By Dale Martin
At the joint meeting Monday evening between the City Commission (acting as the Community Redevelopment Area [CRA] Executive Board) and the CRA Advisory Board (CRAAB), I provided an update on projects within the CRA.
The CRA is a district that was created approximately 20 years ago in an effort to promote redevelopment, especially of the waterfront. The boundaries of the CRA are somewhat “C-shaped,” starting in the south in the area around City Hall, going west to the waterfront, and then turning inland at Alachua Street. Most of the downtown Centre Street properties are not within the CRA.
A portion of the property taxes received from CRA properties is allocated to the CRA, not the City’s General Fund, and those restricted funds can only be used for efforts within the CRA. Contrary to perception, the CRA does not impose additional taxes upon properties within the CRA.
The CRAAB, comprised of seven members representing a variety of specific interests, is charged with assisting with the economic redevelopment of the CRA. With limited activity within the CRA going back about 10 years ago, the CRAAB was disbanded. Earlier this year, however, the City Commission re-formed the CRAAB, and that group has met monthly now for several months.
The City’s challenges associated with Amelia River waterfront redevelopment are ironically summarized in the original job announcement for the City Manager position to which I responded. The announcement offered a series of Challenges and Opportunities for the next City Manager, the first of which was the “tension” between proponents of preservation and proponents of growth. It is the second challenge that, now seven years later, which is enlightening: “The second challenge is a manifestation of the first and that is finishing the City’s waterfront. It has been discussed for 20 years and there is general agreement that it needs to be done. Differences exist, however, on how to proceed, and how to fund it.” A portion of the third challenge makes reference to “a number of City buildings also need to be refurbished.”
So what has happened over the past year within the CRA to promote economic redevelopment?
The first phase of the waterfront has been completed—the seawall/riverwalk south of Ash Street was completed several months ago. What will be the next phase has yet to be determined, but City staff, led by Charlie George, have had extensive conversations with several waterfront property owners regarding physical improvements to promote redevelopment (and protection from tidal flooding, sea level rise, and storm surges). The City will shortly begin to solicit development interest in the City-owned parcel at the foot of Alachua Street. An appraisal to determine an appropriate lease rate for the parcel has been completed and I have had discussions with several parties interested in that site.
At Tuesday’s City Commission meeting, the small Atlantic Seafood leasehold was transferred from its current lessee to Mr. Ernie Saltmarsh, a successful local restaurant developer. Over the course of the next few months, Mr. Saltmarsh will provide additional details for the redevelopment of that site.
Other City efforts within the CRA include the impending railroad safety improvements at Ash and Centre Streets and the re-opening of Alachua Street. The first elements of construction are slated to begin this month, beginning with road realignment on N. Front Street at Alachua Street. Please note that as the construction begins on N. Front Street between Centre Street and Alachua Street, parking will be prohibited on N. Front Street. A portion of the funding slated for the Alachua Street project (specifically a grant related to the stormwater component) is currently in a state-level bureaucratic maze that Senator Bean and his staff are working to expeditiously resolve.
The City is coordinating with Florida Public Utilities to place utility services at the waterfront underground. This effort has started south of Ash Street and after those services have been buried, the services along N. Front Street will be buried.
City staff is also working with the property owner of the property between the Salty Pelican and Alachua Street to prepare an easement for the construction of a new sidewalk. This sidewalk will link the existing sidewalk that ends at the Salty Pelican northward to Alachua Street, making pedestrian access along N. Front Street safer (although the construction of the Alachua Street crossing may inhibit access during construction times).
The City is also finalizing its efforts to install a fence along the Front Street sidewalks from Ash Street to Alachua Street. Some modifications to the originally approved design must be presented to and reviewed by the Historic District Council before the installation can begin. Following approval of the design changes, construction of this safety enhancement should quickly begin.
In addition to the City’s efforts, several private property owners continue their redevelopment efforts within the CRA. The remainder of this calendar year should see increased activity along the waterfront and within the CRA elsewhere.