The grand opening of Depot Park in August 2016 brought together a wide range of people – from frolicking kids focused on the moment to longtime community leaders celebrating the culmination of more than two decades of work.
“This is unlike any other park in Gainesville, with all its equipment,” said parent Elizabeth Palmer, who was watching her son and daughter joyously jumping in the splash park.
Kinnon Thomas, a member of the SPROUT Project Task Force, recalled a recurring theme during the multitude of meetings the advisory group held regarding the park. “They told us it was going to be nice, but that it would be expensive,” he said.
Pegeen Hanrahan, who laid the groundwork leading to the park as a former mayor and city commissioner, was succinct: “This is a national model for transforming an abused site into a community asset.”
Vivian Filer, a champion of many redevelopment projects, said she was excited that the park was bringing today’s youngsters joy like she experienced growing up in the adjoining Springhill neighborhood in the 1950s. “It was so much fun to walk along railroad tracks and have fried chicken while my dad played cards with friends,” she said.
Anthony Lyons noted that the Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency, which he headed before becoming city manager, had provided the glue that held together the final work leading to the park’s completion.
“There was a lot of work – coordinating funding, cleaning up the site, working with all the partners,” he said. “One step had to follow another, and each piece had to fit with the area’s history and ecology.”
Catalyst for Progress
Depot Park is just one of the many projects the CRA has coordinated that are creating a renaissance through once-depressed areas of town.
Projects in progress include the following:
• Creating a new, attractive neighborhood called Heartwood in East Gainesville, which will provide more than 30 attractive, reasonably-priced homes for families
• Implementing a master plan for Cornerstone – on 14 acres in East Gainesville that includes the Gainesville Technology Entrepreneurship Center
• Coordinating redevelopment of the Power District – 17 acres north and east of Depot Park that formerly was the GRU’s operations center
• Supporting the buildout of Innovation Square, property between the University of Florida and Downtown that is ready for development as a live, work and play neighborhood
The CRA, like similar organizations nationwide, employs tax increment financing, a mechanism that uses increased property taxes paid to city and county government – from properties within a redevelopment district – to fund infrastructure.
These projects follow a long history that began with the city commission creating the Pleasant Street Development District in 1979 – an area north of downtown that since then has experienced revitalization while preserving its historic character.
Next came the Downtown Redevelopment District, which had deteriorated as shopping and business offices moved to locations such as Archer Road and the Oaks Mall.
The assessed value of property in the area had stagnated 20 years ago – at $19 million, noted Ken McGurn, who, with his wife Linda, were early primary private downtown developers.
Now it has risen to $152 million. “The return on the private and public money invested in downtown is incredible,” McGurn said.
The renovation of downtown could never have happened without TIF, McGurn said. “Somebody had to take the risk to make it better,” he said. “Once that occurred, the banks would lend to us.”
The College Park/University Heights Redevelopment District is another model of success. “No question, the district has worked – slowly but surely,” said Bruce DeLaney, who was the area’s advisory board’s first chairperson.
In College Park and University Heights, the CRA invested in sidewalks and street lighting, essential components in making the area feel safe and pedestrian-friendly. It also provided tax rebates for investors through negotiating development agreements.
Mayor Lauren Poe agreed about tax increment financing. “Ultimately, TIF is a really effective tool for making targeted investment in areas that have seen disinvestment and neglect,” he said.
The CRA also used TIF in the Eastside Redevelopment District, where projects included converting an abandoned gas station site on Hawthorne Road into a restaurant site – without a tenant, noted Interim CRA Director Sarah Vidal-Finn. “The community was craving more restaurant activity in the district, we had a good site, a plan and a board who believed in our intentions to make it happen.”
A public solicitation was completed and Omar and Arpita Oselimo stepped forward and created Southern Charm, which has become a destination that attracts diners from miles around, she said.
The CRA also serves as a developer. It took over that role with Depot Park, a massive project with many prongs, in 2009.
Depot Park is just the tip of the iceberg.
The 32 acres that now makes the park is an assemblage of parcels that were polluted from a time when they were at Gainesville’s industrial core.
The most serious pollution occurred when the former Gainesville Co. heated coal to extract natural gas, noted County Commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson, who was a member of the SPROUT advisory group.
City-owned GRU bought the privately-owned gas company, including its liabilities. “The city would dig and sniff,” Hutchinson said. “Each time, they would say, ‘My God, it’s worse than we thought’.”
In the end, GRU spent $28 million to remove contaminated soil and treat polluted groundwater – digging to 60 feet deep in spots. The city provided $12 million to clean up arsenic that had been used for pest control along the railroad track and elsewhere on the site.
What’s more, an abandoned gas station at Depot Avenue and Main Street required cleanup.
Over the past seven years, the CRA has coordinated the Depot Park work of various government agencies – from the state and federal environmental protection agencies to Gainesville Public Works Department – as well as private consultants and contractors.
That work included restoring the historic 1860s train depot building, building the park and providing space where the Cade Museum of Creativity and Innovation is being built.
One of the contractors has been Oelrich Construction. The company has completed other CRA projects, including the Southwest 13th Street pedestrian bridge, work in the Innovation Square area and reconstructing the north side of Bo Diddley Plaza.
“As a company, we have a huge amount of pride in being part of the revitalization of the entire area,” President Ivan Oelrich said.
The Depot Park area was historically the center of Gainesville’s transportation, with trains transporting the area’s abundant agriculture and transporting passengers. Now the park is the central point in a network of bicycle-pedestrian trails, many of them following abandoned rail lines, that extend westward to Archer and eastward to Hawthorne Road.
“Good urban planning focuses on connectivity, and the CRA has spearheaded connectivity of bike trails,” Mayor Poe said. “The CRA has been crucial in reaching a great vision of revitalizing Gainesville’s core,” Mayor Poe said.
Senior Writer CHRIS EVERSOLE has been a keen observer of business, government and culture in the Greater Gainesville Area while living here over the past two decades. His experience includes work with the University of Florida and Alachua County Government. He also has been a journalist and public relations professional in the Tampa Bay and Sarasota-Bradenton areas, as well as in Michigan, Ohio and New York.