The grand opening of Depot Park in August 2016 brought together a wide range of people – from frolicking kids focused on the moment to longtime community leaders celebrating the culmination of more than two decades of work.

“This is unlike any other park in Gainesville, with all its equipment,” said parent Elizabeth Palmer, who was watching her son and daughter joyously jumping in the splash park.

Kinnon Thomas, a member of the SPROUT Project Task Force, recalled a recurring theme during the multitude of meetings the advisory group held regarding the park. “They told us it was going to be nice, but that it would be expensive,” he said.

Pegeen Hanrahan, who laid the groundwork leading to the park as a former mayor and city commissioner, was succinct: “This is a national model for transforming an abused site into a community asset.”

Vivian Filer, a champion of many redevelopment projects, said she was excited that the park was bringing today’s youngsters joy like she experienced growing up in the adjoining Springhill neighborhood in the 1950s. “It was so much fun to walk along railroad tracks and have fried chicken while my dad played cards with friends,” she said.

Anthony Lyons noted that the Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency, which he headed before becoming city manager, had provided the glue that held together the final work leading to the park’s completion.

“There was a lot of work – coordinating funding, cleaning up the site, working with all the partners,” he said. “One step had to follow another, and each piece had to fit with the area’s history and ecology.”

Catalyst for Progress

Depot Park is just one of the many projects the CRA has coordinated that are creating
a renaissance through once-depressed areas of town.

Projects in progress include the following:

  • Creating a new, attractive neighborhood called Heartwood in East Gainesville, which will provide more than 30 reasonably-priced homes for families.
  • Implementing a master plan for Cornerstone – on 14 acres in East Gainesville that includes the Gainesville Technology Entrepreneurship Center Coordinating redevelopment of the Power District – 17 acres north and east of Depot Park that formerly was the GRU’s operations center.
  • Supporting the buildout of Innovation Square, property between the University of Florida and Downtown that is ready for development as a live, work and play neighborhood.

The CRA, like similar organizations nationwide, employs tax increment financing (TIF), a mechanism that uses increased property taxes paid to city and county government – from properties within a redevelopment district – to fund capital projects and programs.

These projects follow a long history that began with the city commission creating the Pleasant Street Development District in 1979 – an area north of downtown that since then has experienced revitalization while preserving its historic character.

Next came the Downtown Redevelopment District, which had deteriorated as shopping and business offices moved to locations such as Archer Road and the Oaks Mall.

The assessed value of property in the area had stagnated 20 years ago – at $19 million, noted Ken McGurn, who, with his wife Linda, were early primary private downtown developers. Now it has risen to $152 million. “The return on the private and public money invested in downtown is incredible,” McGurn said.

The renovation of downtown could never have happened without TIF, McGurn said. “Somebody had to take the risk to make it better,” he said. “Once that occurred, the banks would lend to us.”

The College Park/University Heights Redevelopment District is another model of success. “No question, the district has worked – slowly but surely,” said Bruce DeLaney, who was the area’s advisory board’s first chairperson.

In College Park and University Heights, the CRA invested in sidewalks and street lighting, essential components in making the area feel safe and pedestrian-friendly. It also provided tax rebates for investors through negotiating development agreements.

Mayor Lauren Poe agreed about tax increment financing. “Ultimately, TIF is a really effective tool for making targeted investment in areas that have seen disinvestment and neglect,” he said.

The CRA also used TIF in the Eastside Redevelopment District, where projects included converting an abandoned gas station site on Hawthorne Road into a restaurant site – without a tenant, noted CRA Director Sarah Vidal-Finn. “The community was craving more restaurant activity in the district, we had a good site, a plan and a board who believed in our intentions to make it happen.”

A public solicitation was completed and Omar and Arpita Oselimo stepped forward and created Southern Charm, which has become a destination that attracts diners from miles around, she said.

About the Gainesville CRA

The Gainesville CRA exists to help underserved regions attract private investment through community initiatives and partnerships, competitive economic development incentives and improved public infrastructure.

The CRA targets redevelopment efforts in four core areas:

  1. Downtown
  2. Eastside
  3. Fifth Avenue/Pleasant Street
  4. College Park/University Heights

After planning and achieving strategic goals in a district, the CRA steps out of the way and lets the private sector do the rest. We are devoted to cultivating the Heart of Gainesville and helping our city achieve its full potential as a diverse, vibrant community.

Source: FY2015 Gainesville CRA Annual Report (See the full report at gainesvillecra.com/about/annual-reports).

Coordinating Development

The CRA also serves as a developer.  It took over that role with Depot Park, a massive project with many prongs, in 2009.

Depot Park is just the tip of the iceberg.

The 32 acres that now makes the park is an assemblage of parcels that were polluted from a time when they were at Gainesville’s industrial core.

The most serious pollution occurred when the former Gainesville Co. heated coal to extract natural gas, noted County Commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson, who was a member of the SPROUT advisory group. 

City-owned GRU bought the privately-owned gas company, including its liabilities. “The city would dig and sniff,” Hutchinson said. “Each time, they would say, ‘My God, it’s worse than we thought’.”

In the end, GRU spent $28 million to remove contaminated soil and treat polluted groundwater – digging to 60 feet deep in spots. The city provided $12 million to clean up arsenic that had been used for pest control along the railroad track and elsewhere on the site.

What’s more, an abandoned gas station at Depot Avenue and Main Street required cleanup.

Over the past seven years, the CRA has coordinated the Depot Park work of various government agencies – from the state and federal environmental protection agencies to Gainesville Public Works Department – as well as private consultants and contractors.

That work included restoring the historic 1860s train depot building, building the park and providing space where the Cade Museum of Creativity and Innovation is being built.

One of the contractors has been Oelrich Construction. The company has completed other CRA projects, including the Southwest 13th Street pedestrian bridge, work in the  Innovation Square area and reconstructing the north side of Bo Diddley Plaza.

“As a company, we have a huge amount of pride in being part of the revitalization of the entire area,” President Ivan Oelrich said.

The Depot Park area was historically the center of Gainesville’s transportation, with trains transporting the area’s abundant agriculture and transporting passengers. Now the park is the central point in a network of bicycle-pedestrian trails, many of them following abandoned rail lines, that extend westward to Archer and eastward to Hawthorne Road.

“Good urban planning focuses on connectivity, and the CRA has spearheaded connectivity of bike trails,” Mayor Poe said. “The CRA has been crucial in reaching a great vision of revitalizing Gainesville’s core.”

Heartwood Neighborhood Progress

Doris Edwards is excited about people enjoying home ownership in East Gainesville – in the same way her family did a half century ago. 

In the mid-60s, when Edwards was a teenager, her mother bought a brand spanking new four-bedroom home that Phil Emmer built as part of his mission to provide affordable residences for families that had been renters for generations. Emmer was a national pioneer in building and helping finance such homes, starting with Lincoln Estates.

Today Edwards is supporting the Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency in planning another rendition of new homes in East Gainesville.

The development, Heartwood, is on a 15-acre site adjacent to Lincoln Estates. It will sport 34 attractive new homes along with walking trails and ponds.

Edwards and her husband Willie have remained dedicated to Lincoln Estates, where they’ve lived for 45 years. “God gives you a mission,” she said. “We seriously thought about moving to land in Newberry 12 years ago, but we decided to stay here and provide a path for young people.”

Heartwood will appeal to people of all races and backgrounds, Edwards believes. “We’ve held workshops about it, and people have embraced the concept,” she said. “They want something they can afford, and they want it to be safe. I also hope it attracts people working at GTEC (the Gainesville Technology Entrepreneurship Center).”

Edwards has worked hard on the areas safety as president of the Lincoln Estates Neighborhood Association, with the help of 16 block captains. She also advocated for good lighting in and around Heartwood to promote safety.

Heartwood is one example of recent progress achieved in East Gainesville with the CRA’s help, Edwards noted. The CRA has discussed another building that could house the agency’s headquarters.

“Sometimes we get into a chicken and egg situation, with not being able to begin development without a tenant and not being able to attract a tenant without the infrastructure in place,” Vidal-Finn said. “TIF helps bridge the gap.”

The CRA used TIF to create a restaurant site, not far from Cornerstone at 1714 SE Hawthorne Rd, that became the home of Southern Charm Kitchen.

The restaurant has fulfilled the CRA’s dream of becoming a destination for diners. “The only problem is that it’s packed all the time,” Edwards said.

“Southern Charm offers the best of soul food, and my favorites are the oxtail, pickled greens and the signature corn bread,” she said. “It’s great seeing people from Haile and Ocala coming over to enjoy it.”

Leading the Way Through Good Food and Dedication

Omar Olesimo was set on making Southern Charm, the new restaurant that he and his wife, Arpita, opened on Hawthorne Road in 2012 into a destination.

That meant coming up with a unique menu, featuring fare distinct from the offerings at their popular Reggae Shack Cafe at 619 W. Main Street. “I went to flea markets and bought old cookbooks,” Omar says.

The Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency worked with their Eastside Redevelopment Advisory Board in making plans for renovating the building, a former gas station, with the goal of bolstering economic activity in the area.

“When we started talking about what kind of business we wanted in the building, we realized there wasn’t a place to get a meal east of Waldo Road, says Vivian Filer, a member of the advisory board. “I think Southern Charm is awesome.”

The Oselimos were the only ones who responded to the city’s request for proposals to run a restaurant at the building. “Thank God we found the right people to run it,” Filer says.

The menu includes sandwiches, such as the Southern Sea Po’ Boy made with fried shrimp, vegetarian entrees and sandwiches, seafood specials and traditional entrees, such as fried chicken, oxtails and smothered pork chops.

The Oselimos also operate Reggae Shack Café and The Twisted Peacock restaurants. Beginning in 2003 with the opening of Reggae Shack Café, the Oselimos have never stopped striving to improve themselves, their restaurants and the community.

“Our food is really special; it’s different,” explained Arpita. “It’s not something you can cook at home. You have our dish, and you wonder what’s gone into it because the flavors are so complex.”

Cornerstone Brings More Business to East Gainesville

The Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency has been methodically putting in place a master plan for the Cornerstone economic development center in East Gainesville – 13.6 acres that includes the Gainesville Technology Entrepreneurship Center (GTEC).

The work is paying off with an established local business relocating to the site, with the potential of adding 25 jobs to its current 75 employees.

“This is a dream come true,” said CRA Director Sarah Vidal-Finn. “We were moving forward with the Phase I construction for the building fronting Hawthorne Road when we were approached by a potential tenant with a need for approximately 22,000 square feet by early 2017.”

That tenant is Mérieux NutriSciences Corp. Mérieux has acquired ABC Research Holding Co., a Gainesville-based food testing and consulting services company founded in 1967. The business is expanding from its current location near Archer Road.

Developers Mack Reese of Gateway Development and Brian Crawford of Concept Companies are constructing one building totaling 22,700 square feet that Mérieux NutriSciences  will occupy.

The CRA is also working with the developers on including the Phase I building along Hawthorne Road in this deal. The CRA is proposing to move from its current home at 802 NW Fifth Avenue to the second floor of the third building, leaving the bottom floor available for retail and personal services companies.

“Having the CRA and Mérieux as anchors will spur further development,” Vidal-Finn said. “With Cornerstone we had community and board support to move forward on an incremental phase of development. This investment created real momentum and made Cornerstone a viable and competitive location.”

“Double Helyx” SW 13th Street Overpass

The Gainesville CRA transformed the former railroad bridge spanning SW 13th Street into a stunning structure announcing the entry to the College Park/University Heights neighborhood and the University of Florida. The design is called the “double helix” because it represents a railroad track being twisted into the molecular structure of DNA – honoring the past and the future. The bridge provides easy access to the Depot Avenue Rail Trail, which connect to trails stretching from the Archer area to the Hawthorne area.  The American Public Works Association named the bridge its Project of the Year for work under $5 million in 2014.

Bo Diddley Community Plaza

The Bo Diddley Community Plaza, located the heart of historic Gainesville at the corner of SE First Street and East University Avenue, is a popular spot for concerts, festivals, church gatherings and other events. After completion of a $1.8 million facelift, the plaza reopened in March 2016. In its first year as a new and improved space, events and activities on the plaza have tripled. The entire north side of the plaza is new, including a decorative water wall, two new small buildings and an expanded backstage. The stage area includes new speakers and lighting. As part of the renovations, a new café space on the northeast side of the plaza was built, now home to Patticakes’ second location. Owned by Jan Patterson, Patticakes was selected through a public solicitation process conducted by the Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) and approved by the CRA Board in December 2015. The café addition was part of an initiative to activate underutilized space in the plaza, increase the programming, safety and draw visitors to Bo Diddley Plaza. Learn more about Bo Diddley Plaza and view upcoming events at bodiddleyplaza.com.

Innovation Square Primes for Big Things

The Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency, in partnership with the University of Florida and City of Gainesville, saw an opportunity to reclaim 16-acres of land located between Downtown and the University of Florida and transform it to the live, work, play environment that companies are seeking.

The CRA’s main role is to facilitate development by removing roadblocks.

The CRA facilitated rezoning of the area to a new mixed-use zoning category. It also created a development framework to guide development of Innovation Square and the larger Innovation District.

The CRA coordinated construction of two new roadways to bisect the former superblock that had been the home of Alachua General Hospital into more walkable sizes and to plan for the construction of infrastructure within Innovation Square.

With the roadway projects and underground utilities installed, developers can just “plug and play” their buildings into the system.

Planners are focusing on SW Fourth Avenue becoming the main street linking campus and downtown. Fourth Avenue passes through Innovation Square, an area that the city, the university and private companies are working to redevelop.

Increasing the vibrancy of Gainesville’s core will, to an extent, change the trend that began with building I-75 – which fostered new development moving west, said Greg Janks from consultant DumontJanks. “How we can find a balance between east and west has been a big driver in our discussions,” he said.

Robust development between campus and downtown will embrace the benefits of density that have been demonstrated through the redevelopment of areas adjoining campuses nationwide – creating “new American cities,” said Greg Janks from consultant DumontJanks.

Construction has been completed on new roads in Innovation Square with a goal of creating small, “walkable” blocks. This framework will facilitate interactions between individuals in the science and technology community.

The new roads, SW Ninth Street and SW Third Avenue, contribute to Innovation Square’s master plan of establishing an animated live-play-work community stretching between downtown Gainesville and University of Florida campus. The project will connect research and talent at UF with the private sector to accelerate scientific and technological development and local economic growth.

Land for the streets has been donated to the City of Gainesville by the University of Florida Development Corporation. The streets will intersect in the lot that once housed Alachua General Hospital.

By turning the old Alachua General Hospital “super-block” back into a walkable, pedestrian-friendly grid of interaction, SW Ninth Street and SW Third Avenue are quite literally paving the way for companies who wish to relocate and create jobs here in Gainesville.

The addition of the new infrastructure in Innovation Square sets the stage with necessary utilities, roadways and networks so that developers and companies hoping to set up shop in the technology community just need to show up.

A. Quinn Jones Museum and Heritage Trail

In 1923, A. Quinn Jones became the first principal of Lincoln High School. Affectionately known as “Prof Jones,” the innovative educator believed that his graduates deserved the opportunity to earn a full high school diploma. After years of hard work, Jones developed Lincoln High School into the second fully accredited African-American high school in the state of Florida. The Legacy Project consists of two major elements — A. Quinn Jones Museum and Heritage Trail. The focal point is A. Quinn Jones Museum, to be developed in the former Jones home at 1013 NW 7th Ave. in Gainesville. The museum will feature exhibits on Jones and other notable figures and destinations in the Fifth Avenue/Pleasant Street neighborhood. It will house a collection of oral histories centering on the African-American experience in Gainesville. The museum will be open to the public at the end of Black History month, February 2017. The second element is the Heritage Trail, which will be directly accessed from the A. Quinn Jones Museum and extend throughout the neighborhood with a system of markers featuring the words and images of current and former neighborhood residents and business owners.

Learn more about The Legacy Project at aqjmuseum.org.

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Innovation Square Successes

Fracture is a homegrown Innovation Square success. Alex Theodore and Abhi Lokesh were UF students when they founded the company, which prints pictures on glass, in 2009. It has grown to 35 employees since then. The company moved into a plain Trimark property in Innovation Square, located at 112 SW Sixth St., in 2011.

Trimark has since given the building a new façade. “The outside didn’t match the cool stuff that was going on inside,” Lokesh said. “Trimark has done a good job of sprucing up the area to create a modern look.”

Innovation Square’s growing sense of place helps Fracture recruit employees with specialized skills from across the country, he added. “People like seeing that we’re a stone’s throw from most of the other startups in town,” Lokesh said.

Mindtree has expanded steadily and it now occupies 25,000 square feet in the Ayers building. UF has also been successful with the Innovation Hub, a business incubator located south of the Ayers Plaza.

An expansion of the Hub is planned, which will double the size of the current three-story 48,000-square-foot building. The university partnered with Jacksonville-based Signet Enterprises in developing Infinity Hall, a UF residence hall oriented toward students interested in entrepreneurship that is near to Ayers.

Phase I of the Innovation Hub at the University of Florida was opened in 2011 as the first building in Innovation Square. It provides resources that include mentoring and inexpensive, state-of-the-art laboratory and office space. To date, the Innovation Hub startups have created more than 800 jobs and raised over $67 million in public and private funds.

Phase II of Innovation Square

Phase II of the Innovation Hub at the University of Florida, thanks to an $8 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration matched by $9 million from UF, the Innovation Hub at the University of Florida will double in size, adding 48,000 square feet of expansion for technology startups. 

Innovation Square is actually two separate projects. One, owned by the UF Development Corporation, has prepared the former Shands/AGH site for development. This project includes renovation to the Ayers building, including making lobbies and public areas more appealing to tech companies.

The second Innovation Square project is the private development in the blocks around the Development Corporation’s property.

Trimark Properties, the primary developer of the private property, has renovated many of the properties, many of which used to be medical offices, to give them a modern look. They have completed work on 11 buildings totaling 44,000 square feet. Trimark has completed construction of Nimbus, a 15,000-squarefoot building at 550 SW Second Avenue that will house SharpSpring, a growing marketing automation firm that incubated in the Fifth Avenue Redevelopment area in the commercial building that also houses the Gainesville CRA.

Parisleaf, the company branding Innovation Square, occupies a two-story building at 107 SW Seventh Avenue.

“Trimark worked with us to customize the building based on our inspiration,” Parisleaf Co-founder Chad Paris said.

“Being in Innovation Square has been good for business and has helped us pick up several nearby clients, Paris added.

“It’s provided us with legitimacy, and we’ve really taken off,” he explained.

Recent CRA Awards & Recognition

  • Bronze Award from the International Economic Development Council for creative
    2014 annual report
  • National- and state-level “Project of the Year” award from the American Public Works Association for SW Ninth Street at Innovation Square
  • State award for the Porters Community SW Fifth Avenue project from the Florida Redevelopment Association
  • Judge’s Choice Award from the North Central Florida chapter of the Urban Land Institute
    for Southern Charm Kitchen restaurant

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