Following in the footsteps of schools that have brokered development partnerships between high-tech companies and academia as well as cities that have revitalized struggling districts into 24/7 neighborhoods, the University of Florida is going outside its Gainesville campus gates and stepping into the shoes of an urban renewer. The UF goal is to turn an adjacent neighborhood full of underutilized low-rise buildings into a 40-acre compact community where people work, live and play. Having overcome the many zoning, infrastructure and cultural challenges that stood in its way, Innovation Square—which could encompass more than 5 million sq ft when it is built out—is on its way.

"The vision is to create a holistic approach to economic development," says Ed Poppell, UF's director of economic development. "We're in the unique position to provide collaborations that commercialize inventions and discoveries and offer quality-of-life benefits those businesses and their employees want."

The aim is to attract a younger post-graduate population to the area. "If we foster that environment, it will be easier to recruit people," Poppell adds.

Originally, UF had a vision for a 12-block biomedical-oriented research park to take the place of the college-owned Shands at UF hospital, which vacated its buildings in 2009 and sold its 11 acres to UF. Then, the school expanded its sights. It wanted a more "vibrant" mixed-use development.

Bigger sights, bigger challenges

The bigger sights meant bigger challenges. Beyond city rezoning and infrastructure improvements, they include leading the convergence of myriad interests and public and private stakeholders.

"Every agency that worked on the project had to change the way it did business," says David Green, a principal in the Atlanta office of architect-planner Perkins+Will, which in 2011 created the Innovation Square master plan for the school. "The Department of Public Works changed the way it does capital improvement projects, and the city had to rewrite zoning for more flexibility in land use, and also require developers to incorporate ground-level retail and restaurants into their buildings."

Eventually, the project received near-unanimous support from stakeholders, says Green. "You don't see that often," he adds.

Innovation Square is a joint effort of the university, Shands at UF, the city and the Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency. There are several landowners within the district, and several developers are involved. There are also various types of commercial and residential development—including a dormitory. Plans call for a mix of new construction and renovations. The development time frame is open-ended.

And because Innovation Square's master plan called for a central network of power, chilled water and other infrastructure to serve the development's buildings and the surrounding district rather than site-specific package networks, a regulatory change was needed so that city-owned Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) could construct what would essentially be a speculative utilities network—funding the work in advance of future revenue. Services would include communications, fiber optics, stormwater and sanitary sewers, natural gas, two data systems for redundancy and emergency power—eliminating the need for buildings to have their own diesel generators. The approximate total cost for the water, wastewater and reclaimed water improvements will be $7.25 million. This does not include treatment plant upgrades that will be necessary when all the project-related flows accumulate in 10 years or so.

"As pre-building facilities by ourselves so quickly would be cost-prohibitive, the development community had to understand that they would need to help pay for it," says David Richardson, GRU's assistant general manager for water and wastewater systems. Those first meetings got off to a "rocky start," he adds.

"The challenges seemed insurmountable, because we weren't sure how to address these needs," Richardson says. "As we kept talking, we found ways to be flexible on how to do things."