Gainesville gets glimpse of downtown plans

Creating a downtown development authority, or a similar type of group, to aid growth in Gainesville will be one of the key elements of a downtown development plan, a consultant told the city commission.

Andrew Overbeck, a principal with MKSK planning and urban design firm, presented on Thursday a draft of a downtown development plan the company is working on for the city. The final draft will be finished and back before the commission in June.

MKSK has conducted focus groups, community meetings, surveys and stakeholder interviews with more than 700 Gainesville residents, according to its report.

The initial recommendations include 16 ideas that includes, among other things, increased support for small businesses, development of additional housing at all economic levels, and creating a greenway loop that connects into existing cycling and walking trails and provides a way for pedestrians and cyclists to move around downtown.

However, Overbeck said the creation of an entity that was focused on implementation was the key to making the recommendations more than just a plan.

“It’s really important that there is an implementation entity that is thinking about downtown from the minute they get up to the minute they go to sleep at night,” Overbeck said. “They become the facilitator, not only of this plan, but of the ideas that fall out of it.

That entity and what it’s called varies from city to city. Other places have a downtown development authority, or an investment corporation, or a business improvement district. The key, Overbeck said, is making sure that Gainesville has a group dedicated to moving the plan forward.

“One of the charges we had from our [Gainesville] stakeholders, from the community, from the advisory group, [is] we can’t let this plan sit on a shelf,” Overbeck said. “We have to have a way to get this done.”

The need to have a dedicated entity implementing development downtown struck a chord with the commission.

Commissioner Harvey Ward, participating via Zoom, said he supports adding a city employee who would be dedicated to working on downtown elements.

“It’s got to be somebody’s responsibility to keep downtown top of mind,” Ward said. “If we don’t have a person whose job it is to wake up in the morning and worry about downtown being vibrant, we’re not going to succeed on a consistent basis.”

Mayor Lauren Poe said he wanted the downtown organization to be a public-private partnership.

“If it’s just the city, then we are not going to have the resources necessary and it’s always going to be ‘City, why aren’t you doing it better?’” Poe said.

He said he supports the creation of a quasi-independent authority with its own taxing district, which would give the authority funds to make infrastructure improvements and host and promote programming and events.

“It wouldn’t be in place of [city services] but to augment core functions that the city already has,” Poe said. “At that point, it becomes a true public-private partnership. Everybody has skin in the game, so everyone is going to be active and fully engaged in what works and what doesn’t.”

Overbeck said some of the initial projects that downtown development entities work on is an initiative to make the area clean and safe. Establishing a downtown ambassador program is often part of this initiative.

Once a cleanliness and safety program is up and running, the development organization can move on to long-term projects that make the downton a destination and that improve the working/living environment.

Among MKSK’s initial ideas for downtown development:

Gainesville downtown - Create a Greenway Loop Idea 7

Create a downtown identity that takes advantage of existing local strengths and develop into a destination for both visitors and people interested in living and working in a downtown area.

Improve existing infrastructure to create a downtown that is more connected and walkable. The city would need to address and simplify parking, bring downtown streets up to city standards, and branch out from existing greenspace in Sweetwater Park and develop a Sweetwater Creek corridor that would connect the existing urban parks, trails and green space.

Eventually, that corridor could be connected to a greenway loop designed to better connect neighborhoods like Porters Quarters, Pleasant Street, Fifth Avenue and the Duckpond to downtown, each other and regional trail systems like the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail.

“I think [Sweetwater Creek corridor] could be a really fantastic addition to the area,” said Commissioner David Arreola. “We would need to do a feasibility [study] as a city to really look at the costs that would incur, but I think it’s a fantastic idea. If you go to any park – whether it’s passive or active – on any weekend, it’s always packed. People are appreciating those things here, and they are voting to fund it at the ballot [box].”

Encourage the building of additional housing in the downtown area, including affordable housing and market-rate housing, as well the preservation, renovation and maintenance of existing neighborhood housing.

“To be the type of city we want to be, there has to be access to all levels of housing in all parts of our community,” Poe said. “We need more market rate housing downtown, we need more upscale housing downtown, and we need more affordable housing. There are ways to bring that all in and find a mix.”

MKSK identified very little housing development of any kind in the downtown area, including little that serves families making $38,000 or less.

“The developers have no problem creating student housing on their own,” said Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker. “We could definitely use more creativity and innovation and opportunity to create affordable housing.”

Increase the number of businesses downtown, filling in empty ground-floor storefronts and repurposing obsolete commercial spaces. The downtown also needs a mix of businesses – some like salons and grocery stories that support the downtown neighborhoods, while others like restaurants and shops that draw people into the downtown area to spend money.

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