Significant University Corners approval delayed


The intersection of West University Avenue and 13th Street is shown in this April 30 2013 file photo.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, May 3, 2013 at 10:10 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 3, 2013 at 10:27 p.m.

The saga of the long-stagnant University Corners development continues.

Citing concerns over traffic congestion, the size of the building and the continued opposition from residents of the nearby University Park neighborhood, the Gainesville City Commission has delayed a significant decision on a developer’s request to increase development thresholds.

Shortly before 2 a.m. Friday, toward the end of a marathon night session, commissioners voted 6-1, with Thomas Hawkins in dissent, to put off a decision on a requested land-use change that would modify prior development approvals that date back several years.

The most debated change requested would increase the building height from 95 feet and eight stories to 110 feet and 10 stories.

“I can’t in good conscience move forward with this with the questions I’ve heard tonight,” Mayor Craig Lowe said of the application.

The development, which the Miami-Dade-based developer Swerdlow Group is in the process of renaming The Corner, would rise on an expansive, grassy field at the corner of West University Avenue and 13th Street. The development is across the street from the northeast corner of the University of Florida campus.

Retail stores were razed on the site several years back to make way for redevelopment, but the project’s former developer never broke ground after the economy soured.

The Swerdlow Group wants the mixed-use development to include 500 apartments, a 250-room Hyatt hotel, 100,000 square feet of retail space, and an 11-story, 110-foot-high, 380,000-square-foot parking garage with 1,200 spaces.

University Corners would stretch from Northwest 13th Street to Northwest 14th Street and from University Avenue to Northwest Third Avenue.

Back in January, commissioners, with Susan Bottcher absent, voted unanimously to advance the application to the stage of ordinance hearings for requested land-use and zoning changes.

When the plans and associated building renderings came back, commissioners voiced concerns about the size and scale of the development and the impact it would have on traffic.

“There’s an enormity to it I didn’t feel before … It looks humongous,” Commissioner Yvonne Hinson-Rawls said.

Commissioner Lauren Poe, on the other hand, said the project represents the type of “transformative” and “dynamic” mixed-use, walkable urban redevelopment the city pushes for in its Comprehensive Plan.

Poe said he understood concerns and uncertainty because the development would mean a significant change to the city’s landscape.

“I also think most communities out there would be begging for a project like this,” he said.

Delaying the land-use vote, commissioners asked Swerdlow representatives to hold additional meetings with residents of the nearby neighborhood to address concerns over issues such as traffic and the size of the development.

UF officials also have expressed concerns about the requested changes. In an April 26 email, UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes said UF President Bernie Machen “believes that the current plan puts too many people/cars into an already dense area and changes the character of the area surrounding a historic part of campus.”

Machen, Sikes continued, “favors the original plan over the current version.”

As it stands, there’s no set date for when the project will come back to the commission.

In an unusual move suggested by the developer’s local land-use attorney, David Coffey, commissioners did take the first of two required votes on a rezoning application that also needs approval.

That passed 5-2, with Hinson-Rawls and Bottcher in dissent.

“When I saw the scope and the scale of this project in this presentation, it took my breath away (and) not in a good way,” Bottcher said.

City Attorney Nicolle Shalley said the move to take a zoning vote before considering a request for a land-use change was unusual but, in her opinion, not illegal. She noted that, no matter the timing of the first vote, the requested zoning changes could not take effect until the delayed land-use changes received final approval. The land-use vote and the second rezoning vote will come back at the same future, yet-to-be-determined meeting.

The land-use changes for the property involve issues such as building height, maximum square footage and caps on the number of residential units and hotel rooms that may be built.

The rezoning application involves details such as the building facade and exterior design, the location of loading docks and mechanical areas, the width of sidewalks and the maximum area of the lot that may be developed.

Discussion of University Corners by commissioners didn’t begin until after 11 p.m. Thursday night because the debate over design changes to Northwest Eighth Avenue consumed some four hours. As Thursday turned into Friday and debate continued on the University Corners developer’s requests, frustration flowed. Members of the public urged commissioners to continue the item to a future meeting instead of taking a vote after 1 a.m.

Swerdlow Group President Brett Dill expressed frustration because commissioners were not moving the project ahead after the firm spent money to make changes which addressed the issues that the commissioners raised in January.

“We’re spending tremendous amounts of money already, and unfortunately it’s my money,” Dill said. “I did it with confidence because we did have that 6-0 vote (in January).”

Changes that Swerdlow Group made after the January vote included adding wider sidewalks, moving cooling towers to the interior of the development’s footprint and putting up screens or other visual buffers around mechanical/service areas.

Hawkins, who supports the project, also expressed frustration about the commission majority’s decision.

“We basically did a 180 from what we did at the hearing (in January),” he said.

The major future decision involving University Corners will not involve zoning or land use. Instead, it will be the request for incentives, in the form of a rebate of property tax revenues that the development will generate for the Community Redevelopment Area.

As it stands, the Swerdlow Group has requested an 80 percent rebate for a period of 30 years, for a projected total of almost $69 million.

“This building won’t get built in the foreseeable future without incentives,” Dill told commissioners.

Before the University Corners item, the lengthy debate over Northwest Eighth Avenue focused on whether to remove one lane from a stretch of Eighth Avenue to make way for a median and bicycle lanes.

That road project had no commission movement since a late October community forum but resurfaced for a vote in the weeks before Lowe leaves office and Mayor-elect Ed Braddy, who unseated Lowe in April, is sworn in.

Construction on the Northwest Eighth Avenue project is not expected to start until early 2015.

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