Floid Churchill’s bedroom window sits 27 feet from the site of a proposed five-story parking garage. From his window, he has watched his world change over the past decade.
That world, on Gainesville’s Fifth Avenue, is vanishing. The neighbors Churchill knew by name, the Black businesses he frequented and options for affordable housing are losing to new developments that are transforming the community.
A proposed luxury student apartment complex is the catalyst of contention. It’s slated for the intersection of Northwest Fifth Avenue and 12th Street. People already living in the surrounding neighborhood have in the past five months argued the development would further gentrify the area, while proponents of the project argue it would jumpstart affordable housing.
This argument over one complex became so fraught that it reached the docket of a state administrative law judge for dozens of hours of virtual hearings, which concluded earlier this month. A judge is expected to rule later this year on whether the development can proceed. Separately, one of Gainesville’s elected city politicians has pushed for a moratorium on all developments in historically Black neighborhoods like Fifth Avenue, as a means of combating gentrification concerns. The idea is on hold for now.
It’s unclear whether such a moratorium would stop this particular development.
As the University of Florida grows in national rankings and maintains a large population, transient students occupy spaces that once served a longstanding community. Displaced residents must still find space of their own. There’s life that grows in Gainesville year-round, life that’s not necessarily Gator-affiliated. Neighborhood advocates worry that life is increasingly without a place to take root.
Churchill lives in the same home in which he grew up, one his grandmother built in the 1920s. Now, with the proposed property development, he fears his neighborhood could become unrecognizable to him.
The majority of the development would arise on the former Seminary Lane affordable housing complex site. The intended developer also plans to purchase two other resident parcels for the project. Roughly six acres, the site that’s a chain link fence away from Churchill’s residence is currently a bare plot of land framed by aging oak trees. Since 2009, it has remained vacant.
Thirty-one structures previously occupied Seminary Lane. The 1970s-era apartments were subsidized housing for low or no-income residents for over 30 years. Two-story brick buildings housed over 50 of Churchill’s former neighbors, people he said he was grateful to know.
“We got along like one big happy family,” he said. “That’s what made it so unique.”
Due to a lack of maintenance, the complex fell into disrepair and the Gainesville Housing Authority (GHA) accumulated a deficit tens of thousands of dollars deep, prompting demolition. Residents were left to believe the land would remain zoned for affordable housing.
Churchill is one of six petitioners appealing the City of Gainesville’s administrative approval of the student apartments. He avowed he’s fighting for the preservation of his community: “We don’t seem to matter anymore.”
Lay of the land
The Gainesville Florida Housing Corporation, a nonprofit created through the GHA, owns the land next door to Churchill’s property. It has a county-assessed value of $1.3 million. The parcel is in the process of being sold to Orlando-based development firm Tramell Webb Partners for about $8.6 million. The proposed complex will have four main buildings with units that range in height from three to five stories.
Peak Campus, a company valued at $3.5 billion that specializes in student housing, is on the development team for the proposed property. Tramell Webb Partners has the property under contract, but the purchase cannot be finalized until necessary permits are obtained and the verdict arrives.
Hearings began on June 19 and ended on Oct. 2 for the case. Both sides await a final decision from State Administrative Law Judge Hetal Desai.
The activists, including Churchill, argued the development’s master plan violates the city’s comprehensive plan, which essentially functions as a 10-year blueprint for all residential and commercial land use in the city.
Terrell Arline, the attorney representing the neighborhood advocates, argued that the city has mandated developments should ensure a “socially just and desirable” environment for current and future generations (30-1.3). The city, he said, has to be socially responsible and maintain the integrity of a historic neighborhood.
“Redesigning is not something that we’re asking you to do,” Arline said. What’s being asked is to prioritize compatibility with the site’s surroundings. “The area is not just the developer’s property, it’s also the Fifth Avenue neighborhood.”
But the developers argued the community organizers were misinterpreting city policy.
“This is a case, in my opinion, about what the petitioners wished the land development code said…” said David Theriaque, the lawyer representing Tramell Webb Partners.
The case won’t reach the Gainesville City Commission since the city does not own the land. Its role stems from its approval of the pending transaction, a nod that caused city government to become active in the legal proceedings.
“This is a case, in my opinion, about what the petitioners wished the land development code said, instead of what the land development code actually says,” said David Theriaque, the lawyer representing Tramell Webb Partners, during the final oral arguments this month.
With two different visions of the neighborhood, opponents and proponents of the development discussed more than just land use in their deliberation.
People on the periphery
Reinvestment in Gainesville’s neighborhoods “will create communities where families will want to live, where companies will want to do business, where jobs will be available, and where people will come to work and play.” That’s what the city’s comprehensive plan says.
But Fifth Avenue neighbors like Churchill say they’re on the periphery of that vision.
City spokesperson Rossana Passaniti said Gainesville will soon begin revising its existing plan to prioritize equitable development through more active input from residents. She encouraged residents to participate in the planning process to help direct future growth of Gainesville.
Efforts to revise the plan with the community’s feedback are only expected to roll out early next year. The judge’s decision is expected to arrive well before next year.
That timing concerns people like Thomas Hawkins, a former city commissioner and professional planner who developed a report detailing his objections to the proposal. He argues the new structures would be visually incompatible with the surrounding single-family homes and would lead to further displacement of residents through nuisance like light and noise pollution.
Churchill, for instance, will be so close to the proposed parking garage that he may feel like he’s pitched a tent in the Shands hospital garage, Hawkins said.
Hawkins’ assessment of the development is personal. He’s a neighbor of the Fifth Avenue residents.
He lives in the Pleasant Street neighborhood, just a mile away from the proposed complex. His family moved to Gainesville from South Carolina in the 1850s and have lived there since.
Pleasant Street and Fifth Avenue are the same historic district, but were perceived as two separate neighborhoods after they became divided by railroad tracks. Hawkins resides in the historically white section of the neighborhood and frequently walks or bikes past the building his great-great-grandfather was born in.
“This neighborhood changing with an influx of students is not an inherently bad thing,” Hawkins said. “What’s inherently bad is when it doesn’t fit the character of the neighborhood, when it displaces folks who’ve lived here their whole lives, and when it decreases their quality of life.”
“We’re literally fighting for the soul of a community,” says Desmon Duncan-Walker, who helped form the Gainesville Alliance for Equitable Development.
Gainesville native Desmon Duncan-Walker’s 94-year-old grandfather owns the Duncan Brothers Funeral Home in the heart of the Fifth Avenue neighborhood. Much of the historic district dates back over 100 years. Black-owned businesses once thrived there in the days after Reconstruction. Duncan-Walker said she hopes it can happen again.
She wants her neighborhood to be more than a piece of history. She wants it to live long into the future. So when she heard that the Seminary Lane property had a “for sale” sign staked into the same ground her family has grown on for generations, she formed the Gainesville Alliance for Equitable Development.
“It was never the desire of the Gainesville Alliance for Equitable Development to compromise on student apartments existing on that land at all,” Duncan-Walker said. “We’re literally fighting for the soul of a community.”
With the development’s potential to raise property taxes, her neighborhood could soon become unaffordable for non-homesteaded properties. Of the over three dozen properties bordering the Seminary Lane parcel, six are homesteaded. This is in the same neighborhood that offered Black residents economic independence in Gainesville for the first time following the Civil War.
“It’s not only an injustice, but it’s a missed opportunity to address the real issues that this city is facing,” she said. “We don’t have a student housing crisis, we have an affordable housing crisis.”
Gaps in building generational wealth
Disparities in income and opportunity leave Black residents at a disadvantage. Fifth Avenue may be a historical safe haven, but it’s also prime real estate.
Black residents, who are frequently denied loans, have particular difficulty accumulating generational wealth in Gainesville.
Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2018 studied 31 million mortgage records. It concluded that “modern-day redlining,” while persistent in 61 metro areas nationwide, is a more pressing problem in the South. Gainesville was found to be one of three Southern cities where African Americans face the most resistance. In 2016, Gainesville’s African Americans were 4.5 times more likely to be denied loans, according to the lending pattern analysis.
That redlining targets the people who are, Churchill said, “always at the bottom of the totem pole.” It prevents home ownership opportunities and maintains income inequality.
The UF Bureau of Economic and Business Research wrote a 2018 report to help understand racial inequity in Alachua County. African Americans, it found, have a median household income of $26,561 compared to that of $51,740 for non-Hispanic whites for 2015.
The same report found the home ownership rate of African Americans in Alachua County to be 37.6% in 2015, down from 42% in 2010. For non-Hispanic whites, the home ownership rate was 60.9% in 2015 and 61% in 2010.
Between redlining and wealth gaps, low-income Black residents can feel as though they can’t find their footing. When affordable housing complexes are uprooted, it leaves a wound felt by people such as former Seminary Lane resident Frankie Scott.
Scott, who lived in the Seminary Lane apartments for over 10 years, struggled to resettle after she was displaced. With nowhere to keep her belongings while she searched for a new home, she paid for storage while already under the weight of economic insecurity.
“It just broke my heart,” said Scott, who ended up living elsewhere in Alachua County. “That was our area. There really wasn’t anywhere else for us to go.”
As former president of the neighborhood’s resident council, Scott was in close contact with the rest of the community. Many of her former neighbors also struggled to find housing — even with the vouchers tenants received.
“Rent is so high now, you can’t even find a two-bedroom apartment for $800,” she said. “That’s not affordable!”
Affordability’s place in the queue
As part of his final comments on Oct. 2, developer John Webb spoke of his intent to assuage concerns of affordability. Along the north side of Fifth Avenue, his company plans to build eight to 10 houses for homeowners who earn between $18,000 and $29,000 a year.
“While we’re not paying for the affordable housing, we are contractually obligated to build the affordable housing,” Webb said.
The developer told the judge he’s under contract with the city to contribute $200,000 as either seed capital for a “community center/ empowerment space” on the southwest portion of the Seminary Lane property, or to initiate a “civic and community-based investment in the neighborhood.” The applicant is also contractually obligated to provide $50,000 to the Brave Overt Leaders of Distinction Program to assist them with their relocation.
Planners break down the construction of the apartment complex into two phases. Phase one consists of multi-family homes and two parking garages. Phase two includes the affordable housing units, accompanying parking and a stormwater runoff area.
The housing authority, Webb said, may be able to build 86 mortgage-free homes or more than 200 down payment-assisted homes in Gainesville with the remaining money from the sale of the property. But with only eight to 10 being on-site, other homes would have to go elsewhere. Residents worry as they wonder where.
Despite the contractual guarantee that Tramell Webb will build the affordable units, opponents of the case are concerned that it falls under phase two of construction.
“Construction processes and projects are known to be fraught with problems and delays and issues,” Duncan-Walker said. “Who’s to say that an issue would not arise where phase two just simply never happened? There is no guarantee. That’s my concern.”
Residents harbor other concerns about what would happen after the properties go up: changed scenery, higher taxes and congested traffic are foremost. Another is the competition for nearby jobs between the hundreds of units full of students and the occupants of the eight to 10 on-site affordable units.
In his final statements during the hearing, Senior Assistant City Attorney Sean McDermott suggested this development should be thought of as a ship that “has already sailed.” He also talked about the value of urban change — that a city should be thought of as a constantly changing and evolving organism.
That, he said, is the best case scenario.
A question remains: For whom?
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