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Tanzer: An experiment called “Gainesville”

These three duplexes are 25’ wide each, rented in the formerly family-occupied, historically African American Fifth Avenue/Pleasant Street Neighborhood.

OPINION

BY KIM TANZER

On July 18, the Gainesville City Commission will consider the city-wide upzoning of all residential properties, allowing lot splits to create very small lots across the City and allowing cottage neighborhoods to be developed within existing neighborhoods. 

This will be the fifth major effort to increase city-wide residential density in the past six years.

This effort comes despite the fact that since 2016, the City has approved construction of more than 8,000 new dwelling units, potentially housing more than 18,000 additional people, based on our average household size. Beyond increasing height limits on most individual apartment buildings and various spot zoning approvals, the City Commission approved the right to build a house and 2 accessory dwelling units on any lot in the City (2020) and to build on existing RSF-4 very small non-conforming lots (2023). By its own count, the City currently has acreage zoned to build an additional 14,514 dwelling units—beyond everything mentioned above.

The stated goal of the current effort is to allow small-scale developers to split Gainesville’s 115 vacant lots into two or more lots, to provide affordable starter homes for first-time home buyers by reducing the cost of the newly created lots. Providing affordable starter homes is a laudable goal, but I am among those who do not believe this plan, as proposed, will work. 

This map, provided by the City of Gainesville in April 2024, shows the 115 vacant parcels the City believes will be split to provide affordable starter homes.

The non-profit Gainesville Neighborhood Voices (GNV Voices) supports creating more affordable starter homes and has offered modifications to the proposed ordinance that may achieve this goal. (Note: I am a member of the GNV Voices Board of Directors, but I write here as an individual, not on behalf of that Board.)

First, though, since we have built so much housing in recent years and have capacity to build even more without further changes, including on these 115 vacant lots, why has this multi-pronged proposal emerged? City Commissioner Bryan Eastman, its primary champion, and others have cited “what other cities are doing” to justify this bold proposal.

However other cities do not have Gainesville’s overwhelming college student population, and they are not doing all the things proposed within this ordinance. 

Before developing a position on the current proposal, GNV Voices did our own homework to learn what other cities are actually doing.

First, GNV Voices studied four cities most often cited in recent years by the Gainesville City Commission—Durham, North Carolina; Los Angeles; Minneapolis; and Portland, Oregon. We included Alachua County, too. Then, when Mayor Ward suggested we should study college towns instead, we followed his explicit recommendation and added Athens, Georgia; Columbia, Missouri; Columbia, South Carolina; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Tallahassee, Florida. (These cities are home to the Universities of Georgia, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida State and FAMU, respectively, along with other local colleges.) 

We created a matrix to compare these two sets of cities—their populations, percentage of college students, amount of on-campus student housing, median housing prices, and the upzoning changes these cities have enacted in recent years. That matrix, along with its sources and a more detailed summary, is found on the Gainesville Neighborhood Voices website.

What we found was sobering. 

According to the Summary of Lot Size Proposals prepared by GNV Voices, comparing Gainesville to Alachua County and other college towns, no other city in this matrix has done everything Gainesville is considering. 
According to the Summary of Lot Size Proposals prepared by GNV Voices, comparing Gainesville to Alachua County and other progressive cities, no other city in this matrix has done everything Gainesville is considering. 

Gainesville has the largest percentage of college students compared to any of these cities: college students comprise 46.5% of our population. The next closest city is Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, with 41.7%. Even Tallahassee’s population is only 22.5% students, while Durham, NC, home of Duke University, hosts only 10% students. At the same time, we house a smaller percentage of students on campus than any other city we studied. As a percentage of our population, we have far more college students living off-campus than comparable cities.

What, some wonder, is the problem with college students? Surely, students and their colleges and universities are the economic drivers of college towns like Gainesville and we should welcome students. We do. 

Unfortunately, college students are transient—some staying in rented bedrooms for as little as one semester—and they have financial resources far beyond what many local workers make in the local economy. Near the University, single bedrooms often rent for $1,000 or more per month, and students often rely on student loans or generous families to pay their rent. Ironically, new student housing seems to be driving rents up locally, not down. 

As a result, we see that rent and real estate taxes are exploding in certain neighborhoods. In addition, nearby permanent residents sometimes find students’ habits and hours to be incompatible with the quiet enjoyment of their homes. In such cases, the result is that college students drive long-term residents away. This is a problem that hits different areas of Gainesville very unevenly, and it is clear some upzoning advocates do not recognize or care about this impact at all.

An additional wrinkle in the Gainesville landscape has emerged in the past year: the State of Florida passed a law preempting some aspects of local municipalities’ regulations on landlords, making it illegal to limit the number of occupants in residential buildings. For decades, Gainesville allowed only three unrelated people to live in one dwelling unit, and landlords and developers made decisions accordingly. This helped limit the number of students and vehicles in neighborhoods near campus. Now there is no limit to the number of occupants allowed in a dwelling unit. Therefore, it would be possible to build an 18-bedroom “home” and rent it by the room, by the semester. Further-reduced lot sizes will only exacerbate this threat.

This diagram shows a potential “residential” floor plan 25’ wide, creating up to 18 bedrooms, each with a private bath, over three floors, as would be allowed by City code.
This diagram shows a potential “residential” floor plan, creating up to 12 bedrooms with private baths, plus an external accessory dwelling unit, as would be allowed by City code.

What did GNV Voices learn about upzoning changes in other cities? These 10 cities/municipalities have made few and modest changes to their local ordinances; we looked at the proposed zoning changes for Gainesville and found the following:

Replacing varied single family zoning density with one new residential district

None of these cities eliminated varied single family zoning densities to replace them with one new category allowing 12 units per acre while reducing setbacks, as Gainesville proposes.  

Lot splits with reduced setbacks and few limitations

Only Durham and Los Angeles have enacted recent policies allowing lots to be split into very small lots. Both cities provide guardrails to protect against over-development. Durham caps the buildable square footage on these newly created lots at a maximum of 1,200 square feet and limits lot splits to its “Urban Tier.” Los Angeles, following a newly enacted California law, allows lot splits but mandates owner-occupancy. 

In contrast, Gainesville’s proposed ordinance would not cap buildable square footage or limit the locations of these lot splits. It would continue to allow two accessory dwelling units on the newly created small lots, without required parking or owner-occupancy.

This diagram shows that two three-story “residences,” one with an accessory dwelling unit, could be built within two 25’ wide building envelopes on 35’ wide lots.

Two accessory dwelling units per lot

Only Gainesville and Portland, Oregon allow two accessory dwelling units (ADUs) per lot. Portland, though, does not allow any ADUs on “constrained sites” prone to flooding. Athens does not allow even one ADU as of this writing, while Alachua County; Durham; Minneapolis; Columbia, SC; and Knoxville require owners to live on-site, while Gainesville does not. Several cities require on-site parking, while Gainesville does not.

Cottage neighborhoods

Cottage neighborhoods are small houses facing a shared courtyard rather than a public street. Portland allows cottage neighborhoods except in its “constrained sites overlay zone,” and Durham, NC is considering “cottage court” or “small house pocket neighborhoods.” 

Closer to home, Alachua County just revised its recently adopted “cottage neighborhood ordinance” when it became clear developers were using the ordinance in existing, older neighborhoods to build dense rent-by-the room student housing. Alachua County’s revised ordinance does not allow houses over 1,400 square feet and it requires dedicated on-site parking for each unit. It no longer allows cottage neighborhoods in subdivisions platted prior to 2023. 

In contrast, Gainesville would be the only city to allow unlimited square footage, without required on-site parking, in already platted subdivisions across the city.

Summary

Having studied progressive cities and college towns, it is clear Gainesville has the highest percentage of college students seeking off-campus housing and is proposing to enact, simultaneously, the most severe set of changes of any of these towns, without any apparent concerns about the effect on Gainesville’s neighborhoods. 

The City Commission contemplates approving this complicated ordinance on July 18, despite having provided housing for 18,000 new residents in the last eight years and having already enacted upzoning changes beyond those of any city we studied.

To put it mildly, this seems like an unwise approach. Gainesville has experimented on its own residents previously, and it has not turned out well.

I join the Gainesville Neighborhood Voices Board of Directors in asking that the City Commission reconsider and add guardrails to this multi-pronged proposal. The GNV Voices briefing book, recently shared with multiple City Commissioners, asks that:

  1. On small, newly created lots, building square footage be capped at 1,400 square feet, with one onsite parking space, and restricted ADUs. We believe this will encourage developers to build small starter homes.
  2. For the Cottage Neighborhood portion of the ordinance, learn from the recent Alachua County experience and modify the current proposal to track the county’s Cottage Neighborhood Language. We believe this, too, will encourage developers to build small starter homes.
  3. Allow lots to be split within current Residential Single Family (RSF) zones without eliminating the underlying categories. (We hope this will provide protection against extraordinary unintended consequences.)

If you care about this issue, contact members of the City Commission and attend the July 18 meeting in City Hall.

Kim Tanzer lives in Gainesville. She is a former UF architecture professor, who was also dean of the University of Virginia School of Architecture.

The opinions expressed by letter or opinion writers are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of AlachuaChronicle.com. Assertions of facts in letters are similarly the responsibility of the author. Letters may be submitted to info@alachuachronicle.com and are published at the discretion of the editor.

  • In the first few lines of this write up, you find the explanation as to why the city proposal will not work and will do even more damage (it’s also a decent write up). That answer is Commissioner Eastman. I am sick and tired of being a petri dish for his failed (as shown in other places and cost of living here) ideas so he can virtue signal and make himself feel good. Almost all the ideas that come from the CC are based on politics or making themselves feel better and not on extensive research or what it will ultimately cost the taxpayer. Eastmans idea will cost us more money, destroy more family property and historic neighborhoods and put more high rise concrete on our streets instead of trees. There will be even more empty places that no one can afford unless it is students that have many people paying a portion to live there. His focus is never on families, permanent residents, or young people that will be starting families as well as trying to climb financial ladders or the taxpayers footing the ridiculous bills. The city commission shows the taxpayer on a weekly basis that we are the cash cows for the idiocy of their political ideology instead of common sense and security (more so now they don’t have GRU to drain dry). The more of this crap they continue to do the more temporary people (students) the more empty units, the more homeless (because ppl will not be able to afford CC ideas at some point) and the more ppl will only have What once was and high taxes, as they find somewhere else to live and leave behind the ideology, students, homeless, crime and concrete buildings in order to breathe. Some may come back for a football game but they won’t stay because all they will have is memories of what once was

    • Your frustration is apparent, but your argument would be stronger if you provided specific examples of how Commissioner Eastman’s ideas have failed.

  • Hey Tanzer,

    Thank you so much for providing a detailed building plan. It was very helpful to see how to fit 12 and 18 bedrooms in a single home. I didn’t realize it could be done until you provided the building layout. This will be very helpful as I do my part and help Gainesville become affordable to live in, again. If you have any other building plans maybe a 16-bed home or even a 20-bed home, I would appreciate it if you would share those as well. I agree with you and communal living is the only way to re-establish affordable living again in Gainesville. Off I go the building department to start pulling permits.

    • Yes , Let make sure we start with the adjacent properties of the GCC, ACBC , ACSB, and GC Managers . They need to set and example .

    • Your sarcastic response misses an opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue about important urban planning issues.

  • A visual example of the impact of the proposal to remove single-family zoned lots in neighbourhoods.

    Think of a chess board with uniform squares then imagine random squares on the board divided into very small squares each with many chess pieces. Or think about a brain with holes spreading like Swiss cheese. The effect of this is to disrupt the entire chessboard from being playable or the brain from functioning.

    Now apply this concept to a neighborhood of single-family lots, and imagine lots inside the neighborhood divided into up to 12 units per acre. The quality of life and peaceful enjoyment of the entire neighborhood is disrupted permanently.

    There are other options. Up to 12 units per acre would minimally disrupt neighbourhoods that are already zoned multifamily with a variety of housing types, or other areas such as business and industrial which could be zoned residential.

    Tanzer explains the many options that exist now to stimulate denser development on smaller lots outside of single family neghborhoods.

    Neighborhoods should be protected, not destroyed. Those near major thoroughfares are already being encroached upon by development around their perimeters. The current zoning standards do not have adequate protections for existing properties. This was born out by the City’s inability to prevent a potential 12-story apartment block known as “the wedge” from being built next to one—and two-story historic homes. This is because the 100 feet policy is all there is and it does not protect nearby property owners. We need more policies that protect property owners and prevent this from happening.

    Speak up to the City Commission to stop this proposal to remove the single family zoning policy.

    • As long as multi-family housing is kept to a maximum of two units per building (duplexes) and one unit has to be owner-occupied, I don’t see the problem with using a single lot for a two-story or divided building. 1/10th acre is plenty enough to have a two-story duplex with off-street parking. By having one unit owner-occupied, this would control the potential noise and other problems, I believe. The council doesn’t want to do that, however. The people who want to build these units want to rent them all out, which is going to cause problems if they’re all rented to students with no one there to constrain their behaviors.

  • You get who you vote for. Period. And I don’t want to hear the climate change BS with all the tree removals that will occur for the excuse of density and home ownership.

      • Yes, but climate change has previously occurred over millions of years. It’s the rapidity of this current change which is astonishing and created by human activity.

      • Indeed climate change is a hoax. A hoax to move money around and cause fear and chaos. The HAARP arrays that DARPA created use microwave energy to heat up the earth. HAARP was used in Hawaii and Acapulco to create tropical storms. There are 9 HAARP arrays world wide and ships with floating arrays that alter the weather. In 1962 LBJ at the commencement address at Southwest Texas State University said “He who controls the weather controls the world” the video is still on YouTube, here is the link : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-XvS7R4chA&t=5s

        • So, we just shut down HAAPA, and bingo (!) we’ve solved global warming, right? Because in 1962 (shortly after Sputnik) LBJ, technical wizard that he was, thought a weather satellite would control the weather when it existed. You have many surprises coming!

    • Your comment oversimplifies a complex issue and doesn’t contribute constructively to the debate about zoning changes.

    • Tree’s are removed from the City of Gainesville because they are sold for “Gain” for Money 💰 for Profit. Keep building Apartments on “Swamp” Land as Gainesville is known for “The Swamp”. Crime Riddled and Quicksand Land.

  • 3rd world country here we come. Drive down 13th street to University avenue and it looks like a town out of the Soviet Union. Bland ugly high rise apartments with no character.
    Now let’s create ultra dense apartments within old neighborhoods with no parking nor yards.
    Has our student population and our community population grown so rapidly?
    Who is getting paid off by the developers?

  • The unresponsive and incompetent city commission has been trying to destroy Gainesville’s neighborhoods for years. They can’t resist trying to outdo the ultra liberal, Democrat run cities and shove the finger at GNV residents at every opportunity.

    • Dear Tanser,
      The City of “Gain” esville is Frankenstein ‘s Monster!! Keep trying to piece together the perfect monster.

  • This is an absolutely absurd study. I see one huge error in the first chart. I’m from Columbia, SC and 1) it is MUCH larger than Gainesville 2) you only counted USC, wheras Columbia, the last time I was there, has five (5) colleges and universities. All were built properly, with on-campus housing, but still, most students live off-campus in multi-family units which exist all over the city, yes, even in residential areas. 3) most UF students are not local, and most USC students are either local (within 30 miles) or from SC, which is a much smaller state than FL. 4) Columbia is a city with colleges and universities within it and Gainesville is a sprawling university that we’re trying to build a city around. 5) Most permanent residents in Columbia live in the suburbs off of I-26 and I-20 and commute to the city to work. Gainesville is screwed on that point, because the road leading into the city are inadequate to handle the traffic such suburbs would bring, yet we’re building them anyway.

    Where we screwed up was allowing the University to sprawl out all over the place, taking up property-tax free spaces where affordable housing could be built. We also need rent controls in this city, because while we promised that new housing would bring prices down on existing, older housing, it has done the opposite. Everybody wants a piece of the pie, and rents on older multi-family housing is going up exorbitantly.

    The more commercial spaces the University buys up and converts to property-tax free spaces, the higher permanent residents’ and everyone else’s property taxes go up. At some point, the University has to be restrained. It’s ruining the livability of this city for everyone else. No wonder the students don’t stay here after they graduate, and people are moving out in hordes. The planning has been done with money in mind instead of creating a livable city. Taking over historically black neighborhoods and filling them with multi-unit housing and AirBnBs isn’t helping either.

    Speaking of AirBnBs, we need to do what NYC did and require them to be owner-occupied. That would free up a LOAD of housing, especially in historically black neighborhoods, which have been gentrified to the point that exorbitant taxes are running the long-time residents out.

    City council planning for their own pocketbooks and not for the citizens of this city is gong to destroy Gainesville. Greed is what this is all about. Pure and simple GREED.

    • DS, the author did not claim Columbia was anything other than another college town – what the mayor advocated as a worthwhile comparison – and accurately gives it’s population. Yes, the county it is in is about 33% larger than Alachua County, but not really the point, which you missed.

      By the way, UF’s campus is primarily the size it was when begun – big.

      The study is not absurd but a helpful comparison – using the metrics of rezoning proponents – to show Gainesville’s uniqueness and the falseness of those proponents claim. You only highlight other differences which supports Ms Tanzer’s thesis. How you think this does the opposite is what is absurd.

  • And who is going to be paying to house people who refuse to work? I don’t mind helping those who truly can’t work, but this housing will also go to able bodied people who flatly refuse to work. I resent my taxes going to these freeloaders who already get ADC, Food Stamps, Section 8 Housing, as I see them pull up in their Lexus to load their food stamp groceries I wonder how they get away with this.

    • Your comment about welfare abuse, while a complex issue, seems tangential to the specific zoning proposals discussed in the article.

  • Another excellent article by Ms Tanzer which apparently is over the heads of most commenters. 1/2 of those are the admittedly “one size fits all” standard responses , posted like robots no matter the subject.

  • 18 bedrooms at $300 a month (quite affordable), would be $5400 a month gross. Quite a money maker. But, greedy landlords will most likely charge $1000 a month. And the city/county will ding them for $6-8,000 a year in property taxes.
    A real cash cow for everyone but the tenants.

  • This is so messed up! The city allows for towering high rises to be built for the students and now they are going to allow developers who don’t care about anything but making money to ruin a quiet family neighborhood and allow greater density within for affordable housing for the students? Why does Gainesville think it has to be the prototype for the country?
    Why doesn’t Gainesville start standing up for the citizens that have lived, worked and owned businesses here for 30, 40, 50 years? It’s all about the University and the students that are here for a short few years only to use our resources, drive the cost of living up, not contribute to a better community and then leave. The commissioners and all involved in this project should be ashamed. We’re not living in a “theoretical architectural” project. We are citizens that love our neighborhoods safe and quiet. Seems like some monetary gains going on for someone here.

  • What fascinating data. Thank you. I hope the city commission realizes how far out of line their plans are when compared with other university communities. Are they trying to lead the way over the cliff?

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