Gainesville City Commission will be discussing renovations on Northwest Eighth Avenue and a mixed-use development in Gainesville. These issues have been put off for weeks, but they are reappearing now that the city and mayoral elections are over.
By Christopher Curry | The Gainesville Sun
After months without City Commission action, Gainesville's Northwest Eighth Avenue road project and the University Corners development are back on the agenda for Thursday's meeting.
Another long-lingering, oft-debated issue — local developer Nathan Collier's $1 million offer to purchase 5.7 acres of Loblolly Woods Nature Park backing up to his homestead — is expected to resurface at the May 16 meeting.
The three hot-button issues had not been before the commission for months leading up to March's city elections and the April mayoral runoff.
Each now is scheduled to come back for a vote in the final weeks of incumbent Mayor Craig Lowe's term and before Mayor-elect Ed Braddy takes office.
The public debate over the planned resurfacing of Northwest Eighth revolves around the possibility of reducing the stretch of road from just east of Northwest 34th Street to Northwest 23rd Street from two travel lanes to one in each direction in order to accommodate in-street bicycle lanes and a median.
Westside Park and Loblolly Woods Nature Park are along that stretch, and Littlewood Elementary School is just west of 34th Street. There are about 15,180 vehicle trips a day in that area and in the range of 250 bicycle trips, according to a city report.
City staff's recommendation to the commission is to resurface that stretch with a “test” design that reduces travel lanes, adds in-street bike lanes and a striped median area, said Phil Mann, the city's traffic operations manager.
After that configuration is in place, commissioners would decide whether a permanent, potentially landscaped median should be constructed or if the road should go back to two lanes in each direction.
Northwest Eighth is currently one lane in each direction east of 23rd Street, where staff recommends an in-street bike lane and reduced on-street parking.
The road is two lanes in each direction west of 34th, and staff recommends no changes to the lane configuration there.
The last significant public discussion of the plans for Northwest Eighth took place in late October at a community forum at the A. Quinn Jones Center. The public packed the meeting and offered widely differing opinions on the prospect of taking away a vehicle lane to make way for bicycle lanes and a median.
Opponents said the proposal would increase congestion and push traffic onto adjacent neighborhood streets. Proponents said it would address a problem with speeding on Northwest Eighth and provide a needed east-west bicycle corridor.
Since then, the project has not come back for a vote, and some commissioners have questioned why.
“I recall we were prepared for a City Commission hearing last fall and only postponed it to have an additional community workshop,” Commissioner Thomas Hawkins wrote in a late January email to City Manager Russ Blackburn and Clerk of the Commission Kurt Lannon. “It seems appropriate to have the City Commission hearing while the City Commissioners can still recall with some clarity the opinions we heard at the workshop.”
In mid-February, Commissioner Todd Chase asked Blackburn in an email why the roadway design had not come back for a vote. Blackburn replied that Public Works staff still had to meet individually with Chase and Lowe. At a subsequent commission meeting, Chase said staff did not have to wait to meet with him to schedule a meeting.
Lowe, who as mayor has input determining when items are put on an agenda, could not be reached for comment for this article.
Braddy opposes taking a travel lane off the roadway and made the timing of the Northwest Eighth Avenue vote a campaign issue during the mayoral runoff.
In a campaign mailer sent to voters who live in the residential area north of the roadway, Braddy said a staff recommendation was completed and that Lowe was holding the item until after the election.
“Now that the election is over, they're trying to ram it through,” Braddy said.
No matter the decision made Thursday, the project will come back before the commission during design.
Because the city does not want construction on Northwest Eighth to overlap with the county's project on Northwest 16th Avenue, the other major east-west corridor in the area, construction on Eighth is not expected to start until late 2014.
The full project will cover about 3.3 miles of roadway from Northwest Sixth Street to Northwest 40th Drive.
The city has $3.2 million in gas tax monies saved up for the project. Staff estimates its recommended design will cost a little less than $2.8 million. If the City Commission adds the option of wider sidewalks along some areas of the road, including the stretch between 34th and 23rd streets, it could tack on about $400,000 more.
The cost projection if the city opts to resurface the road with no change to the current lane configuration is approximately $2.5 million.
The long-stagnant plans for the mixed-use University Corners project went back before the City Commission in January, with Miami-Dade-based developer the Swerdlow Group now at the helm.
At that time, the commission voted 6-0 (Commissioner Susan Bottcher was absent) to have staff prepare ordinances for future consideration that would allow the developer's requested changes to prior zoning and land-use approvals.
The most significant change sought is an increase in the allowable building height from eight stories and 95 feet to 10 stories and 110 feet. Among other requested changes, the developer seeks to increase the capacity of an on-site garage from 1,000 to 1,200 vehicles, change residential development approvals from 247 condominiums and 243 hotel/condo units to 500 apartments or condominiums and a 250-room hotel, and increase the total building area from 1.185 million square feet to 1.33 million.
The first of two required commission votes on the ordinances is scheduled for Thursday evening.
Down the line, the developer also is seeking public incentives in the form of a rebate of the majority of the property taxes that the project would generate for the city's Community Redevelopment Area.
In an application sent to the CRA, the Swerdlow Group seeks 80 percent of the property tax revenues the development would generate for the CRA for 30 years, or close to $69 million.