The issue: The Gainesville City Council on Nov. 6 approved an ordinance banning 30 uses in the city’s Midtown Overlay Zone, including homeless shelters, crisis centers, coin laundry facilities and pawn shops. Existing businesses or nonprofits that would be banned under the new rules are being grandfathered in and can stay.
The leaders of Gainesville have grand plans for the city’s midtown area. As visions of a new skyline downtown begin to take shape — with Carroll Daniel’s new headquarters and the still anticipated Parkside condominium building, both with first floor space reserved for retail and restaurants — the council seems to be shifting its eyes back toward the portion of the city just across Jesse Jewell Parkway.
The city is in the midst of purchasing, for $10 million, the land on the midtown side of the pedestrian bridge, and it has approved new regulations for a midtown overlay zone, a 350-acre area bounded by E.E. Butler Parkway, Jesse Jewell Parkway, Queen City Parkway and the railroad.
Editorial board members
- Norman Baggs, general manager
- Shannon Casas, editor in chief
City Manager Bryan Lackey has said city officials want to see more housing and retail in the area as well as possibly office space and a hotel.
The city’s aim is to encourage that by using the overlay zone to address redevelopment, allowing properties there to be treated differently than others.
The midtown area is dotted with empty storefronts and dilapidated buildings. Pumping new life into the district could raise property values and give city dwellers new places to spend their cash — both of which translate into more tax revenue for the city.
Some businesses in the area already have bought into the vision — with more than just words.
JOMCO Construction has remodeled its building since opening in midtown about two years ago.
J.R. Johnson, president of the company, has said “the vision that the leaders in the city have is starting to play out a little bit.”
Jason Everett, owner of the Gainesville Design Center, said he’s also seen the area trending toward more retail, “which is good for people coming over from downtown as the square gets a little more crowded.”
The list of restricted businesses limit the rights of property owners in the area, but some businesses already were disallowed through zoning regulations, including mini-warehouses, auto/motor vehicle sales and service and sexually-oriented adult uses. Meanwhile, the city is giving property owners more flexibility with increased residential and mixed-use options in the district.
Revitalization is an admirable goal when done in a manner that is fair to both existing and new property owners, and with an eye toward conservative stewardship of public funds.
The city has spent a considerable amount on its vision.
The city in 2012 spent $7.2 million to purchase Hall County’s old jail on Main Street in midtown.
The plan was that Corrections Corporation of America, a private company, would continue leasing the facility for 14 years to operate a detention center for immigrants in the country illegally. The lease agreement through 2026 would “more than cover the expense,” Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan said at the time, noting the city would break even in seven years.
But within a year, the CCA broke its lease — the city’s agreement laid out no penalty for that — leaving taxpayers on the hook for the bill.
By 2017, the city had demolished the jail. The city still owes about $5 million on the property.
The city is now spending $10 million for the land on the other side of its infamous “bridge to nowhere.”
Whether private investment will follow remains to be seen, but with so much public money tied up in the revitalization effort, it is vital that plans for moving forward are structured to be revenue positive for the city.
Enticing developers to the overlay district with promises of long-term tax breaks and special financial considerations is a risky business at best.
The suddenness of the city’s acquisition of the latest property after years of awaiting the previous owner’s proposed development, and a lack of public discussion about plans for the area, has some questioning the city’s role in the process. Inviting increased public input and being totally transparent in all land transactions will go a long way toward alleviating any concerns.
Amid all the talk of revitalization, there’s a nagging feeling about what will happen to the people who have been operating businesses like laundromats or those providing beds to the homeless.
Society hasn’t eradicated the problem of homelessness, and people still need to shop at thrift stores and wash their clothes at laundromats.
By banning them in this portion of the city, these types of businesses and nonprofits are likely to be pushed into another area of the city, creating a sort of economic segregation. Pushing what city officials consider to be less than desirable businesses into ever smaller areas in the city only reinforces the idea of a neighborhood on the wrong side of the tracks.
An alternative worthy of consideration is to control the quality of redevelopment through building codes and architectural requirements, so that an upscale neighborhood can still have its laundromat or dollar store, but with a design that looks like it belongs.
None of the current business owners showed up to meetings about the changes, but the city also wasn’t required to notify the property owners about the changes, so the likelihood they knew about the proposal was slim.
By grandfathering in the current establishments, the character of midtown isn’t changing overnight. But if revitalization comes, rent prices will increase and some may be forced out.
If the city is willing to invest millions to demolish a jail and buy a vacant piece of property, we’d like to see it make some investments to help businesses already in the area. A rising tide should lift all boats, but it doesn’t always work out that way without someone providing options for those who may otherwise get priced out of buildings they’ve rented for years.