TaMaryn Waters, Tallahassee Democrat Published 6:00 a.m. ET Aug. 20, 2018
Frenchtown Partners project
The $78-million, mixed-used development includes 200 and 250 condos or apartments, 58,400 square feet of retail space in three buildings, 25,000 square feet of office or medical space and ample parking.(Photo: FITZGERALD COLLABORATIVE GROUP, LLC)
The Frenchtown Gateway proposal could be the largest single project in the neighborhood rich in history and steeped with challenges.
It's projected to spur $173.4 million in total economic impact. It could create more than 1,400 construction and permanent jobs and $53 million in income and wages.
If it clears major hurdles, the $78-million mixed-use development is poised to remake a city block facing downtown and the fringes of the Florida State University campus.
"This project will help Frenchtown transform out of a food desert and into a new neighborhood," said Al Latimer, director of the Tallahassee-Leon County Office of Economic Vitality.
The Frenchtown Gateway proposal is one of three major projects that will change the neighborhood’s dynamic. The $64 million Standard, a 254-unit apartment building, is under construction, and the $20-million Casanas Village apartments with 88 units is nearing completion.
The Gateway’s early concept continues to evolve. Plans call for retail space in three buildings, up to 250 condos or apartments, 20 townhouses, office space and up to 700 parking spaces, which may be scaled back, based on need. An urban grocery store will be the centerpiece.
Frenchtown Gateway Project
Frenchtown Gateway Project (Photo: Fitzgerald Collaborative)
Project backers said the Gateway development could be what turns the page in Frenchtown’s troubled past of poverty. It may convince more residents with spending power to visit, live and shop, instead of driving through or avoiding it altogether.
Residents consider the boundaries of Frenchtown to be Tennessee, Bronough, Copeland and Brevard streets, according to city documents. In the past, the historically black neighborhood struggled to attract new businesses. Its only national chain companies are Family Dollar and Dollar General.
The Rev. R.B. Holmes Jr., pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, a Gateway redevelopment partner, said the project is ripe with job-creation and affordable housing potential and arguably the economic engine missing from Frenchtown — an area that has been neglected for 40 years.
“We can bring about a real dynamic economic renaissance to this community," Holmes said. “It will be amazing, inspiring and transformational for the church and property owners in Frenchtown to continue to work together to ensure that these projects become a reality,”
Bethel has been an economic driver by investing roughly $30 million in Frenchtown. Among its investments, the church opened the Steele-Collins Community Charter School, Bethel Towers, senior housing facility, a shopping plaza, a veterans center, a restaurant and constructed Carolina Oaks, a 25-home single family mixed-income neighborhood.
Most recently, the church partnered with Florida State University and Envision Credit Union to open Frenchtown's first financial institution in June 2016. The Frenchtown Financial Opportunity Center has opened more than 180 accounts.
As the new projects unfold, planners are conducting a place-making study for Frenchtown that will help define the neighborhood's identity, appeal and history as being the state's oldest primarily black neighborhood.
The study area includes the boundaries of Tennessee Street to the south, Bronough Street to the east, Seventh Avenue to the north, and Woodward Avenue to the west, according to the draft place-making plan.
Bringing fresh food
The Frenchtown Redevelopment Partners, which owns several parcels sandwiched within the target area, has been granted more time and resources to polish the final Gateway concept.
Developers are hoping to get help from a Jacksonville consultant who has been successful in bringing grocery stores to blighted areas.
A grocery store tops the neighborhood’s wish list.
The proposal earmarks space for a small-scale grocer, roughly 20,000 square feet. In terms of size, it could mirror the new small-format Target that opened in Varsity Plaza on West Tennessee Street or the soon-to-open Greenwise Publix on Gaines Street.
Tony Brown, president and CEO of T. Brown Consulting, is the project’s lead consultant. His client roster includes Kroger, the nation's largest grocery retailer.
For the Gateway project, he's engaged in talks with three companies who all requested confidentiality during the negotiation period. Brown said part of the challenge is convincing some grocers, who already have a presence near Tennessee Street, to open a location in Frenchtown.
“I am leaving no grocer off the table,” Brown said.
Another challenge, Brown said, will be finding a company that can be compatible with the landmark Economy Drugs. The propietors, the Roberts family, own land along Macomb Street and want to maintain the original pharmacy’s building instead of tearing it down for the redevelopment.
Frenchtown Gateway: Future Phases
Frenchtown Gateway: Future Phases (Photo: Fitzgerald Collaborative)
It's clear Frenchtown residents already have an appetite for fresh food options.
On Saturday, community farms and a Fresh Market offer fruits and vegetables. But daily, convenient and healthy shopping for fresh produce requires Frenchtown residents to travel outside the neighborhood. For those who must rely on public transport or taxi cabs, that's a burden.
Annie Harris, a local artist and Frenchtown resident for the last 10 years, drives to the nearest Publix or to New Leaf Market on Apalachee Parkway for groceries. She and others want something they can walk to.
She moved to the neighborhood with the hopes of being part of its revitalization. Harris knew change was inevitable, just not this magnitude. She didn’t think two apartment buildings and a huge development could be part of Frenchtown’s future.
“We can see change is coming really rapidly,” Harris said.
She hopes the neighborhood’s character isn’t lost in the rubble. And she wants developers of each project to consider how traffic congestion will impact residents.
Frenchtown Gateway: Phase 1
Frenchtown Gateway: Phase 1 (Photo: Fitzgerald Collaborative)
Early CRA stages
Community input meetings will continue next month. Meanwhile, the Gateway project backers are using roughly $292,000 from the Community Redevelopment Agency toward various studies, including a parking, planning and design services and engineering study.
Findings should be known by the end of the year or early 2019, said CRA Planning Director Rick McCraw. The reason for that is because the Tallahassee City Commission will have three new members after this year’s election.
“We’ll need to have some time to get the board up to speed,” he said, adding the CRA will work with the partners on developing agreements and assessing milestones.
The partners will work with the CRA staff on a development agreement to ensure the project is viable as planned or can be tackled in phases. McCraw said the goal is to have recommendations by next year to present to the CRA board, which is now made up solely of city commissioners.
The CRA will have a major say in what will take place. Based on a map of the block, the CRA owns just over half of the land bordered by Macomb, Tennessee, Virginia streets. The agency could sell, swap or redevelop its parcels, depending on the outcome of the project's feasibility phase. The Redevelopment Partners made a previous request for the CRA to consider donating its land toward the project.
"It is important to note that CRA funding of these studies does not indicate that the CRA is entering into a development agreement with Frenchtown Partners," CRA documents said. "CRA participation in the full project must be determined following completion of design development, including more detailed cost estimates and appropriate financial evaluations."
McCraw added: “All of those things are little too early to discuss right now with any confidence in regard to that’s what will happen.”
Holmes said cooperation with city leaders going forward is essential.
"We will need the full support of the CRA, and city leaders to continue to collaborate with us," he said.
Urban grocery store (roughly 23,00 square feet)
Up to 74 mixed-income apartment units
10 townhome units for working families
Up to 350 parking spaces