A look toward downtown’s future
Envisioning Gainesville’s “Central Park,” more tech and a museum celebrating innovation
Published: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 1:47 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 1:47 p.m.
Phoebe Cade Miles is building a celebration of innovation in memory of her late scientist father.
Bryan da Frota is the CEO of an up-and-coming tech company looking to expand his workforce and grow his business.
Christopher Fillie is using creative financing and sweat equity to help ensure that downtown Gainesville will never lose its essential quirkiness in the face of gentrification.
What these three entrepreneurs have in common is that they are all gambling that a long-neglected stretch of central Gainesville, where South Main Street meets Depot Avenue, is destined to become a sparkling new gateway to downtown.
At first glance it seems a risky gamble indeed. Despite some obvious infrastructure improvements — brick-lined sidewalks and crosswalks, a roundabout and streetscaping on Depot, for instance — and a recent uptick in business activity, the area continues to be largely distinguished by deteriorating buildings, weed-infested lots, fuel storage tanks, and other traces of urban decay.
It is easy to miss the vision that has captured the imaginations of people like Miles, da Frota and Fillie. But a closer look reveals years of carefully planned public investments that are designed to make the gateway vision become a reality.
Depot and Main have both been re-engineered with an eye toward making those corridors more bicycle-, pedestrian- and business-friendly. And future improvements are planned for both of those corridors.
A long-fallow brownfield has been undergoing a years-long decontamination process that will ultimately transform it into a signature Gainesville “Central Park.”
Depot and Main are also at the juncture of a system of bike-ped trails that connect the airport to the east, the University of Florida to the west, the Gainesville-Hawthorne trail to the south and the Sixth Street trail running north.
And GRU’s relocation to new facilities in northeast Gainesville has opened the door for an ambitious plan to convert a collection of aging utility warehouses and work sheds into the “Power District:” a light-industry/business park for spin-off companies looking to locate in close proximity to the University of Florida’s Innovation Hub.
Throw in new city-financed housing and street improvements in neighboring Porters Quarters, a renovated Lynch Park and other ongoing investments, and the vision becomes a bit more easily imagined.
“A lot of things have been happening in that area over a period of a number of years,” says Anthony Lyons, community redevelopment director for Gainesville. “They are all intended to work in concert to help create a more spectacular downtown.”
And there are early indications that the vision is bearing fruit.
Miles is president and founder of the Cade Museum Foundation, which has embarked on a $9 million capital campaign to build the Cade Museum of Innovation and Invention in memory of her father, the late Dr. Robert Cade, inventor of Gatorade.
She recalls that while Dr. Cade was still alive, he and others in the family wanted the museum to be built near I-75, where it might be more visible and easily accessible to traffic.
Instead, the museum will be the centerpiece of Gainesville’s 32-acre Depot Park. Tons of arsenic-contaminated soil have been dug out of the old Gainesville Gas property. And when completed, perhaps in late 2014, the new park will feature a fully restored 1860s-era train station, greenspace, running and biking trails, playgrounds and a series of scenic ponds designed to do double duty managing downtown’s stormwater runoff.
For a museum that is dedicated to invention and ideas, the idea of locating in a once blighted inner city area that is in the process of reinventing itself proved irresistible to the Cade family.
“We wanted to be close to a vibrant downtown,” says Miles. When the railroads were still here, she says, “Gainesville used to be an exporter of products. Now we’re an exporter of ideas and inventions.”
Prioria Robotics, da Frota’s company, recently became the Power District’s first tenant, moving into a newly renovated 22,000-square-foot headquarters across the street from the former brownfield and future park. The city spent $1.2 million converting the building, and Prioria moved in on a seven-year lease with initial payments of $23,375 a month.
Prioria is a Gainesville-founded company that manufactures pilotless aircraft. Although its major client is the military, Prioria hopes to expand its operations by tapping into the growing civilian market for drones. As the company grows, da Frota says, it intends to expand operations into adjoining buildings in the Power District.
Lyons says the Prioria deal showed that “we can bring industry back into the city.”
Fillie is also in the renovation business, albeit on a much smaller scale. He founded Vibrant Community Development and acquired a 7,000-square-foot storefront on South Main Street, just a few blocks from Depot Avenue.
Fillie’s goal is to ensure that artists, writers, musicians and other creative people are not priced out of the market as downtown continues to attract investors looking to maximize profits.
His tenants so far include the Civic Media Center, Citizens Co-op food store and the Sequential Artists Workshop. The Wild Iris bookstore is moving in next door. And he hopes to attract a small bar/café into a corner space that currently serves as his workshop.
“Everybody here is involved in creating something,” he says. “That’s what makes a creative community. They are the reason people come downtown in the first place, and we want to keep them here.”
If the juncture of Depot and Main becomes a new center of downtown activity, it will have been the result of “a lot of sustained hard work over a very long time,” says City Commissioner Thomas Hawkins. As redevelopment begins to expand to the south “we’ll have multiple nodes of activity in downtown Gainesville, all within easy walking distance of each other.”