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Commission approve $3M settlement after halting housing project

Nora O'Neill

The Gainesville Sun

Alachua County commissioners have decided to settle with a nonprofit, voting unanimously in unison with community members, to pay $2.9 million to halt an affordable housing project and purchase the land initially meant for development.

Commissioners approved the payout to the Jacksonville-based group Ability Housing after first agreeing but later rejecting a $25-million, 96-unit complex development − dubbed Dogwood Village − in southeast Gainesville.

The decision was well-received by the community during Tuesday’s commission meeting, with some expressing their gratitude for the commission's reversal on the housing project.

“Any way that I can support good community-driven development to achieve economic goals that are necessary and required to bring east Gainesville to the level that we all want it to be, you have my full support,” Commissioner Mary Alford said. “I am happy to be here today. I am happy to see your smiles and this journey come to this end.”

The money will come from general fund reserves, rather than the Wild Spaces Public Places surtax, which was previously one of the staff recommendations floated to commissioners. The suggestion received pushback from county residents.

In 2022, Alachua County voters overwhelmingly approved an extension of the Wild Spaces Public Places surtax that included using funds on affordable housing, parks, conservation land and roads.

“I feel really strongly that our infrastructure surtax dollars were voted on by the public for specific purposes,” said Commissioner Anna Prizzia. “Until we've established a purpose for that land, we cannot say that the infrastructure surtax is an appropriate place to be spending money from.”

About the previously planned project

The Dogwood Village project, initially set for the corner of Southeast Eighth Avenue and Southeast 15th Street, has been a point of contention since late last year after the county agreed to move forward with the plans.

Ability Housing secured a highly competitive, $15-million grant from the Florida Housing Finance Corporation (FHFC) program, funded through low-income tax credits. The county’s housing finance authority and the commission agreed to evenly split another $460,000 for the project. The group then bought the land for $1.8 million.

Public protest called for the project to not move forward, with some saying that east Gainesville already has too much affordable housing. Those in protest included many who also aggressively protested the city of Gainesville's elimination of exclusionary zoning that allowed multi-family homes to be built in single-family neighborhoods. That decision was also reversed.

A split commission twice voted 3-2 to halt the project, which resulted in Ability Housing threatening to sue over the reversal. The group lost the grant and Gainesville commissioners bashed the county for its vote.

By right, a developer could have built roughly 200 units on the site but agreed to partner with the county to bring more housing into Gainesville.

Gainesville Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker spoke during public comment at Tuesday’s meeting, thanking the county officials for listening to their constituents. She said this vote was a good first step towards achieving equity and equality.

“It is time to make truth and reconciliation mean something,” Duncan-Walker said. “In other words, put your money where your mouth is. I am confident that this is the beginning of that.”

Though residents seem to be upset with Ability Housing, Prizzia said the fault lies with the commission. She said the nonprofit did what was asked of it and engaged in good faith, and the commission is at fault for the contention.

Development of east Gainesville

East Gainesville has already seen more subtle changes in recent years than the decades prior, with more development expected to come.

Gainesville and Alachua County officials recently struck an agreement with the University of Florida Health to build a neighborhood urgent care facility. Gainesville also approved a transfer of land from UF to the city so that it could build an already-funded transit station a few blocks away from where Dogwood Village would have been built.

Mérieux NutriSciences has also opened its facility in front of the Gainesville Technology Entrepreneurship Center (GTEC), nearby a newly constructed Wawa convenience store and gas station. Single-family homes are also being constructed in the Heartwood subdivision.

The location is also along several transit routes and, unlike most east Gainesville neighborhoods, is conveniently located within 2 miles of three different grocery chains, several banks and pharmacies.

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