Think big, go small

Conceptual view of proposed Power District food park.

What if, in reimagining The Power District, Gainesville is aiming big when it ought to be going small?

Commissioners have for years been trying to attract a developer to turn the collection of old GRU workshops and warehouses immediately north of Depot Park into a mixed-use, live-work-and-play community.

They nearly pulled it off in 2018, when a Maryland firm made a $127 million proposal. But it fell apart.

The Power District.

Now the City has contracted with Collier International to find another interested party. But the idea of turning over public land to a private developer – and likely an out-of-tower – is getting push back from at least one commissioner, Gail Johnson, and from surrounding neighborhoods.

Enter Tim and Bret Larson, the Gainesville brothers who founded Opus Coffee and developed the 4th Avenue Food Park.

The Larsons are proposing a decidedly modest venture – they want to turn three GRU buildings, sandwiched on about 2 acres between SW 4th and 5th avenues, into an expandable version of their popular food park.

4th Avenue Food Park

With the eventual addition of…who knows? A book store? A brewery? A small grocery store?

“Those buildings have been empty for 30 years,” said Tim Larson. “The most exciting developments in many towns are adaptive reuses of old buildings.”

Forget multi-million deal packages. What the Larsons have in mind is a small-scale “low risk, high reward” project that would unfold slowly over time.

“That’s what what we did with the 4th Avenue Food Park,” he said. “No one else was really interested. We renovated the buildings one by one. There was not some huge grand design. Now it’s extremely popular.”

The Larsons say their idea would “serve as a bridge to future and larger projects and will jump start more projects in the Power District.”

“I think it’s a great first step,” Larson said. The district “may need high density eventually, but we don’t need to do all of it at once. Anything we do would be local-centric because of our limited resources.”

Mayor Lauren Poe, who did a walk-through of the buildings with Tim Larson, calls the proposal “a really cool idea. I could see myself spending a good deal of time there with my family. It fills a missing gap between what we have there now and what we are looking for in the city.”

Process problems at City Hall may complicate matters.

A potential roadblock, Poe says, may be a procedural one. The commission apparently doesn’t have a process to follow when the city is approached with an economic development idea by a private interest – as opposed to when the city formally invites proposals from interested parties.

That lack of “process” recently led to an agonizing commission discussion after a Jacksonville businessman came forth with a deal to operate a grocery store in east Gainesville. And never mind that commissioners have long talked about the urgent need for a grocery store in that part of town.

“We’re wrestling a lot with process vs. progress right now,” Poe said.

Which might even turn out to be a point in favor of the Larson proposal. It’s small…bite sized really. It’s local. It’s incremental. It is, in short, something city government ought to be able to get its arms around more readily than a big dollar deal with out-of-towers.

“This is right up their alley,” Larson says. “It’s about dividing the property into small parcels and thinking about what fits best with each piece.”

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com. Email him at ron@freegnv.com

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