Proposed zoning overhaul threatens Gainesville neighborhoods

by Tana Silva

A proposed zoning overhaul in Gainesville would reward speculation in the guise of redeveloping urban neighborhoods—the last cheap real estate—around UF and downtown. Each neighborhood is unique, and all are gradually revitalizing.

With rezoning, multistory business and apartment buildings could replace houses and small yards, first and worst in the historically African American Fifth Avenue neighborhood and eventually Porters and others.

From Brooklyn to San Francisco, the same fate has befallen once-affordable real neighborhoods and their distinct character. They become Disneyfied, the rich become richer, and longtime residents become refugees.

So far Gainesville city commissioners have wisely put off a crucial vote on the rezoning. Their next public workshop on it is September 30.

Existing code in Gainesville protects neighborhoods and fosters renovation while also permitting the hundreds of millions of dollars in new projects now under construction. Plenty of property on busy streets already is zoned for intense mixed uses to last far into the future.

And a renovation economy is flourishing here and generally. In Canada a study showed its renovation sector outperforming the economy as a whole.

Some top decision makers in town seem oblivious to this trend and absorbed in promoting a Silicon Valley image. They would do well to also notice the underbelly of the volatile global tech sector, like San Jose’s homelessness and Disney’s sudden IT switch to visa workers.

The rezoning relates to corporate UFShands-Innovation Square and Santa Fe College buying up nearby prime real estate. They have fought to keep it off local tax rolls and left a commercial dead zone along Sixth Street spilling onto University Avenue.

Theoretically, all this public expense will be compensated when more affluent people live and shop in expensive new buildings around downtown. In the questionable math behind it, each “direct” job at UF’s Innovation Hub, for example, somehow multiplies into two to seven “supporting” jobs in the community.

No word on actual bookkeeping or what happens to less favored workers, students, residents, landlords, professionals, entrepreneurs, contractors, and taxpayers in general.

Hype and stereotype have no place in public policy. A serious zoning overhaul demands careful analysis. But a previous city commission paid an Orlando company to produce basically computer-generated rezoning with no meaningful analysis or public input. It was scheduled to be adopted in May 2014. Outraged citizens objected, and some got their neighborhoods removed from rezoning for now.

The fine print still would increase densities and allow lots 18 feet wide, so even a typical residential property could be subdivided into extremely narrow lots. It would do away with area plans citizens worked with government for years to craft. It would grant irrevocable rights to develop properties to the max and give city staff more authority to approve developments.

Once it’s adopted, there would be no going back. The zoning overhaul falls now to the city commission, which is chronically overloaded with complex issues in numbingly long meetings. Current commissioners have recognized the huge consequences of rezoning. The mayor has asked what’s the hurry and kept the conversation alive, next on September 30 at GPD Hall of Heroes (413 NW 8th Ave., Gainesville, FL 32601).

There’s still time to speak up for neighborhoods, the local economy, and citizens’ continuing rights to participate in development decisions. City commissioners need to hear fresh voices, in person, at meetings, and by phone, mail, email, petition, and social media.

A folder and flash drive of rezoning emails, maps, petitions, articles, and details as well as the book “Urban Planning and the African American Community: In the Shadows” are available at the CMC.

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