by Robert Mounts
At a final “Neighborhood Workshop” conducted on December 11 by CHW Consultants on behalf of an out-of-town investor, it was disclosed that the plan to build a large luxury student apartment complex on the vacant Seminary Lane site on NW 5th Avenue near the University of Florida – that once was set aside for “affordable housing” – is now a “by right” development.
This happened despite long-standing promises by the current owner, the Gainesville Florida Housing Corporation, that the land would be redeveloped with affordable housing to replace that which had fallen into disrepair and was demolished years ago.
The land is reportedly to be sold to the investor for $8.5 million dollars.
The project has been scaled down just enough to avoid the cumbersome process of requesting Plan Board approval of a “Special Use Permit” (SUP) that would have allowed greater density. Now, the project requires only City staff review.
CHW Principal Gary Dedenbach said that in U6 zoning provided in the 2017 Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code update, up to 378 multi-family units were allowed with a Special Use Permit (50 units/acre by right, 60 units/acre with SUP). However, the project was “scaled down” to 313 units with 891 beds to eliminate the Special Use Permit (and Plan Board approval).
That’s right, the development will still accommodate 891 students in market-rate apartments in an area that once formed the western component of a historically African-American neighborhood with affordable housing.
Dedenbach said at least eight “affordable” units for sale would be built on the east side of the project after the development was completed. Architects indicated that more affordable units could be built in that area so long as they did not consume more land. In addition, $200,000 would be provided to the City to improve the Wilhelmina Johnson (Community) Center. He promised enhancements to 5th Avenue and unspecified improvements to the “Heritage Trail.”
How did we get here?
Quite simply, in 2017, the Gainesville City Commission approved a total re-write of the Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code designed to make it simpler and more “user-friendly” for customers (developers and investors). It set up a “bonus system” that allowed developers much more latitude in making trade-offs in order to achieve higher density (equaling higher profits). For example, if the developer included structured parking, they could get two additional floors, by right.
None of this requires Plan Board or City Commission review or approval, so long as the developer stays within the generous zoning and permitted use guidelines set forth in the law. Only staff review and approval is required.
While “neighborhood workshops” are still required, these are not public hearings before an elected body, or even the appointed Plan Board. That is only required if the developer seeks zoning changes or a Special Use Permit in order to achieve higher density.
The sad result is that the desires of an entire neighborhood desperately trying to preserve its historic identity and character can be ignored with impunity.