Bo Diddley Plaza, located at the corner of SE First Street and East University Avenue, has long been a cultural staple in downtown Gainesville. Its importance to the community is one of the reasons the Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) selected the plaza for a renovation in 2016. Since undergoing the $1.8 million renovation, Bo Diddley Plaza has been transformed from an underutilized space to a reactivated community venue.
Every Wednesday, downtown Gainesville is full of activity, handmade wares and locally farmed foods. Over 60 vendors gather each week for the Union Street Farmers Market at Bo Diddley Plaza, in the heart of downtown Gainesville, to sell everything from goose eggs to organic lotions. The market draws university students, Gainesville residents and even out-of-town visitors and has called Bo Diddley Plaza home since 2007.
Each Friday evening in April through October, the Free Fridays Concert Series brings a variety of acts to the stage at Bo Diddley Plaza. The concert series attracts hundreds of attendees each week, and features bands playing music across many genres, from rock to soul to Latin fusion.
Throughout the year, regularly scheduled activities are planned six days a week. Depending on the day, visitors can listen to music, watch a live band, join a free yoga class or other fitness class, or shop at the farmers market. Every day, visitors can grab a craft soda and some Indonesian curry at Steamers restaurant, try Patticakes on the Plaza for fresh cupcakes and cold brew coffee or just lounge in the grass and enjoy the fresh air.
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:
- Fifth Avenue/Pleasant Street
- College Park/University Heights
The Bo Diddley Plaza renovations are only one example of the various projects the Gainesville CRA manages within the community. Other completed projects include the creation of Depot Park, Helyx Bridge, the A. Quinn Jones Museum & Cultural Center and the NW 1st Ave Streetscape.
Like the Bo Diddley Plaza renovations, each project begun by the Gainesville CRA brightens and revitalizes Gainesville’s core while preserving its unique heritage and personality.
“Good urban planning focuses on connectivity,” said Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe. “The CRA has been crucial in reaching a great vision of revitalizing Gainesville’s core.”
The approach is that after planning and achieving strategic goals in a district, the CRA steps out of the way and lets the private sector do the rest. It is devoted to cultivating the Heart of Gainesville and helping our city achieve its full potential as a diverse, vibrant community.
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 reinvest funds for capital projects and programs.
These projects follow a long history that began with the City Commission creating the Fifth Avenue/Pleasant Street Development area in 1979 – an area north of downtown that has since experienced revitalization while preserving its historic character.
Next came the Downtown Redevelopment Area, 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 stagnated 20 years ago – at $19 million, noted Ken McGurn, who was an early primary private downtown developer.
After revitalization, the value rose 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,” he said. “Once that occurred, the banks would lend to us.”
College Park/University Heights
The College Park/University Heights Redevelopment Area 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 redevelopment projects through negotiating development agreements.
Recently, the CRA completed a major capital project along NW First Avenue, including the undergrounding of utilities and infrastructure improvements and finishing with a carefully designed streetscape. The NW First Avenue Streetscape project transformed a congested span of four blocks into a pedestrian- and vehicle-friendly destination.
Mayor Lauren Poe commented 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 is also using TIF to help business owners transform their commercial properties. The Commercial Façade Improvements Program is available in all four redevelopment areas. It provides a reimbursement for eligible improvements to the exterior of a property.
The program has helped business owners such as Willie Wims, who converted a vacant cement block building on a major corridor in East Gainesville into a new home for Wims Hair Studio. In the Downtown redevelopment area, a similar transformation happened on the corner of SW Fourth Avenue and Fifth Street. A new burger restaurant called Dick Mondell’s has opened after the owners renovated a building that had been empty for nearly a decade.
“These are examples of the best kind of outcome we could wish for,” said Tricia Lopez, CRA Project Manager. “Activating a vacant space with a locally owned business that people will walk to is a great thing for the neighborhood.”
The CRA’s current projects include:
- Creation of a new neighborhood called Heartwood in East Gainesville, which will contain 34 new, single-family homes that will be available for buyers within a wide price range.
- Implementing a master plan for Cornerstone – a commercial campus development located on 13.6 acres in East Gainesville that includes the Gainesville Technology Entrepreneurship Center.
- Bringing the history of the Fifth Avenue Pleasant Street Neighborhood to life through the Heritage Trail, a walking tour that will teach and inspire those who experience it.
- A major renovation of the South Main Street corridor with enhanced safety, parking and aesthetic features.
- Supporting the buildout of the Innovation District – property between the University of Florida and Downtown that is ready for development as a live, work and play tech campus.
Heartwood Neighborhood Progress
The Heartwood neighborhood on SE Eighth Avenue will include the construction of 34 new homes with thoughtfully planned public outdoor spaces. It is an investment in a part of Gainesville that has historically been underserved, a catalyst for development and hope.
The City of Gainesville bought the land for $1.95 million in 2007 as part of its Southeast Gainesville Renaissance Initiative, but the plans to revitalize the area were held up for various reasons, including the Recession of 2008.
Nearly a decade later, the city — along with the CRA — is making good on the initiative, with plans for 34 single-family houses and a revitalized Cornerstone office complex nearby.
Construction of infrastructure on the site is expected to be complete in mid-2019, with the lots going on sale as early as April.
“You’re going to have a nice modern neighborhood development right next to an expanding economic hub in an area that has not seen that kind of investment for a long time,” said Mayor Lauren Poe.
There are several design options and the homes will be available at a wide range of price points in order to encourage a diverse community. Heartwood, according to CRA Director Sarah Vidal-Finn, has “a huge narrative around it.” Part of that narrative involves the history of Gainesville’s east side.
Gainesville, like most cities in America, still bears the pernicious imprint of racial segregation. Persistent economic and social disparities separate the east and west sides, with Main Street acting as an unofficial line of demarcation dividing the traditionally black east side from the traditionally white west side. A 2011 report from the U.S. Census Bureau found that Gainesville had the fifth-widest income gap in the country, and much of that gap was due to the east-west division.
Heartwood will appeal to people of all races and backgrounds, community member Doris 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 area’s safety as president of the Lincoln Estates Neighborhood Association, next to the site where Heartwood will be built, 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.
Part of what makes Heartwood so promising is the effort to draw businesses to the area through the Cornerstone commercial campus. The CRA understands that improved housing can have an impact only if the economic reality of the area also improves.
“It’s an honor to be able to make a long-term dream come true for the eastside community,” Vidal-Finn said. “I think it’s just the beginning of a whole bunch of special things that are going to happen.”
Cornerstone Brings More Business to East Gainesville
The Gainesville CRA has been methodically putting in place a master plan for the Cornerstone economic development center in East Gainesville – 13.6 acres that are anchored by the Gainesville Technology Entrepreneurship Center (GTEC).
GTEC is a 30,000-square-foot business incubator managed by Santa Fe College, and the construction of a mixed-use commercial campus, with up to 100,000 additional square feet of building space, aims to retain GTEC graduates and attract new businesses to the district.
Over the past year, the CRA has invested in laying the groundwork for the Cornerstone infrastructure. The project includes the utilities, parking, stormwater, hardscape and landscape needed to accommodate six of the 10 buildings proposed in the master plan adopted in 2015.
The work is paying off and the first new business, Merieux Nutrisciences, will move to the property as soon as its building is complete in early 2019.
“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 as soon as we could make it happen.”said Vidal-Finn.
That tenant is Mérieux NutriSciences Corp, and that time is now. The newly constructed Mérieux Building at Cornerstone is expected to be completed and occupied by early 2019. The business is expanding from its current location near Archer Road and will be moving with nearly 80 employees.
The CRA is also working with Avison Young (formerly Front Street Realty) to list the additional building pads for sale, which will add approximately 100,000 square feet of developable commercial potential in its Eastside District.
“Having Mérieux as an anchor will spur further development,” said Vidal-Finn. Marketing and business recruitment for the site continues while the physical improvements are developed.
The CRA is promoting the residential and commercial opportunities coming online through its Gainesville East marketing campaign. The campaign also highlights recreational and lifestyle amenities available to residents and visitors alike.
The Fifth Avenue Connection
June 2017 saw the official opening of the A. Quinn Jones Museum & Cultural Center. Allen Quinn Jones, a long-time educator and leader of the Gainesville African-American community, was born in Quincy, Florida. He graduated from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in 1915 at the top of his class.
After six years of teaching in public schools across the state, he accepted the position of principal at Union Academy in Gainesville, which was the premier school for African-American students in the county at the time. At its closing, he became the first principal of its replacement, Lincoln High School. Under his leadership, the school became accredited in 1926 and was the second African-American high school in the state to do so.
The Fifth Avenue Pleasant Street redevelopment area has historically been home to many prominent African-American leaders within the Gainesville community and it houses some the finest historical examples of residential, religious and educational buildings in Gainesville. Pleasant Street boasts such a fine collection of historic structures that it has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. To connect with the history of the neighborhood, the Gainesville CRA engaged in the renovation and adaptive reuse of the A. Quinn Jones homestead to transform it into a public museum and cultural center.
The A. Quinn Jones Museum & Cultural Center is only one example of the developments the Gainesville CRA is spearheading in the Fifth Avenue Pleasant Street neighborhoods. The redevelopment area offers opportunity where a mix of uses can occur in a single corridor – in a manner sensitive to residential occupancy and scale so that residential and commercial uses can exist and thrive together. According to the Gainesville CRA, these neighborhoods contribute enormously to Gainesville’s arts and culture with their annual activities and festivals, location within the city and rich local history.
Destination South Main Street
At the end of Depot Park, past the green lawns and children playing, is the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention. Open to the public in spring of 2018, the Cade Museum is named after Dr. J. Robert Cade, the inventor of Gatorade. In his honor, the museum is devoted to interactive science and technology exhibits.
The Cade Museum is one of the newest developments the CRA worked to include on South Main Street, but more are in the works. While the CRA has completed a historic rehabilitation of the Depot Building and constructed Depot Park, it also has drawn new commercial-oriented businesses to the area and continues to invest in creating a truly unique destination in southeast Gainesville.
The South Main Street Project strives to develop an improvement strategy for the South Main Street corridor that supports existing businesses, attracts new investments and prepares the corridor for future needs and additional users. Based on community feedback, the progress in the area is guided by five goals:
1. Improved Safety
Stakeholders voiced a desire to evaluate changes that could improve connectivity and safety for all current and future users passing through or arriving in the area.
2. Improved Parking
Existing on-street parking opportunities should be preserved and increased wherever possible to support adjacent businesses, parks and trails.
3. Improved Accessibility
The design should include creative and functional strategies that balance the operational requirements of existing businesses with the desire for calming traffic, and facilities that support pedestrians and bicyclists.
4. Improved Identity
Stakeholders expressed a desire for amenities, activities and destinations throughout the area that would give South Main a unique, brandable identity celebrating its distinctive character.
5. Improved Aesthetic
A lack of green space and trees created a negative appearance in the corridor, so the community showed support for small, coordinated aesthetic changes to increase the overall attractiveness of the area.
This $8.5 million construction project that is scheduled to be completed by summer of 2019 will transform the area into a destination to go to, not just through. It will include the conversion of overhead power lines to an underground system to promote redevelopment, improve utility reliability, and become more aesthetically appealing. Nearly 200 new trees will be planted along the corridor while also enhancing bicycle and pedestrian facilities and increasing on-street parking opportunities for area businesses as well as the Cade Museum and Depot Park.
Innovation District Primes for Big Things
The Gainesville CRA, in partnership with the University of Florida and the 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 vision for the Innovation District is to create a technology-, science-, and research-oriented development in an effort to both retain and attract intellectual capital within our community with the broader goal of economic development and diversification of our economic base.
Fracture, a homegrown Innovation District success story, is an example of retained talent. Alex Theodore and Abhi Lokesh were UF students when they founded the company, which prints pictures on glass, in 2009. In 2011, Fracture moved into a Trimark property in Innovation Square at 112 SW Sixth Street and has now grown to 75 employees.
One of the major first steps in the execution of Innovation District was the rezoning of the area to the new UMU-2 zoning category. This new zoning designation defined development and density patterns within the area to support the vision. The simplified zoning was adopted in 2010.
By turning the old “super-block” that previously had housed Alachua General Hospital into a walkable, pedestrian-friendly grid of interaction, SW Ninth Street and SW Third Avenue are quite literally paving the way for companies that wish to relocate and create jobs here in Gainesville. Planners focused on SW Fourth Avenue becoming the main street linking campus and downtown. With the roadway projects and underground utilities installed, developers can just “plug and play” their buildings into the system.
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, a consultant with the planning company DumontJanks.
New progress in Innovation square includes an expansion of the Innovation Hub. The Hub is a business incubator that provides mentoring and inexpensive, state-of-the-art laboratory and office space. Phase II doubled the size of the original 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.
The CRA’s work in Gainesville both beautifies and energizes the city. Its projects and renovations create more enjoyable visitors’ spaces, like Bo Diddley Plaza. Its work is more than buildings and streetways – it’s economy and culture. In its development districts, the CRA attracts jobs, builds houses and provides places for children to play. In short, the CRA invests in people and places and creates diverse opportunities for living, working and playing.