How big is too big?


Oaks Mall has 140 stores and is located on Newberry Road at Interstate 75. It opened in 1978. It was blamed for the demise of the old Gainesville Mall on NW 13th Street and drying up business downtown.

Sun file photo
Published: Saturday, January 27, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 27, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

Imagine a single development with more retail space than Butler Plaza and somewhat fewer residences than Haile Plantation.

That's what SpringHills will be, and while the plans have been debated by the Alachua County Commission for several years, Gainesville city commissioners and area residents are just now seeing the vision — and they aren't happy.

The mixed-use development at Interstate 75 and NW 39th Avenue has switched in a few weeks from a proposal that got curiously little attention when changes to the original plan were first considered in 2005 to one that is now igniting verbal skirmishes between the city and the county. It also has a formal opposition group — the Coalition for Responsible Growth.

It's all building to a decision — possibly in April — that will be a complicated headache for the County Commission.

"When we get to the hearing, it is going to be big and it is going to be long and it is going to be arduous," said County Commission Chairwoman Paula DeLaney. "Some people will walk away happy and some people will walk away sad."

Despite its massive size, SpringHills had been working through the regulatory process with virtually no outcry from residents or the city. The city line is close to the unincorporated SpringHills site, and SpringHills will likely be annexed in the future.

Neither DeLaney nor Gainesville Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan believe the rhetoric breached any sense of etiquette between the two and say that no hard feelings exist.

But concerns over the growing cost of road improvements that will be needed to handle SpringHills traffic — a primary focus of the city and residents — has whipped up some big waves for the project to navigate.

"It is not a question of, 'Are you going to build what the developer is asking for or nothing.' They can build what they already have approval for, and it's quite intense," Hanrahan said. "We all understand something is going to be built there. What the city is saying is: Don't approve building dramatically more than what was already approved without figuring out how the traffic is going to work and what the impact is to other retail areas."

County Attorney Dave Wagner and several county commissioners said they believe a lawsuit could result from the decision.

Coalition Vice President Kim Davidson said it does not intend to sue should SpringHills be approved.

"I think it is premature to discuss lawsuits. Our intent is not to take legal action. Our intent is to educate the public about SpringHills," she said. "Our hope is that the commissioners will serve as stewards of the people and follow the guidelines set up by the comprehensive plan and maintain the character of our county."

SUBHEAD IN COPY

SpringHills history

SpringHills in 1999 was approved as a development of regional impact, or DRI. That is a regulatory classification for a project so large it will impact services, housing, the economy, traffic and other factors beyond its immediate vicinity.

Since then, the development firm Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust took over the project and bought the land from Gainesville's Haufler family. The firm is seeking a substantial deviation from the original DRI to allow considerably more commercial space for big box stores and a town center with smaller specialty shops, restaurants and movie theaters.

The changes will take a comprehensive plan amendment by the County Commission. The state Department of Community Affairs must find that the amendment is in compliance with the plan.

Commissioners about a year ago took the initial step of approving the plan for state review. There was little opposition from residents at the time.

County commissioners in April are tentatively set to take a final vote on the amendment. But the plan now faces considerable opposition and more costly transportation needs.

SpringHills will have about 2,200 residences — a mix of townhomes, apartments and more than 500 houses. In comparison, Haile Plantation has about 2,730 residences, of which more than 2,400 are houses.

SpringHills will have about 1.56 million square feet of commercial space. Butler Plaza totals about 1.2 million square feet, while The Oaks Mall has about 900,000 square feet.

Different views

City Commissioner Jack Donovan, who likened approval to a declaration of nuclear war, said SpringHills is damaging to many aspects of life in Gainesville, including the roads.

"It will have a terrible impact on the roads at a lot of cost," Donovan said. "My comments are based on experience. We do know the traffic impact will be terrible."

The coalition evolved from a group of residents along Millhopper Road opposed to a cut-through road from SpringHills to Millhopper into a formal organization that is raising issues about the entire project and its broader impact on the economy, the school district and businesses.

The group hopes to muster the clout to get the SpringHills plans stopped or altered.

"Our coalition of hundreds of residents seeks to have SpringHills addressed thoroughly and objectively in public by our elected representatives in both the city and county governments," Davidson said. "We believe that the truth in the light of public meetings will be obvious to everyone. SpringHills will be a disaster for our county."

Gainesville attorney Patrice Boyes, representing the developer, said some of the opponents attended neighborhood meetings on the project several years ago and have known the plans all along. She believes a new set of road-cost estimates is an attempt to squeeze more money out of her client. "Everybody is trying to pile on," Boyes said. "The city would like to get (Regional Transit System) money for this project. Everybody has their hand out. They are beating us with a stick with one hand and holding the other out for money."

Pro-SpringHills e-mails are beginning to trickle in to county commissioners. Proponents say the road improvements will help traffic flow and that projects done in a comprehensive manner are more attractive and functional than those done piecemeal.

"We are desperate for additional access roads and I fully support SpringHills and the other roads on the agenda," wrote Phyllis Blackwell of Jonesville. "Please support the vast MAJORITY who WANT ROADS and WANT SHOPPING who support you."

County commissioners said they will go into the meeting with an open mind and weigh all the factors — the input from residents and the costs and benefits to the county and to the community.

"Nothing is set in stone. There are issues to discuss and things that can be moderated," Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut. "We've faced difficult situations before. We can have a discussion about it. I try to look at the greater good to the community. You have to look at these issues and separate out what is really going to benefit the community in the long run. In the long run, do we need to improve the economic viability of the community? Yes, but to what extent do we go to do that?"

Cindy Swirko can be reached at 374-5024 or swirkoc@ gvillesun.com.

SPRINGHILLS:

retail and residential development planned near I-75 and NW 39th Avenue with 2,200 residences (a mix of townhomes and apartments) and more than 500 houses. By comparison, Haile Plantation has about 2,730 residences of which more than 2,400 are houses.

BUTLER PLAZA:

has 89 stores and is located on Archer Road at Interstate 75. It opened with the original plaza in the 1970s and has steadily expanded to include several big box and many smaller retail stores.

OAKS MALL:

has 140 stores and is located on Newberry Road at Interstate 75. It opened in 1978. It was blamed for the demise of the old Gainesville Mall on NW 13th Street and drying up business downtown.

What about higher-end stores?

The Sun looks at the retail landscape in Gainesville and why some higher-end stores may or may not locate here in the near future.

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