Union Street - take II

Nava Ottenberg, owner of retro clothing and costume shop Persona in Union Street Station, lokcs her store Wednesday.

DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, January 25, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 25, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

If Union Street Station is a barometer, the future of Gainesville's downtown is bright.

About six years after the first tenants moved in, all the retail and residential spaces in the five-story complex are full and a second phase is being planned to complement the project, which towers over the central city from the 200 block of SE 2nd Avenue,

"People had to discover the downtown, had to get the feel for it," said Ken McGurn, the developer behind Union Street and other downtown projects such as the Sun Center and Arlington Square. "As that's been happening the new businesses have been growing and growing."

Plans for Union Street's second phase are still in their early stages and McGurn said he has not yet fully committed to the project. However, he has already purchased a property for it, one block east of the existing project on land now occupied by American Title Insurance Co. McGurn has already commissioned work on the project's design.

The new building is expected to be seven or eight stories, with 60 to 70 residential condominiums and "a couple thousand" square feet of retail space on the first floor. If all goes well, the project could be open within three years, McGurn said.

"Ken and I have always believed there was a market in downtown," said Linda McGurn, Ken's wife and a partner in their development firm, McGurn Management Co.

The couple's affection for the downtown seems to be shared by many of their tenants. Nava Ottenberg, owner of the Persona boutique on the southeastern corner of Union Street Station, was drawn back to the downtown last year. The shop, which sells unique clothing, vintage accessories and rents costumes, has benefited from the foot traffic and community generated by other businesses in the complex, Ottenberg said.

Ottenberg, who left the downtown in the 1990s, said Union Street Station provided the density and attraction to bring customers downtown.

"The need (for businesses) was there, but there wasn't a center for it," Ottenberg said.

Union Street was first conceived in the mid-1990s and completed, with the help of about $1.4 million in incentives from Gainesville's Community Redevelopment Agency, by the end of 2000. While the development attracted interest and tenants, the $8.6 million project has not always seemed like a sure bet.

In particular, some have worried about the closure of a Burger King, and more recently the South Beach Diner, housed in the northeast corner of the building. And the decision by Hooters to move from Union Street Station to SW 34th Street had been interpreted by some as a sign the downtown area can't compete with more suburban retail environments.

Now Dragonfly Sushi and Sake is doing booming business at the old Hooters location, a hookah restaurant is planned for the Burger King and Mark's U.S. Prime steakhouse is expanding into the old Dragonfly space to provide banquet facilities and a piano bar. Billy Scheel, a restaurateur with an interest in Mark's and several other downtown eateries, said the area is on the upswing.

"People are clamoring to come downtown," said Scheel, adding that the area attracts an older clientele early in the evening and then benefits from the influx of University of Florida students later at night.

Union Street, the McGurns are quick to acknowledge, enjoys a some significant advantages.

As the first project of its size downtown, it has a greater concentration of offices, restaurants and shops than other areas of the central city.

The Hippodrome State Theatre — partially surrounded by the McGurn-owned Sun Center and just a few steps from Union Street — brings droves of theater patrons who often lounge at the coffee shops or browse the stores before and after shows.

And three eateries considered to be major downtown anchors — Dragonfly, Starbucks Coffee and Maude's Classic Cafe — all call Union Street or the Sun Center home.

In addition, the development is expected to benefit from the opening of a Hampton Inn and Suites on what is now a city parking lot to the north. The project will bring additional foot traffic to the area and more retail space on the ground level. Both Scheel and the McGurns are investors in the project.

And, as it grows, some say the area is starting to achieve wider acceptance in the city.

"Folks are starting to see that downtown is becoming one of those 24/7 communities," Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce President Brent Christensen said. "And folks are looking for that kind of setting for their business."

Among those who have been attracted to the downtown area by the growth of shops, restaurants and entertainment venues is a national engineering firm now being courted by the Chamber of Commerce, Christensen said. If the firm chooses Gainesville instead of other other options, it will add another 160 professional jobs to the downtown area over the next three years, he said.

Despite progress at Union Street, some observers say the downtown area is not quite where it could be. While the development does bring traffic to the downtown, people going there are not likely to cross Main Street to visit other stores, said Aurora Krebs store manager and visual merchandiser for American Apparel on SW 1st Street.

The store, the first chain clothing store in Gainesville's downtown, has been doing better than company officials had expected but does not see the kind of traffic it could if a larger development were nearby, Krebs said.

Some developers and businesses may not be ready to commit to downtown just yet, but there are many who are interested in its prospects, said J. Parrish, president of Coldwell Banker M.M. Parrish Realtors.

"I think there's a lot of eyes on downtown, a lot of people watching," Parrish said.

What's missing is a strong residential element in the downtown area that would provide a stable pool of customers for larger businesses, such as groceries or dry cleaners, he said. But with a number of new projects planned throughout the downtown area, such as the 10-story Gainesville Greens Condominiums and the Jefferson on Second apartment complex, Parrish said he's "bullish" on the city's core.

"There's not a great enough concentration yet to bring a mass of people to downtown for shopping purpose, but I can see that day coming," he said.

Jeff Adelson can be reached at 352-374-5095 or adelsoj@gvillesun.com

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