Tanzer: Big, boxy, bleak buildings

Along portions of 13th Street and University Avenue, new buildings are 6 -10 stories tall, a significant change from Gainesville’s traditional scale. Photo credit: Kim Tanzer


There is one aspect of Gainesville’s recent urban development about which almost everyone agrees: The city has been overrun with big, boxy, bleak buildings.

Gainesvillians who travel recognize this as part of a broad national pattern, but Gainesville seems to have been hit especially hard by this phenomenon.  

The buildings under discussion are typically those along major thoroughfares—13th Street, University Avenue, and SW 34th Street. They cluster around the University of Florida, where two decades ago many (including me) supported taller apartment buildings to draw UF students closer to campus. What has been built does not match the vision developed in those earlier discussions.

What happened?

Gainesville, like hundreds of towns across the country, has adopted elements of the Congress for New Urbanism’s model SmartCode, which prescribes the design of these buildings. This is probably one reason so many look the same, no matter where they are. It was designed as a coherent system of replicable design decisions. Gainesville, though, has modified that code, applying only portions of it–supercharged.

Too big

The most-often voiced complaint is that these buildings are too big. While other college towns have also built student apartments in recent years, most are four to six stories tall. In Gainesville, many are eight to ten stories tall, with a 12-story building on SW 2nd Avenue recently approved.

The SmartCode specifies “only large towns and cities [should] have an Urban Core Zone–4-plus story with a few shorter buildings.” On our local thoroughfares, Gainesville allows buildings that are 5-12 stories in height “by right” and allows taller buildings that are 6-14 stories in height when applying a bonus system, by providing structured parking or “affordable” housing. Downtown zoning (DT), which includes most of the area between UF and downtown, allows 14-story buildings.

Even when buildings are not excessively tall, they often take up entire blocks or several contiguous blocks. Their massing is more comparable to Shands Hospital than to most apartment buildings.

Even when apartment buildings are only four stories tall, several fill entire blocks. Photo credits: Kim Tanzer

Attempting to ameliorate the large, simple masses generated by our permissive code, our New Urbanism-derived requirements specify in detail ways to “break down the scale” of these buildings.

The SmartCode aspires to provide human-scaled details through frequent changes in materials. We see this across Gainesville, where brick veneer frequently changes colors, or a building’s façade shifts out or back by just a few feet. Here, the New Urban intention is to make one large building look like many smaller 19th-century townhouse-type buildings. (New Urbanism was invented in the 1980s.) Unfortunately, it does not take a trained eye to recognize that these façade changes are essentially wallpaper. Worse still, every change in material or surface plane is an invitation for leaks and a serious craft challenge to today’s workforce and project budgets. In short, the sheer size of these buildings is not masked by secondary efforts at camouflage.

Street facades undulate in and out in an effort to replicate 19th-century construction, ownership,  and scale. Photo credit: Kim Tanzer

Too “boxy”

Grasping for appropriate architectural terms, people who view these buildings as “too boxy” often characterize them as “Soviet-style” buildings.

Some describe the stripped-down contemporary architectural language as “boxy” and compare it to Soviet-style housing. Photo credit: Kim Tanzer

If only Gainesville’s buildings were so worthy! Although unattractive, housing blocks built during the Communist era in Soviet Bloc countries were better built, and they actually did provide deeply affordable housing for their impoverished residents. True Communist housing blocks were built of concrete, often precast for quick durable construction, rather than wood frame, as is the case in many of Gainesville’s buildings. While their materials were austere, they were built to last.  

Soviet-style apartments were very small, often just a few rooms shared by a family or extended family. They were intended to house millions of impoverished people, including many left homeless by the Second World War. 

In Gainesville, most of today’s apartments are built for college students. Ranging from 1-5 bedrooms, with a bathroom for every bedroom, they rent for around $1000 per bedroom (not per apartment). As a result, they are not at all affordable. In addition, the floor plans are intended for college students, not for families. Most buildings are essentially several hundred mini-dormitories bundled together.

Too bleak

Another complaint revolves around the lack of green space, parks, trees, or other vegetation accessible to the public. Here too, Gainesville’s Land Development Code (LDC) supports this outcome. It states, “The building frontage requirements are intended to help frame the public realm by creating continuous building presence along streets.”   

New Urbanism seeks to recreate the form of historic cities, most built before automobiles were invented, where people walked out of necessity. While making pedestrian experiences more appealing is a laudable goal, people will only walk so far, especially on hot, shadeless sidewalks.

Various regulations within our LDC encourage hardscaping such as sidewalks. Pocket parks and gardens are not required and, if they exist at all, are not often accessible to the public. Street trees, though required, will not be large enough to provide shade for many years.

Continuous building facades are fronted with wide sidewalks on 13th Street. Because buildings are intended to create a continuous wall along the street, publicly accessible parks and gardens are discouraged. Recently planted street trees will take time to mature. Photo credit: Kim Tanzer

Too many buildings

Apartment buildings of the type that generate widespread alarm are being built at a very fast pace.  For some, it feels like there are just too many of them. A quick tour of the streets I mentioned shows at least 20 recently built or under construction.  

Why is this? Many have been built in Gainesville’s Opportunity Zone (OZ), east of 13th Street, which was created as part of a federal initiative in 2017. Opportunity Zones across the country were presented as a way to provide jobs and development opportunities in impoverished areas. To do so, they provide extraordinary tax benefits to investors. Not surprisingly, as these OZs have become active, investors have chosen profitable projects, whatever their social merit.  

To summarize, Gainesville’s recent urban development has taken form largely because it adopted the New Urbanism model SmartCode and has applied it well beyond its intended scope. Whereas New Urbanism was intended to shape the development of small new towns (like Tioga), Gainesville is trying to generate the “Town Center” model across miles of the city. In spreading its quest for “city form” so thin, many think we are creating a less desirable, rather than a more concentrated and vibrant, urban experience.

  • Amen… Amen…. and Amen!!!

    I love the term “Soviet style”, which is exactly what we have!!

    • Just wait until one of these wood towers catches fire. Flimsy too. Probable lifespan less than 20 years.

      • I’m more worried about some drunk driving a two-ton pickup at high speed into someone’s bedroom some night. Try getting insurance on those buildings (or renting any of the streetside apartments) after that…

  • Not to mention the vast majority of the “retail spaces” on the ground floors of these multi-use buildings are always empty in a town the size of Gainesville, with very limited foot traffic to support such businesses.

  • The codes are working as intended. Concentrating high density housing in certain areas. The recent reversal of the Single Family zoning was an effort, in part, to stop the spread of these developments into single family neighborhoods. We have a challenge that where developers want to build is not always where the ‘community’ would prefer them build. The developments have been on ‘major arteries’ by design. It keeps traffic out of the neighborhoods by having easier access to major roads. There are always lots of competing interests and getting a balance that everyone likes is never going to be easy.

    • Hideous architecture aside, it also makes traffic on those “main arteries” horrible for those of us who live in the “neighborhoods”. Traffic planning still seems to be an abstract concept to city and county planners. Follow the money.

  • Spot on critique by a professional. The design, construction, and market for these buildings are all money driven, and not guided by what’s good for the town and neighborhoods. NW 5th Ave is ruined, gone as an historic black neighborhood, and a city claiming to promote affordable housing, instead chased it way and filled it in with housing for wealthy students from somewhere else. UF is complicit in this by their ignoring of housing demands while continuing to pump enrollment – they had claimed they wouldn’t not that long ago. Long story short, the wolves ran wild on Univ and 13th Street while the city and the university pretended they gave a damn.

    • Historically black hoods were “ruined” decades before the student apts. came in. Thank integration and race riots for that. Woke goes broke.

      • Yeah Jeff, darn that integration. WTF? 5th Ave remained vibrant and survived integrated jazz audiences at Sarah McNights and diners at Mom’s Kitchen dating way back into the 60s. Drive it now and the big boxes and associated property prices are physically dominating the west end and marching toward 6th street. The bar on the corner of that intersection, packed as recently as a year ago, is now a berry shop. It’s done.

        • It’s your Demo-Klan party that is responsible. Replacing historic Fletcher’s Lounge with gay foo-foo Sweet Berry’s is a big insult to the community. It’s about as “wonder bread” as you can get (I won’t even go there).

    • Jizzman, you’re such a hypocrite. Those who did this are the same you support.
      You probably even made a buck or two.

      • Probably difficult for you Guest, especially with your chronic public sex fantasies which you begin posts here with, but it is possible to not be a knee jerk team player who looks at the uniforms, not the issues, before taking a position. I can walk, chew gum, and support the city commission from a hostile takeover while criticizing it’s policies on zoning – now corrected by the newly elected commission – and planning process.

        • Definitely have fantasies…that you’ll be under that tree braying when the next big storm comes through. No doubt you have the ability to chew on things but walk? There are times I question your ability to even tie your shoes.

  • Politicians in Florida are placed there by Billionaire developers, who don’t even live in the area. Developers always get to do what they want. You have no say in development. No Poly is going to committee political suicide by saying no to a dev.

  • It might be as the headline describes in appearances. But more density and more housing in the busy corridors near UF is a good thing, not bad. We just need more units that are owner-occupied, too.

  • They sold out.

    I’d like Mr Blount to tell us how he feels about the affordable housing and the supporters he keeps voting for. How’s that gentrification going for the neighborhood?

    Democrats, definitely not the brightest street lights on the corner.

    • …… and I’ll wager that most of the money is being made by Republicans.

      • If so, they’re smarter than the Democrats.

        Definitely smarter.

      • LOL! I bet you’re right, which is pretty ironic given this town is run by the clown show liberals and who are corrupt enough to siphon everything for themselves. Funny how that works.

  • I think it’s terrible! I e been here 43 years and our college town has been ruined. We were the tree city and at one point bldg height was limited to no higher than the Siegel bldg! How did this happen and who is to blame? City commission?? And if it’s for students where were they all living before? UF doesn’t increase enrollment numbers that much every year! Terribly upset! 😡😡

    • They have to try to squeeze every last property tax dollar out of everybody because of the idiot biomass plant and all the extra expenses from having disgrace marketplace here. It’s like Biden spending your tax money on Ukraine and feeding/housing millions of illegals instead of spending the money wisely. He’ll just tax you more.

  • I would say that as long as these are never seen as permenant type residences then they are fine. What I think of them as is basically a newer version of college dormitories. If we ever start to build structures like this with the intention of this being permenant housing for grown folks, then I think that is bad. I for one would get tired very quickly of living in such close quarters to other residents. I also agree that oyf they are charging $1000 a room per month then that is too much and it’s hard to consider that affordable housing. Probably these people know the college students’ parents will pay for it and that’s why they throw that price out there.

    • Unfortunately, the 1K per bedroom price has allowed all other rental units in GNV to raise prices. So non-student oriented rentals and those that were one affordable are now pricier. Everyone got on the bandwagon.

      Yet, a tiny bed-bath in a huge block of the same is not “luxury” as often claimed. The market forces (renters, parents, UF) need to put pressure on the price for which 500 should be a maximum.

  • I moved here right after Gainesville was voted a Beautiful City. The I75 underpasses were painted with beautiful scenes. Trash didn’t line the streets. It was safe to walk anywhere. People obeyed traffic laws for the most part and the crime was decently low. The good old days….

  • Bleak, boxey, ugly it doesn’t matter to the city commission, destroy all of downtown and the campus area for the sake of more tax money to waste.

  • The investors in these projects would do well to sell off ASAP. The lockdowns showed that remote learning was feasible, and many colleges and universities are expanding their online courses. Young people are also getting wise to the fact that there are many lucrative career opportunities that do no require college degrees and expensive educational loan commitments. In 10 years many, if not most, of these units will remain unoccupied. These empty monstrosities will stand as monuments to greed and incompetent urban planning.

  • No surprise that the Communists in city government can’t get enough of the ugly commie-block design.

  • I’m not sure if anybody else has noticed, but these new apartment complexes are deteriorating already. The new”er” apartments behind UF Ortho have been falling apart since they opened the doors, and this is only one example. Walk 13th near campus and you’ll see more of them falling apart. Shoddy construction is running rampant in this town.

  • Why? Because the code protects nothing and allows everything. Drive north of 13th and University and see the blocks of construction on the northeast side.

    Astounding, depressing, at a loss for words.

    My constant thought about the construction methods is that most of the wooden constructed blocks found all over town are fire traps.

  • Its interesting that the big, bleak, Soviet boxes was built of concrete for low/no income people while G’ville’s wooden ones
    were created for the well-to-do.

  • Kim — this is happening everywhere. Even in my small town (17,000) there is a new ‘Downtown Precise Plan’ that is contending with these issues, probably unsuccessfully, in an attempt to ‘revitalize’ our business district and ‘Theater District’ — one movie theater! (although beautiful, established almost 90 years ago). This type of development is cheap and permanent. It is brutalist in sheep’s clothing.

  • We have fought for more conscious and aesthetic growth, and it feels so hopeless that in the face of wiser more beautiful options, we leave development up to New Urbanists, and there are still not enough houses for young families to buy and invest in their (and Gainesville’s) future.

  • Thank you for pointing out economic incentives behind the big boxes in Gainesville. We are creating canyons reminiscent of New York City, but without the amenities of a vibrant restaurant scene on the ground floor. And, of course, there is the question of whether we moved to “tree city” to end up in a stone canyon.

  • Great article, Kim. I detest the way the buildings look as does everyone I know! Is there any way to stop more from being built??

  • There is a demographic in Gainesville that is under served. Over 55 of all incomes. There are so many walk worthy areas such as Thornebrook, that have some of this, but could use more. Another area where such housing could be furthered for lower income is the North Main and NE 8th area. It is walk able for shopping, etc. and there already is such housing.

    Further, targeting specific demographic populations would ease so many homeless issues.

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