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Editorial: Gainesville development is a high-rise endeavor
Scope of downtown plan looks impressive, but it still raises some questions
0504Downtown
The parking lots at the corner of Broad and Main streets are part of the multimillion-dollar development coming to downtown Gainesville.

Gainesville is looking to go big and grow home.

City leaders unveiled a development plan last week that would create mixed-use properties  a combination of retail, housing and office space — in three phases on two public parking lots downtown.

The $53 million project, to be developed by Carroll Daniel Construction and Knight Commercial Real Estate LLC, would transform downtown into the kind of live-work-play community many cities now favor.

The work could begin later this year on a $12 million office building at Main Street and Jesse Jewell Parkway. Its first tenant is already in place; Daniel Construction and its 150 employees will do the work, then occupy it as a new headquarters. The structure on the south side of the square, to be built by Knight, will include some 40 luxury condominiums with prices in the $300,000 range. The third piece will develop the lot at Jesse Jewell and Maple Street into retail and restaurant space at street level, topped by 150 apartments.

The idea is to create a vibrant downtown area where residents can enjoy an upscale urban lifestyle with restaurants and shops to lure visitors.

It is an ambitious plan to take empty eyesores on prime real estate and turn it into something special to transform downtown. But as great as the plan sounds, there are still questions to be answered as it takes shape.

The first is, who will live there? The idea is that young professionals and millennials who work downtown and aren’t yet in the market for a house might savor the intown pedestrian lifestyle. For some, the pricier condos might be out of reach, but the apartments at Jewell and Maple might be more within their budgets. Those who don’t embrace the area’s drive-everywhere culture can shop, eat, even head to doctor’s offices within a five-minute walk. But are there enough such folks to fill the buildings?

Also uncertain is the project’s impact on traffic. While the live-work folks will be able to walk everywhere, restaurants and retail shops still will need more than foot traffic to stay afloat. Can already-choked city streets handle more gridlock? And where will all these visitors park with fewer lots available? Traffic already is an issue in Gainesville, and further study is needed to determine if such development will make it appreciably worse.

The other question is over how the public-private partnership will work. Such projects can offer long-term benefits, especially from the expanded tax base that newly located businesses may bring. But those kind of funding structures need full transparency from start to finish to ensure taxpayers their money is being invested for the greater public good and not merely to line the pockets of private interests.

And not to sound too Chicken Little here, but a growing economy is going to be the wild card beyond anyone’s control in this venture. There were great ideas for such managed growth proposed a decade ago before the recession hit and sucked the life out of the construction and housing industry. If another economic downturn were to hit in the next few years, it could have a similar effect.

Above all, Gainesville needs to maintain its homey feel by keeping the development on a scale that is workable and reasonable for all and not create something so upscale it’s beyond the reach of many potential residents and visitors. The debate over affordable housing continues, with Hall County gaining a reputation as a locale where many people starting out their careers at modest salaries struggle to find reasonable living spaces. The area still must strike a balance between high end and mid-range residential choices. Gainesville isn’t Buckhead, and shouldn’t try to be.

It’s now common to see friends and acquaintances bump into each other over sandwiches at Sweet Magnolias or coffee at Inman Perk. We hope the exchanged smiles, handshakes and hugs don’t become a thing of the past with an influx of new residents. The small-town charm of Gainesville is what draws many to town, and those who come should embrace their neighbors and community as well.

We understand why many are excited about the potential of this idea to give downtown a shot in the arm and set Gainesville up as a prime destination for fresh faces and commercial ventures. Even with questions and concerns, it’s clear the status quo of empty lots wasn’t a worthwhile option. As the new structures go up over the next year plus, we’ll all be watching to see how this master plan plays out.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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