University Corners project fires up mayoral forum


Published: Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 8:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 8:36 p.m.

Craig Lowe and Ed Braddy sparred over their past votes on the proposed University Corners development during a Sunday afternoon forum for Gainesville mayoral candidates.

Lowe, the incumbent, said Braddy, a former city commissioner, “knowingly made false statements” about his voting record on tax incentives for the mixed-use development long planned but still not built off University Avenue and Northwest 13th Street.

In a recent column in The Sun, Braddy, who served from 2002 to 2008, said he was the only commissioner to vote against tax incentives the developer requested.

In 2005, Braddy was in the 5-2 majority supporting incentives, with Lowe, who was then a commissioner, and former Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan in dissent.

In a subsequent 2007 vote, a request for incentives passed 6-1, with Braddy in dissent.

Since Braddy voted for the incentives in 2005, Lowe said the statement in his column “is an attempt to Etch-A-Sketch one’s voting record.”

Braddy said he’d misrepresented nothing.

“We both sort of switched positions,” he said. “I think I ended up right.”

The University Corners site borders the University Park residential community and the development was a focus of discussion at Sunday’s forum, which was co-hosted by the Duckpond & University Park neighborhood associations. The six mayoral candidates will face off in the March 19 election for the opportunity to serve a three-year term. A runoff election, if necessary, will be on April 16.

Candidates were asked their stance on an active application from the developer to increase allowable building height from eight to 10 stories and a request for tens of millions in tax reimbursements from property tax revenues University Corners will generate for the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency.

“I do think that 10 stories would just be overpowering for this neighborhood,” said former city commissioner Scherwin Henry.

Henry, who was in the majority that approved a roughly $98 million tax reimbursement package in 2007, said his decision whether to support incentives will depend on the amount ultimately requested. The package approved in 2007 has expired because the project did not meet a deadline for construction.

Candidate Mark Venzke spoke against the requested height increases and said a six-story building would be more appropriate. On incentives, he said he would not like to see the city provide any “substantial” amount of tax funding.

Candidate Donald Shepherd said the developer should be the one approaching the city and offering to pay in order to build the project.

Pete Johnson, the former chairman of the airport board, said University Corners posed significant issues with traffic congestion, the compatibility of a 10-story building with the nearby University of Florida and neighborhood and the request for tax incentives. Johnson said he needed to gather more information on the prior approvals of incentives and building height before making a decision.

The dispute between the city and the company behind the biomass plant and whether the late-2011 sale of a 40 percent stake constituted a change of ownership also came up. Asked if the city had grounds to terminate the contract, all candidates but Lowe said yes. Lowe said that, according to the city’s attorneys, Gainesville did not. The city is seeking arbitration, saying the sale violated a provision of the contract.

District 4

University Corners and developer Nathan Collier’s offer to buy 5.7 acres of Loblolly Woods North Nature Park next to his home for $1 million were among the neighborhood issues brought to District 4 candidates Randy Wells and Mac McEachern.

Wells said he supports the increase from eight to 10 stories as a “modest change” to the existing zoning approvals but was “very much undecided” on incentives.

McEachern spoke against the height increase and the tax incentives requested by the Miami-Dade based developer now at the helm of University Corners.

“We don’t owe him anything or any other developers or financiers or Wall Street bankers,” he said.

On Collier’s $1 million offer, McEachern said the city could use the money.

“If Nathan wants to give the city $1 million I think the city should take it,” and give him the Mom’s Kitchen property as well, McEachern said.

Wells said he was “disinclined at this time” to support the sale because it “sends the message that money is more important” than providing the community with parks.

Wells and McEachen differed on the city’s ongoing practice of charging electric utility customers more than 10 percent above actual fuel costs to build up an approximately $23 million fund intended to limit rate increases when the biomass plant comes online.

Wells said it was a “completely reasonable” to “build up a surplus” now to mitigate a significant increase in the fuel adjustment charge when the plant goes online.

McEachern said the practice was “against the law” and that the city was misusing the fuel adjustment charge to collect money that belonged to the public and should be returned to customers.

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