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County commission approves Campus Development Agreement, complains about city commission’s “rude” behavior

County Commissioner Mary Alford

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

At their December 7 Special Meeting, the Alachua County Commission unanimously approved the University of Florida Campus Development Agreement, 2020-2030 (CDA). The Gainesville City Commission deferred their approval until January 6 at their December 2 meeting, so the three-way agreement is still waiting for the City’s approval.

The County’s first public hearing on the UF CDA was on October 12, and the second public hearing was on November 9. At the second hearing, the board approved a motion to postpone approval of the CDA and authorize a Chair letter to UF, asking UF to share information about their plans for graduate student housing. County staff reviewed both the Campus Master Plan and the CDA and found that they met the criteria for approval. As City staff explained at their December 2 meeting, approval of the CDA is governed by Florida Statutes, and housing is “outside the bounds” of the CDA agreement. However, both boards have delayed approval in an attempt to use it as leverage to push the university to move faster on providing additional units of inexpensive graduate student housing to offset two existing complexes that will be leveled in the next few years.

Linda Dixon, UF Director of Planning, told commissioners that UF’s plan over the next 10 years will result in a net of 1,000 new units on campus, and they expect to continue housing about 25% of the Gainesville campus student enrollment. The first project will be an undergraduate residents’ complex that will open in 2023 with 1,400 beds. 

Chris Cohen, Senior VP and Chief Financial Officer of UF, explained that University Village South and Maguire are beyond the period where they could be reasonably and cost-effectively renovated. He admitted that the university has “under-invested in affordable housing for an extended period of time, and we’ve under-invested in necessary deferred maintenance over an extended period of time.” He said UF shares the goals of the City and County to make sure there is enough affordable housing for graduate students with families. 

Cohen said UF realized they wouldn’t be able to cost-effectively replace those graduate family housing units by the time they’re gone in 2023, so they talked to graduate students to find out what their priorities are. The students said they wanted affordable units that are close to campus, with amenities and a sense of community. So the university identified Varsity House, an existing apartment complex near the Hilton on 34th Street, to acquire and renovate. Rent at Varsity House for a 2-bedroom unit is currently $1,358, and UF plans to rent the improved rooms for $975. The units will also be fully furnished. Continuum, a higher-end graduate student housing complex that is a partner of the university, will also be reducing their rents by 10%. UF plans to have graduate students start moving into the Varsity House units in the fall of 2022 and get feedback from the students. Over time, they hope to have a “system of properties.”

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“We really feel very strongly that we can’t allow our graduate students to live in that housing beyond spring of ’23.” – UF CFO Chris Cohen

Commissioner Ken Cornell said the presentation was “refreshing,” and added, “Wow, what a difference a couple of weeks makes!” He asked what will go in place of Maguire after it’s leveled in 2023, and Cohen said they planned to put intramural sports fields there. Cornell asked why there is a rush to close Maguire, and Cohen said it was more about the housing not being adequate for students, so as rooms become vacant, they’re closing them down and hoping to have everyone out after the spring semester of 2022: “We really feel very strongly that we can’t allow our graduate students to live in that housing beyond spring of ’23.”

Commissioner Mary Alford said, “I don’t want to, today, you know, approve these things and move forward and then, this time next year, be getting emails from graduate students that they have to drop out because they can’t afford their housing… That’s my nightmare, you know?”

Cohen responded, “Unfortunately that probably is going to happen. This is addressing the situation; it’s not solving the situation… I think 30% below market is a phenomenal accomplishment,” but he acknowledged that some students need units that are 50% or 75% below market. He added that it’s “not in anybody’s best interest” when students are not successful at the university.

“We asked UF to essentially work on an element that’s not part of the Campus Master Plan, and they very easily could have said, ‘We’ll work on that, but, you know, can you just approve the Plan and then we’ll get back to you on that?’ but that’s not what happened over the last 30 days, and I appreciate that.” – Commissioner Ken Cornell

Cornell said that UF had no obligation to bring their graduate student housing plans to the county commission: “We asked UF to essentially work on an element that’s not part of the Campus Master Plan, and they very easily could have said, ‘We’ll work on that, but, you know, can you just approve the Plan and then we’ll get back to you on that?’ but that’s not what happened over the last 30 days, and I appreciate that.”

Cornell made a motion to adopt the CDA but ask “that UF continue to communicate to this board the status of their progress on the graduate family housing issues and continue to work with us on just housing issues in general throughout our community.”

During public comment, several current and recent graduate students said they were appreciative of the presentation made by UF, but it wasn’t enough. They said that $975/month was not acceptable and that UF should increase the stipends for graduate students. One said he lives at Maguire, and he doesn’t think it’s unacceptable housing. Many asked the board to delay the vote on approving the CDA.

“One other concern that has not been mentioned today is carbon footprint and the carbon footprint of demolition and the carbon footprint of increased transportation and how all that’s going to, you know, and the fact that this is going to be turned into parking, you know, which in itself represents carbon footprint.” – Commissioner Mary Alford

After public comment, Alford suggested delaying until the City of Gainesville makes their decision in early January. She said, “One other concern that has not been mentioned today is carbon footprint and the carbon footprint of demolition and the carbon footprint of increased transportation and how all that’s going to, you know, and the fact that this is going to be turned into parking, you know, which in itself represents carbon footprint… I just hope that when they think about the overall reasons for making those changes and being a leader in [LEED-certified buildings and green construction] is ultimately to save the planet… I’m not sure I’m prepared to vote yes.”

In response to a question from Cornell about transportation, Cohen said that the two complexes that are being replaced are all the way at the western edge of campus, along 34th Street, and the replacement properties are right across 34th.

Cornell asked whether progress would be made on increasing stipends in the next two weeks, and Cohen said he couldn’t comment on that since the graduate students are unionized.

Commissioner Anna Prizzia commended the university for responding to their concerns “because this tool is actually not the tool for this conversation. We used it and it worked because UF actually wanted to respond. They didn’t have to respond to us. Because the reality is that if we don’t pass this, it goes to [Department of Economic Opportunity], and DEO will.”

And we’ve heard the concerns but really, by statute, all we’re supposed to do is basically approve the Campus Development Agreement… I think that this is how… we get in trouble with the State and the legislature is by doing things like this that we’re bound by the statute, that we refuse to follow.” – Commissioner Chuck Chestnut

Commissioner Chuck Chestnut said he was “in favor of postponing it until today. And we’ve heard the concerns but really, by statute, all we’re supposed to do is basically approve the Campus Development Agreement… But we felt that it was a concern to hear about the graduate housing, and we’ve gotten a response. It seems to be genuine… So, you know, I don’t know by postponing this, what will this really gain other than just delay it again… I think that this is how… we get in trouble with the State and the legislature is by doing things like this that we’re bound by the statute, that we refuse to follow… So I’m in favor of moving forward with the vote today.”

Chestnut continued, “I sympathize with you and I understand, but activism is about keeping pressure on somebody to make change… And today, just for instance, this board is going to have to be activist in terms of some things that are being proposed in the legislature this coming session to change our structure and our charter, for an amendment to go to seven commissioners—five districts, and two at-large. So we’re going to be activists to fight that in the legislature.”

Alford said her colleagues had convinced her to vote for the motion, but she asked the graduate students in attendance to keep communicating with commissioners: “I think that all the commissioners recognize what a big part you play in the community. You’re the longest-term visitors to Alachua County when you come to UF, so I think that you know your stay here is important to us.”

The motion passed unanimously.

“It seemed kind of bad yesterday that [the city commission] adjourned the meeting and they got up and left… Just my personal feeling, it is rude… to do that in any meeting unless the meeting is adjourned… It just didn’t look good… I’m just saying it is just rude, and to me it is kind of disrespectful.” – Chestnut

During commissioner comment, Chestnut brought up an incident that occurred at the previous day’s joint meeting with the Gainesville City Commission. Each board had approved their own agenda at the beginning of the meeting, but the County’s agenda had general public comment at the end, and the City’s agenda didn’t. So after they had finished the items on the agenda, Mayor Lauren Poe adjourned the City’s meeting, and some members of the city commission left, while the county commission and a few city commissioners stayed to hear general public comment.

Chestnut said, “It seemed kind of bad yesterday that they adjourned the meeting and they got up and left, and I guess Commissioner Cornell had something to say and to invite the commissioners to come and speak today… Just my personal feeling, it is rude… to do that in any meeting unless the meeting is adjourned… It just didn’t look good… I’m just saying it is just rude, and to me it is kind of disrespectful.”

He wondered whether the county commission should have a rule about whether to have general public comment if the host body doesn’t have general public comment on their agendas for special meetings.

He continued, “You know, we give the public more opportunities to speak, I think, than any local government in Alachua County, so I support that because I think that is needed. But… I felt we should follow [the host’s] agenda and not be embarrassed to some degree to sit there and then to make someone else be rude.”

Cornell suggested that if the host body doesn’t have general public comment, the county commission should follow their agenda. Prizzia said they should ask the host to have general public comment and commission comment because it’s a chance for the public to address both boards at the same time. No decision was made at the meeting.

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