Developers getting University Corners back on track

The University Corners site looking toward SW 13th Street.

TRACY WILCOX/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, September 30, 2006 at 10:34 p.m.
It's been almost a year and a half since a jubilant Gainesville City Commission approved University Corners, what it hoped would be the centerpiece of an urban renewal for the city's midtown area.
Months went by and the three blocks north of W. University Avenue and NW 13th Street were cleared. But to those passing by what could arguably be one of the most important pieces of real estate in Gainesville, a tentative excavation amid the site's weeds was the only sign of the planned eight-story condo and retail complex.
That could all change soon. In recent weeks the future of University Corners has become clearer as developers have filed plans that would adjust the internal layout of the project, have wrangled with the property's last remaining tenant and prepared for a final push before breaking ground.
And while the process won't be quick, developers say they're not far off track.
"We plan to pull a permit and start construction in May of next year," said Jeff Cloar, a Daytona Beach developer and partner in University Corners. "If we pull that off we'll be on the same time schedule to get that finished in August 2009."
Earlier this month, developers submitted new plans for the massive project that add more condos, trim the amount of retail space and replace prohibitively expensive underground parking with an expanded internal garage.
The changes are just the latest revisions in a project that has seen alterations and expansions and quadrupled in cost since it was first proposed in 2004. Along the way it has picked up city approvals and an agreement from Gainesville's Community Redevelopment Agency to reimburse almost all of the new city and county property taxes it will generate for 30 years, a package worth about $98 million.
"There's nothing else in North Florida that compares to this kind of construction, so it is expensive," Cloar said. "But that's what we wanted, that's what the city wanted and I'm pretty sure that's what the people of Gainesville would like to see."
Eliminating the underground parking, which has caused engineering headaches for developers, should allow developers to both trim the rising costs of the $187 million project and help make up for lost time, Cloar said. Cloar had been a silent partner on University Corners for several years as the project was conceived and began to move forward but stepped into a more active role recently when another investor asked him to help the project along.
"The first thing I looked at was that underground parking and said, 'You've got to be kidding me," Cloar said, referring to the idea as "logistically impossible" and "potentially dangerous" because of the possibility the structure could have created sinkholes.
The revised University Corners must be approved by the City Commission, a process that could extend through January. The plans, which will add more condos - bringing the project to 475 units from about 450 - and reduces the amount of retail to about 70,000 square feet should not face much opposition, said Gene Francis, the city planner working on the project.
"From the planning staff standpoint, I can't see anything we would have any real problems with," Francis said.
Behind the scenes, work is under way to move Starbucks, University Corners' last tenant, off the site. While developers are negotiating to buy out the coffee company's lease, the Florida Department of Transportation has filed a condemnation order on the store, which infringes on state property and has made the corner hazardous for pedestrians, DOT spokeswoman Gina Busscher said.
The department decided to condemn the 50-year-old building after realizing it extended 10 feet into a public right of way during a title search that accompanied University Corners' land purchase, Busscher said. The corner has concerned DOT in the past because of its narrow sidewalks and the difficulty some pedestrians, particularly the visually impaired, have crossing the street at that corner, she said.
Busscher said DOT would not have gone forward with the eminent domain suit if the building were not going to be demolished anyway, but said the condemnation was not a result of a request by University Corners. But DOT's action, which comes with a promise to pay to relocate the store, should help break seemingly deadlocked negotiations between the developer and Starbucks over how much money it will take for the coffee company to agree to let University Corners end its lease.
"It definitely should speed up the process," Busscher said.
Starbucks officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Starbucks is one of three tenants that has created snags for University Corners, though the company has reached agreements with the other 15 businesses housed in the buildings that were on the property. Developers still face a court case against Maui Teriyaki, which was evicted from Gator Plaza last year after the two parties failed to reach an agreement.
Perhaps most importantly, developers who previously hedged any talk of financing the project with caveats and hopeful tones now say they have a choice of lenders eager to be involved in the project.
University Corners has benefited from falling interest in coastal real estate, which has many banks looking inland for projects to invest in, and has several financing offers, Cloar said. "I think it's a sign of the strength of the Gainesville market and a sign that they have a lot of money," he said.
Though University Corners has been in the development pipeline for longer than some commissioners hoped - it is frequently mentioned as a project that "hasn't come out of the ground" when politicians worry about whether the projects they see will materialize - some commissioners remained optimistic.
"I have the sense that they're working very diligently to bring the project in in a way that fulfills the original vision and is also cost-feasible," Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan said. "It's been a huge challenge from the very beginning."
Jeff Adelson can be reached at 374-5095 or

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