The first installment on development in Gainesville. 


Illustration by Ziqi Wang.

The balmy sun inches below the horizon at about 7 p.m. each day. With a vast web of oaks and pines, Gainesville has few openings for the sunset’s creamsicle hues to bleed through.

A handful of windows already exist across Gainesville’s landscape; the Sweetwater overlook off the Hawthorne trail is one, Depot Park is another. But most of the windows exist in parking lots, above parking garages, or in spaces cleared for construction.

These man-made windows are not permanent. The view from the intersection of 13th Street and University Avenue is blocked by a looming 10-story apartment complex dubbed The Standard, the counterpart to Social 28 on 13th Street.

Construction of The Standard is not complete, and its stucco and concrete facade lacks heart. The building is austere in comparison to the gothic architecture of the college campus and the grubby, low-lying storefronts that span University Avenue.

The Standard reflects the recent efforts by the city of  Gainesville and Alachua County’s to create more dense mixed-use development, a type of development that combines residential and commercial units in the same building, providing all the amenities people need. The Standard will have a Target Express and a CVS on the ground floor. Like Social 28 or 2nd Avenue Center, People will be able to sleep, eat and shop in one building.

And the city doesn’t have plans to stop construction of Celebration Pointe — a retail center similar to Butler Plaza, but with residential space —  began in April. So far only a Bass Pro Shop has been built, but the rest of its features — apartments, restaurants, movie theaters, office spaces and more — will follow in the coming years as permits are approved and construction churns.

Gainesville will continue developing to suit the needs of the highest bidder. With a population of over 50 thousand students and yearly endowments of over $1.5 billion, the University of Florida’s voice is one of the loudest in the area — and its collective wallet one of the fattest. Development in Gainesville will continue to target the university’s main demographic, college students and young professionals, at the expense of other communities in town.

Planning in Gainesville was not always focused on packing people into small spaces. Car-dominated, single-lot subdivision development hallmarked the 1950s and ’60s. But this resulted in rampant urban sprawl; everyone wanted their own house, with their own lawn, out in the country. The government had to spend more money on gas to deliver mail, and grocery stores were, at minimum, a car ride away. Developers and city planners saw this as a problem and decided the style of development needed to change.

Until Florida passed the Growth Management Act in 1985, community members had little say in what buildings would be erected and where. The Growth Management Act strengthened planning measures across the state. Towns established comprehensive plans with the intention of changing the course of development. Public workshops were implemented to determine the community’s wants and needs.

Before 2000, development in Gainesville was predominantly low-density residential. After the construction of Interstate 75 in 1964, residential areas began sprawling westward. Haile Plantation followed, another experiment in mixed-use development. Population in the western side of the county grew, and in 1990 Butler Plaza was built. Today, the retail center is mostly parking lots, which are impossible to navigate with a car as without.

There became a need to “lasso in the sprawl,” said John Barrow, a former city commissioner. The traditional single-lot subdivisions that comprised Gainesville made it difficult to access much of the town on foot, which left those without transportation unable to access fresh groceries or get to work easily.

Mixed-use development, Barrow said, takes a different approach. With it, the gears of transit shift. People can now choose to walk, bike or take the bus to where they want to spend their time — if it isn’t already an elevator ride down from their front door.

“It’s all about options,” Barrow said. “Some people think that multi-modal is trying to make people not drive their cars, but in reality, our culture and our cities and communities are auto-dominated.”

Relying heavily on cars creates many problems. High traffic can cause accidents, wear down roads and pollute the air. Florida has steadily grown in population since the 2000s, and more people bring more cars.

Mixed-use development aims to combat the car problem by creating areas with “a sense of place,” said Steven Lachnicht, director of Growth Management for Alachua County.

“You walk downstairs and you’re somewhere,” Lachnicht said. “The idea is you create those environments within cities and in developing areas more easily if you don’t require everybody to do the single-family subdivision.”

According to Barrow, providing more than one way to access work, buy groceries or go to school is another way to manage population growth. But there is no quick fix for bad development, especially when it’s the only development a lot of people know, Lachnicht said.

“We’ve had 25 years of discussing that we’re doing it the wrong way, and it’s going to take 25 years to fix it,” Barrow said.

Alachua County, the City of Gainesville and the University of Florida are all responsible for the development of different areas of town, and each has its own comprehensive plan. These plans are updated at least once every 7 years, and small-scale changes to zoning or land use regulations occur off -cycle on an individual basis. While the development style of each plan overlaps, the work done to create and update them does not, as each entity operates independently.

“Development happens and people say, ‘That’s not what we wanted. That’s not what we talked about at the workshop.’”

The reasons for development vary as well.

“Part of the developing process is finding demand or seeing if they [can] create demand. Part of it is working with the areas to see what they need,” said Ken McGurn, owner of a local development company who is currently running for U.S. Congress.

Demand for development is driven by demographics. In Gainesville, the keystone demographics are young professionals and college students.

“I’ve been guided by the idea of doing more long-term approach to development patterns,” said Lachnicht. “[If] there’s good demographic support, maybe we should do things differently … The trend with the millennial generation and the early retirees is the desire for the non-single family home. They’d rather live in an apartment or wherever they don’t have to be dependent on a car.”

When it is time to update the comprehensive plan, officials hold workshops open to the public to get input from the community.

But according to Barrow, going to just one of these workshops won’t make your voice heard.    

“The problem with people feeling like they aren’t being heard is that they’re not part of the day-to-day negotiations,” he said. “Development happens and people say, ‘That’s not what we wanted. That’s not what we talked about at the workshop.’”

Decisions are made at many levels of local government. The big picture changes as meticulous details are lost in memoranda and committee meetings.

“There’s no longer just one plan board,” Barrow said. “There are subcommittees within the city and county commissions. Crime, community development, bicycle —and at one point there was a tree advisory board.”

“It all boils down to money,” McGurn said.   

Creating space for students and young professionals comes at a cost to the rest of Gainesville.

The county’s emphasis on mixed-use development has garnered support from community members aware of how the city and its surrounding areas are changing, Lachnicht said. But according to Eduardo Arenas, co-owner of The Jam, it’s the people whose voices are not being heard who oppose the development.

The Jam, which closed in May 2016, has suffered from both the literal and figurative costs of mixed-use development. Ownership changed hands several times since it opened in September 2012, from UF Health to Innovation Square. Ultimately, the developers who now own the property intend for it to follow in the footsteps of The Independent Alligator’s office—they want to demolish it and construct another multi-story, mixed-use complex in its place.

Arenas and his business partners knew The Jam would be short-lived from the start, which he said was part of the project’s appeal. Repairs fell in the hands of Arenas and his partners. Cheap rent and an ideal location were part-and-parcel of impending demolition.

“We were only supposed to have The Jam open for 8 months until the lease expired, but the venue took on a life of its own and became such a valuable part of the live music community in Gainesville that we just continued on until the last possible moment,” Arenas said. “The saying that we used from the get-go was that we were going to ‘ride it ’til the wheels fell off,’ and that’s what we did.”

The Jam falls just outside of the southern University Heights historic district. If that designation were expanded one or two blocks, its story, along with the neighboring houses and buildings, would be different. Arenas said a better alternative would be to preserve and restore these buildings while creating new development to match the existing style and size.

“I think that’s a much better solution, but I understand that for the businessman, for someone who’s trying to maximize their profit, it makes a lot more sense to just plow it all down, build up as high as they can, and squeeze as many people as they can into a building,” Arenas said. “But I think that’s a disservice to Gainesville’s culture and history.”

Lachnicht said that while he and the county disagree with some of the city’s development projects, such as the recent northern expansion of Butler Plaza, he supports the city’s changes to the area east of campus that encompasses The Jam. The newer buildings are a healthy mix to have around campus, he said.

However, Arenas said the mixed-use development contradicts the goal of keeping spaces affordable.

“I’ve seen music venues in this town close one after the other. Some argue that it’s the skyrocketing rents, and that goes hand in hand with the development,” Arenas said. “Business owners can’t afford to pay for the rents in the new spaces, and The Jam is a prime example of that.”

When faced with the decision of keeping The Jam alive in a new space, Arenas and his partners — unable to replicate the unique charm and accessibility of the old venue at an affordable price — choose otherwise. He said a lot of the culture in Gainesville is lost at the expense of the city, and businesses owners who need to relocate do not receive help.

But is it possible to develop without displacing people or local businesses?

“Not if you want change,” McGurn said. “Change is good. You displace one or two people, I tell you they go to city hall and walk out with a big, fat check, smiling.”

Arenas, however, argues that the change brought by development must be kept in check. The challenge is finding the balance among innovation, growth, and the preservation of local businesses and communities.

“I think that’s what make a town attractive for people to come and live here, just the fact that it does have a history and a rich culture,” Arenas said. “I’m not against development, but developers need to be mindful of what they’re destroying in their path.”

Molly Minta contributed to this report.

The original version of this article misspelled Steven Lachnicht’s name.