gainesville's first "new urbanist" commissioner, a disciple of South Florida architect Andres Duany, who preached that the way to combat suburban sprawl is to reinvent livable, walkable urban neighborhoods and lively, interesting main streets.

Oddly, new urbanism was a hard sell in "liberal" Gainesville, where no-growth protectionism was the political flavor of the day.

Coffey's proposal to redesign the old "student ghetto," now known as College Park, was shot down by his four fellow commissioners.

And when he brought Duany to Gainesville to do a College Park plan, it elicited much skepticism.

"Its acceptance was not without a great deal of hostility," recalls Coffey nearly 20 years later. "The biggest resistance was from city staff."

But Coffey started something. With the subsequent elections of similarly minded commissioners like Tom McKnew, Bruce Delaney, Jim Painter, Paula DeLaney, Pegeen Hanrahan and Warren Nielsen, Coffey's notions of deliberate planning and visioning to promote higher-density urban redevelopment began to slowly gain credence.

True, mega-student apartment projects, commercial strip shopping centers and cookie-cutter subdivisions continued to sprout farther and farther away from the urban core.

But at the same time, developer Nathan Collier had begun to systemically buy up properties in College Park, renovating old apartments and building new ones.

And Ken and Linda McGurn were gradually revitalizing downtown Gainesville, with the Sun Center, Union Street Station and other new urbanist projects.

It turns out that changing the planning ethos of a community is not the work of years, but of a generation.

Rather like reversing course on a supertanker, bringing about a "sea change" in a city's destiny is achieved neither quickly or without difficulty.

But something astonishing has been happening of late.

There are indications that the sea change that Coffey laid the course for nearly 20 years ago is finally beginning to come about.

Across the street from UF, at the corner of 13th Street and University Avenue, plans are under way for the three-block long, high-rise University Corners project, an ambitious, mixed-use residential-retail complex that will dramatically transform what has long been an unsightly and underutilized stretch of 13th Street.

And several blocks east, at University and Sixth Street, site preparation has begun for University Lofts, with luxury condos upstairs and retail at street level.

Just north of UF, along Eighth Avenue, Park Central Holdings is planning a large apartment complex. And across the street from Tigert Hall, Trimark Development wants to turn a large parking lot into a mixed-use enterprise.

Downtown, Mike Warren is putting the finishing touches on his new upscale townhouses. New condos are going up along SW Depot Avenue, and a high-density multifamily residential complex is planned at the corner of University and Depot, within a few minutes' walking distance from Shands.

Meanwhile, St. Augustine officials have been talking to an Atlanta company about turning the church's parking lot - just blocks from the football stadium - into a condo-retail complex, a place for Bull Gators to call home on football Saturdays.

All told, there are about 1,000 new residential units either recently completed or scheduled for construction in the downtown, College Park-University Heights, Fifth Avenue-Pleasant Street districts alone.

By a rough estimate, something like $200 million worth of public and private investments are being made in the neighborhoods north and east of the university.

A lot of the new development is high-end stuff, geared more toward wealthy alumni and working professionals than starving students. But ongoing investments in affordable housing are also being made in many of the lower-income neighborhoods clustered around the UF-downtown areas.

The emphasis on residential development is crucial, says Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan.

Bringing people back to live and work in the city's core is the key to supporting the new retail, restaurants, clubs and businesses that help make cities interesting and desirable places to live and work.

"Success will breed on itself," she said. "A lot of the attention on quality redevelopment has to do with attracting residential. A lot of downtowns look nice, but without residential, they end up being dead."

It would be tempting, but almost certainly wrong, to attribute the spate of new urban development in Gainesville simply to an uptick in the market or the sudden discovery that UF represents a customer-rich gold mine.

Rather, it is more likely the logical result of 20 years of deliberate planning, visioning and infrastructure investment strategies on the city's part.

Our Monday Sound Off section is full of gripes about "wasting tax money on brick crosswalks."

But the truth is that the city's systematic use of tax- incremental funding to do streetscaping, put utility lines underground, replace ugly concrete light poles with more attractive fixtures, rehabilitate dilapidated housing and provide financial incentives for developers to build in the urban center are beginning to pay big dividends.

"They set the stage for private investment," says Tom Saunders, Gainesville's community development director. "The private sector responds to city's improvements to its streets and public areas. All together, the infrastructure investments have been reshaping the ambiance and character of urban neighborhoods as places you want to live, invest and raise your children."

Projects like University Corners and University Lofts "are showing that we've got a market in the downtown area for good quality development," Saunders added. "We're seeing existing businesses putting money into their properties. And we're seeing more young families and owner-occupants buying into the neighborhoods around the university as quality redevelopment happens."

Commissioner Nielsen no longer calls what's been going on in central Gainesville "new urbanism," but simply "urbanism." Or better still, "great urbanism."

"A lot of the projects coming on board in Gainesville are being done by insightful builders and developers who recognize that people want to live in close proximity to a university that offers an interesting social and cultural dynamic and a street life that is exciting," Nielsen said. "The planning has worked well. The projects are better because of the planning."

Two decades of planning and investment notwithstanding, urban Gainesville remains very much a work in progress.

The Sixth Street corridor - the "missing link" between UF and downtown - remains blighted and underutilized. Redesigning Depot Avenue is crucial to better connecting UF's bustling health care complex to downtown and east Gainesville. The city continues to put redevelopment funding into the Fifth Avenue-Pleasant Street area. And the implementation of Plan East Gainesville has barely begun.

But the good news is that as more redevelopment occurs in the urban center, more tax-incremental funding will be available to finance additional improvements, thereby attracting still more redevelopment and private investment.

Two decades after his election as Gainesville's lone new urbanist commissioner, Coffey is now an attorney who often represents out-of-town firms that are increasingly eager to build in Gainesville.

"It took a long time before all the city's planning began to have an effect," he says. "But I think we have turned a corner, and I hope that as we continue to turn that corner, the quality of urbanism will continue to improve."

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