Gainesville taking steps to become more business-friendly
Published: Sunday, July 21, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, July 20, 2013 at 6:58 p.m.
Realtor Beau Beery spent several months putting together a land deal for a national fast food chain to build something new in place of what he described as an old, decrepit building on Northwest 13th Street.
The zoning for the property seemed to allow a restaurant with a drive-thru, but when the company brought its proposal to a city planner, they learned that an additional layer of zoning for the neighborhood called a special area plan overlay district would require them to build a 25,000-square-foot, multi-story building with at least three different tenants to get approval for a drive-thru.
“It killed the deal,” said Beery, president of Coldwell Banker Commercial M.M. Parrish Realtors.
Business people have long complained that onerous regulations in the city of Gainesville make it more difficult than it should be to improve old properties and open new businesses.
Now the drive-thru regulation and others are going to go away as part of an ongoing project to update the city’s land development code to make it simpler and add flexibility.
The code update is one of several ways the city is trying to make it easier to do business, which include customer service training for city employees and creating an ombudsman position to help usher projects through the permitting process.
Those efforts started before the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce and then Mayor-elect Ed Braddy hosted a May 13 forum attended by more than 130 people to take suggestions on how the city can better foster small business growth.
The Chamber followed that up on June 20 with a report offering 27 recommendations, the major themes being to provide easier access to information, streamline development regulations, reduce fees and improve customer service.
Chamber President and CEO Tim Giuliani said the Chamber is already working with the city and the county on one of the top recommendations — to create a one-stop shop that businesses can go to in order to navigate regulatory processes and pay fees.
Giuliani said the bottom line of the recommendations is to create economic opportunities for more people.
“Our economy has good momentum. People feel excitement about what’s going on,” he said. “The city could go a long way to adding to that so everyone feels included by making it easier to start a small business or to grow a small business because they’re creating opportunities and increasing tax revenues to local and state government.
“I think everyone has a joint interest in those two things,” Giuliani continued, “which gives me a lot of optimism that we can work together to implement many of these recommendations.”
Erik Bredfeldt is the city’s new ombudsman who is moving from director of planning and development services to director of economic development and innovation.
He said the Chamber’s recommendations come at a good time with three city commissioners convened as the economic development/university community committee meeting for the first time under new assignments on July 29. The first order of business could be to dust off the city’s action plan for economic development and maybe work in some of the Chamber’s recommendations.
Both Giuliani and Bredfeldt referred to “low-hanging fruit” — recommendations that can be easily adopted.
One such recommendation is to give the public a way to provide feedback on their interactions with city staff.
Greg Johnson emphasized that during the May 13 forum. The owner of Quality Cleaners said he has wanted a way to hold city employees accountable since dealing with building inspectors when he renovated a building on Northeast 23rd Avenue in 1996.
“They put me through the ringer,” he said.
He said the relationship between city government and the business community has come a long way since then.
“Most of that’s the past,” he said. “The leadership of the city is not anti-business. Unfortunately, you’ve got some bureaucrats that haven’t gotten the message, and in my experience most of that is in the permitting department.”
Bredfeldt said a customer service scorecard is a good idea. Unlike a retailer or a restaurant, however, city staff sometimes has to give negative feedback when something is not up to code.
“The challenge is when we do have to give somebody negative feedback, are we giving the negative feedback in an appropriate and constructive manner,” said Bredfeldt. “If we haven’t done that, then shame on us.”
Other recommendations would need to go through the months-long ordinance process.
Because of its complexity, the land-use code update is a particularly lengthy ordinance process — and one nearest and dearest to the business community. The process started a year and a half ago and is expected to take another year before final adoption by the City Commission.
City planners say the code has become unnecessarily complicated and confusing, with piecemeal changes over 30 or 40 years to add new land uses or to keep others out as issues arose, and a handful of special overlay districts, each with their own sets of rules on top of the regular zoning.
The city hired Littlejohn Engineering Associates for about $200,000 to help rewrite the code.
Gainesville Senior Planner Scott Wright said the company did a lot of research on the city and has interviewed commissioners, engineers, architects and builders.
Among the changes, the update eliminates overlay districts, gets away from mandating color schemes and styles of architecture, establishes what uses are allowed where in order to get away from special-use permits that require a public hearing, and combines the development review board and the board of adjustment to save time on hearings.
City Planning Manager Ralph Hilliard said the update would also eliminate regulations that seemed like a good idea at the time but haven’t worked in the marketplace, such as the requirement to build a 25,000-square-foot, multi-use building in order to have a drive-thru.
Hilliard was invited by Beery to speak about the changes at the July 1 meeting of the Gainesville-Alachua County Association of Realtors Commercial Council.
He said the city enacted the drive-thru policy about a decade ago in response to state concerns about high-traffic areas, the idea being that a drive-thru attracts a lot of additional traffic unless it is in a shopping center that is already generating car trips.
“To help satisfy the state and some of the commissioners and some of the people on different boards, we came up with this 25,000-square-foot mixed-use-type development,” he said. “Over time, we find out it’s not easy to do that.”
Zaxby’s ran into another drive-thru issue when it moved into the old KFC building on North Main Street in 2009, according to Mike Ryals of Bosshardt Realty Services, who brokered the deal.
Although the building already had a drive-thru, Zaxby’s found out after starting renovations that it would have to get a special-use permit because the building had gone unused for more than nine months, delaying their opening by three or four months.
Likewise, the requirement to build second-story office space on the corners of major corridors will go away. CVS has had trouble leasing the second floors of buildings that opened on Northwest 13th Street in 2010 and on Southwest 13th Street in 2011.
The requirement was inspired by the design of Plaza Royale on Newberry Road, but developer Mike Warren said he never would have built the second story space at Plaza Royale if he had known it was going to take seven years to lease.
“I just wish they’d asked me,” he said. “We think it looks good, too, but it is a very small market of people willing to go to a second floor.”
Although the code will be simpler, Bredfeldt said the city also stressed to the consultant that “there are elements of the community that want to maintain a certain urban form.”
That includes people who have been here a long time and people who wanted to get away from other parts of the state, he said.
“My feeling is that most people pretty broadly like the way Gainesville feels,” Bredfeldt said.
The code is supposed to represent the views of the community, he said.
“That presumes the whole community is participating in that discussion,” Bredfeldt added.
Ryals said the current code is weighted toward the people who show up to oppose something.
“Everybody who has a vested interest should be involved and we’re not,” he said. “We’re all preoccupied. And busy. And lazy.”
Hilliard told the commercial Realtors that the next two or three months are the time to make suggestions on the process.
Asked how Gainesville is becoming more business-friendly, he referred to the city’s customer service training that includes City Manager Russ Blackburn’s emphasis on providing alternatives instead of just saying “no.”
But he added, “There are always going to be instances where I’m going to have to say ‘No, I’m sorry. You can’t put that pigpen next door to the single-family house.’"