While 2008 plans for a hotel and mid-rise office towers on the southern end of the pedestrian bridge over Jesse Jewell Parkway were never realized, Gainesville city officials are hoping that improving economic conditions can give the property a second chance.
That’s why on Tuesday evening, the Gainesville City Council voted unanimously to purchase the 6.8-acre property for $10 million.
About one acre of that property was previously owned by the city and housed Gainesville’s police and fire headquarters. The city sold that land to developer City View Plaza LLC, owned by developer Wendell Starke, in 2008 for $2 million, then built a new public safety complex on Queen City Parkway that opened in 2010.
Starke has since joined with Atlanta-based developers to form Gainesville City Center LLC, which currently owns the 6.8-acre property. After buying the acre of city land, developers acquired other properties and demolished the city’s public safety building, a shopping center and a bank operations center.
Starke did not respond to calls for comment on Wednesday.
The property has now sat empty for about a decade, after developers’ plans for a 13-story hotel and two 11-story office buildings never came to fruition.
City Manager Bryan Lackey said Wednesday that those proposals were not timed well, as the economic recession hit in 2008 and development, and the real estate market, slowed down.
“At that point in time, pre-recession, I think that was a viable concept. … Coming through the recession, that changed,” he said.
But the economy is picking up now, he said, so when the city was presented with the opportunity to purchase the property, officials saw an opportunity to help kick off development in Gainesville’s midtown area.
“There’s certainly lots of opportunities, a lot going on in downtown Gainesville,” Lackey said. “The real estate market, the economy is going really well right now, so the council felt the time was right to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Lackey said the purchase came from the city’s capital budget, not funds from taxpayers.
The resolution for the purchase was not on the agenda for Tuesday’s council meeting and had not been publicly announced previously. Land acquisitions are legally allowed to be discussed in closed executive sessions.
The city hopes to sell the land to a developer and will consult with stakeholders to see what could be a feasible option for the site. Lackey said the timeline for resale of the land has not been decided.
The pedestrian bridge, which crosses over Jesse Jewell Parkway from the Roosevelt Square area into midtown Gainesville, has earned the nickname “bridge to nowhere.” It was meant to lead to the hotel and conference center development, but it was built before the project ever broke ground.
In 2008, when the city sold the property to developers, the city and the Gainesville Redevelopment Authority entered into an agreement that required developers to fund the design, permitting and construction of the bridge, city spokeswoman Nikki Perry said in an email Wednesday. Under that agreement, the city would reimburse developers for those costs when the project was done, or no later than Feb. 15, 2017.
The city upheld the agreement in February 2017 and paid developers almost $2.5 million to reimburse them for the cost of the bridge.
The Northeast Georgia Health System approached the city about the land on the midtown end of the bridge, Lackey said.
The health system had a contract on the property, with a due diligence period expiring on Oct. 21, and NGHS handed the contract over to the city in exchange for the option to purchase the site of the Engine 209 park at Jesse Jewell and West Academy Street.
Sean Couch, a spokesman for the health system, said in an email Wednesday that the health system did not have any information to share about plans for the site at this point.
The Engine 209 park would be relocated if the health system does develop that property.
Lackey said acquiring the property on the other end of the bridge should help expand the city’s business district and bring new development to midtown, which is largely industrial and has been identified as a priority in the city’s strategic planning efforts.
New developments such as The Enclave, a collection of townhomes in midtown, have helped kickstart development in the area, Lackey said. The old Hall County Jail site, which Gainesville purchased from the county several years ago, could be another spot for development, Lackey said.
The city is paying off debt on the jail property, and Perry said slightly under $5.2 million is still owed.