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Downtown Gainesville strategic plan entering final stages of development
Focus groups, interviews have been part of process
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People make their way to the Main Street Market in downtown Gainesville on Friday. Officials have said they want to make downtown vibrant and viable in the future while putting building specifications in place to guide what can be built and how it should be managed. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Developing a strategic plan to both spur and manage growth in downtown Gainesville has been on the wishlist of city officials since 2012, when a comprehensive plan for the entire city’s growth was approved, revealing that downtown needed its own identity and goals.

City officials have conducted focus groups and interviews with a variety of residents, from students to retirees and business owners to workers, representing Gainesville’s diverse racial, ethnic, age, gender and class population over the last few months. They hope to finish the development process in August and present the plan to the City Council in September.

“What we believe was great about this process was we were very deliberate in trying … to ensure that cross-representation of the population,” said Special Projects Manager Jessica Tullar.

The public outreach tried to capture a sense of what residents find attractive about downtown, what turns them off, what they value most and what’s missing or needs changing.

Community Development Director Rusty Ligon said the city has received input from segments of the community that haven’t been heard from before, especially students at Gainesville middle and high schools.

“I feel like those were some of our best focus groups,” offering many creative ideas, he added.

Four themes emerged to guide the creation of the strategic plan: connectivity, programming, infill design and housing.

A desire for housing in downtown was perhaps the biggest takeaway.

“That theme was heard very loudly” from all age groups, young and old, Ligon said.

Currently, downtown living is limited to the Jackson Building on Washington Street.

Retaining the historic character of downtown is also a major consideration.

One of the bigger aspects of the project that must still be filtered is the actual parameters of downtown.

While the square is the obvious core, those involved in developing the strategic plan are considering just how far people’s sense of downtown extends.

For example, should the Green Street and Oak Street business corridors be included?

The area between the nexus of Jesse Jewell Parkway, EE Butler, and Academy and West Academy streets may not entirely define downtown Gainesville, Ligon said.

Officials said they want to make downtown vibrant and viable in the future while putting building specifications in place to guide what can be built and how it should be managed.

For example, incorporating space for a grocery store is key if housing is to be developed downtown.

Tullar said reusing idle space and being creative with green space can help move the downtown core beyond the traditional nine-to-five working hours.

Generating more active use downtown could include promoting the emergence of frequent live music.

“We’d love to see downtown Gainesville provide that consistent scene,” Ligon said.

Mayor Danny Dunagan said it’s important for the plan to incorporate streetscaping ideas, plans to install wayfinding signs directing traffic to points of interest, a proposal to renovate Roosevelt Square and the midtown greenway.

A steering committee of about a dozen native and non-native residents, business owners and elected officials will vet and finalize the plan before the City Council’s review.

Ligon said he expects short-, mid- and long-range recommendations to be made to guide downtown’s growth.

The city has contracted with the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia to provide consultation on the project, with funding from grants and city funds.

“As we grow, we want it to fit the (downtown) area,” Dunagan said, adding that the process has been  “eye opening.”

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