CRA funding $3.1 million in road projects in Innovation Square

The Innovation Hub Anniversary Open House welcomes visitors at 747 SW 2nd Avenue in Gainesville, Fla., Friday, October 19, 2012.

Erica Brough/Staff Photographer
Published: Sunday, July 7, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, July 6, 2013 at 5:51 p.m.

The future site of Innovation Square now stands as a fenced, 16-acre grass plot along Southwest Second Avenue.

As companies continue to announce plans to locate in the technology hub, the City Commission has approved plans for the Community Redevelopment Agency to fund the bulk of the approximately $3.1 million construction of two perpendicular roads that will cross the property.

Diane Gilreath, a project engineer with the CRA, has described the planned Southwest Ninth Street as the “signature corridor” in Innovation Square. More than just a street, the roughly 150 feet of right of way will include sidewalks, trees and landscaping and a park.

The approximately $2 million project — an additional $118,000 has gone toward design and engineering — will include several unique features for a Gainesville road project.

The project calls for the use of Portland cement, a building material not typically used for a Gainesville project, LED street lighting, underground frames known as silva cells to protect the root systems of trees, and a rectangular, vegetated stormwater collection and treatment system.

The approximately $1.1 million Southwest Third Avenue project — an additional $98,000 has gone toward its design and engineering — will be a more typical “service road,” Gilreath said, except for the extensive underground utility system that will include the new wrinkle of backup electricity provided by Gainesville Regional Utilities.

The road projects are the latest in a string of significant CRA investments in the College Park/University Heights redevelopment district or the adjacent Downtown district — two areas of focus for the city's burgeoning technology economy.

In those districts, the last 12 months have seen the reconstruction of the pedestrian overpass across Southwest 13th Street, the multimillion-dollar renovation of a vacated Gainesville Regional Utilities warehouse in an area the city now dubs the Power District, the ongoing construction of Depot Park and the renovation of the historic train station building at that park.

The CRA has had a lead role in the planning and zoning of Innovation Square and has a contracted consultant in the midst of updating a master plan for the Power District.

The level of involvement and investment has sparked two differing reactions from some members of the City Commission.

When the road projects moved ahead at the commission's June 17 CRA meeting, Commissioner Yvonne Hinson-Rawls, whose district includes east Gainesville, expressed frustration about the money and focus spent in and around Innovation Square compared to the far more modest investments in the city's Eastside CRA.

“There seems to be this single-minded focus on the Innovation district,” she said in an interview. “We're specifically changing policies and zoning so it can happen. Those are things we should be doing citywide.”

Commissioner Thomas Hawkins said the money and resources put toward Innovation Square will have a positive economic impact beyond the boundaries of any CRA district.

“When we're talking about growing jobs, it's regional, and we have to put our investment where we're going to have the greatest return,” Hawkins said. “Companies want the proximity of UF and the land available for redevelopment. So the focus is there. That's where we can get the biggest bang for the community, and the real estate is there.”

Under state law, local governments have authority to establish a community redevelopment area to address conditions of slum and blight in an area. Once a district is established, 95 percent of the tax revenues generated by increased property values stay in the CRA instead of flowing to the city or county general fund.

That money has to be spent within the boundaries of the CRA district on things like infrastructure, landscaping, home rehabilitation or construction, grants to spruce up building facades or tax incentives for businesses.

Of the city's four CRA districts, College Park/University Heights, with a taxable value of some $333.4 million, has the most financial resources available. The Downtown district is next at $193.4 million.

The two districts established in historically African-American areas of the city have less money with which to work. The Eastside CRA, which was established in 2000 and is the city's newest district, has a taxable value of $88.5 million. The Fifth Avenue/Pleasant Street CRA, the city's oldest district, has a taxable value of $51.7 million.

The CRA 2012 annual report showed project-related expenditures of $3.1 million in the College Park/University Heights redevelopment area, $1.4 million in the Downtown CRA, $674,800 in Fifth Avenue/Pleasant Street CRA and $277,500 in the Eastside CRA.

CRA Executive Director Anthony Lyons said each redevelopment area has its “own trajectory” and the city has to tackle smaller projects in an effort to draw private investment, boost taxable values and increase the CRA budget for that community.

In the predominantly residential Fifth Avenue/Pleasant Street area, the city has invested in the construction of new homes and a road project and streetscaping along the business corridor of Northwest Fifth Avenue. The CRA has built its offices there and leased out the first floor to a technology company.

In the Eastside area, the CRA funded the purchase and renovation of a building to bring a restaurant, Southern Charm Kitchen, to the Hawthorne Road corridor. There is the landscaped gateway on the triangular island bounded by University Avenue, Hawthorne Road and Southeast 15th Street.

The CRA also oversees the Gainesville Technology Enterprise Center (GTEC) incubator, although the city has been in lengthy talks with Santa Fe College on the possibility of the school taking over operation through its business incubator, the Center for Innovation and Economic Development.

The CRA and its Eastside advisory board also have a goal of aesthetic improvements along the Hawthorne Road corridor to draw in private investment there.

At the City Commission's June 17 CRA meeting, Hinson-Rawls took umbrage with a proposed project related to that goal — a $144,000 fence along Hawthorne Road to shield the view of the barbed wire fence at the school district's bus depot. At her request, the commission rescinded, for the time being, approval of a contract to build that project, which has been under discussion for some four years.

Hinson-Rawls said with the Eastside district's limited resources, the school district should pay for that project. She also questioned what positive effect the fence would have on the transformation and redevelopment of that area.

She said she would like to see GTEC move away from its technology focus to get an incubator for all types of business startups in the community. She also expressed frustration that the long-discussed redevelopment of the site of the former Kennedy Homes subsidized housing complex had not yet become a reality.

Hawkins said that, at this point, the CRA has limited financial resources in east Gainesville. Still, he pointed to significant government investments such as the Alachua County Health Department building, the improvements at Cone Park, the library that will be built at that park and the University of Florida east Gainesville campus.

Lyons said he is as frustrated as anyone when redevelopment of an area does not progress at the rate he would like to see. Still, he said he feels the CRA is “setting the groundwork for more investment to happen.”

Currently, the CRA is in the midst of a strategic planning process to re-examine everything it does and all its priorities and projects.

That comes as projects in areas such as Innovation Square and the Power District have become increasingly complex and now include zoning, utility and stormwater work.

Commissioner Todd Chase has said a focus on smaller projects, such as the rehabilitation of homes in residential neighborhoods, might be a return to the core mission.

“I don't think of slum and blight in Innovation Square,” he said. “That's more economic development.”

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