Develop the Power District locally, organically

Why are we waiting for some out of town benefactor with deep pockets to redevelop the Power District?

What to do about that big, ugly, decaying industrial complex between downtown and Depot Park?

Say, what if we rehabbed some of those abandoned buildings to provide “flexible spaces” for start-ups?

And maybe invited local businesses to tell us how they would turn blight into opportunity.

And make it possible for artists, actors and musicians to take up affordable residence in land too long neglected.

Wish I could claim credit for those ideas. But that’s pretty much what neighbors, stakeholders and city staffers suggested a decade ago, the last time we updated a redevelopment plan for the 17-plus acre collection of abandoned GRU workshops and warehouses that we’ve taken to call the Power District.

The 2013 Power District Redevelopment Plan had some great ideas for how to convert the old GRU property adjacent to Depot Park.

Oh, we had great expectations for a Power District renaissance back then. And those expectations very nearly came to fruition five years ago, when a Baltimore-based developer galloped in and promised to create something wonderful for us.

That fell apart. And so the city made a deal with Collier International to help us find another partner with deep pockets and a grand vision.

And we’re still waiting.

Neighbors and stakeholders wanted to keep redevelopment of the Power District local, incremental and organic.

Listen, we’ve got a new mayor and a new commission majority coming in pretty soon. And we’re putting the finishing touches on an ambitious downtown strategic plan. And we are already reaping the economic benefits of two critical public investments – Depot Park and the redesign of South Main Street – both of which we somehow managed to pull off without out-of-town benefactors.

So maybe we need to rethink the Power District.

The Power District is the largest piece of undeveloped property left in downtown Gainesville. It’s got room for an arts district, affordable housing, restaurants, retail and more.

Only this time, keep it local. And maybe take a more organic, piecemeal approach to turning this “funky industrial” complex, as it’s been called, into a funky success story.

Tim and Bret Larson, founders of the 4th Avenue Food Park, suggested as much last year when they proposed turning a few acres of old GRU property into a similar food park-type enterprise.

At the time Tim Larson told me their plan could “serve as a bridge to future and larger projects and will jump start more projects in the Power District.”

Recently I wrote about the very real threat of the arts being squeezed out of downtown because of higher rents. It’s already happened to the Acrosstown Repertory Theater, and similar artistic endeavors will likely be forced out as downtown becomes more successful.

I recommend that city officials take a field trip to Tallahassee and look at Railroad Square. It’s basically a collection of old warehouses near FAMU that have been converted to galleries, studios, a theater, shops, a craft brewery and more.

Tallahassee’s Railroad Square was created from warehouses not much different from those that still stand in the Power District.

And the place is hopping. It’s a people magnet.

Might some Power District buildings be similarly repurposed to provide low cost venues for the arts? And could that, in turn, attract cafes, food trucks, and even retail?

Oh, and a successful downtown requires more residential density, and particularly affordable housing. Where better to accommodate “smart” urban infill than on property already owned by the city and strategically located between downtown and Depot Park?

This is not to say that we don’t need to plan for incremental development. We do. But we are a creative city. We’re perfectly capable of master planning the Power District in-house and then inviting entrepreneurs to come in and do their stuff.

We can tear down the fences and repurpose these old, abandoned GRU workshops and warehouses,

The Power District is one of the largest parcels of undeveloped property left in Gainesville. And it belongs to us.

So why, exactly, are we still waiting for some out-of-town hotshots to tell us what to do with it?

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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