Downtown Revitalization: Tallahassee

December 4, 2012 48 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

A brief tour around the downtown of Florida's capital city: Tallahassee.

Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University

Also known as FAMU, Florida A&M University was established in 1887 as an institution of higher education for the State's black community.  With 12,792 students, Florida A&M has become a perennial leader in the recruitment of National Achievement Scholars.  The FAMU Marching 100 band is well known nationally and has been credited with 30 innovative techniques that have become standard operating procedures for many high school and collegiate marching band programs.

Florida A&M University's Foote-Hilyer Administration Center was originally constructed as the University Hospital. University Hospital opened in 1950.  It was run by influential members of the community like Virginia Hilyer, who established FAMU's nursing program and Dr. Leonard H.B. Foote, the hospital's first medical director.  It was the only facility within 150 miles of Tallahassee that treated blacks during segregation.  The 150-bed hospital closed its doors in 1971.

The Gaines Street Corridor & All Saints Neighborhood

For many years, Gaines Street was a low elevation, flood prone industrial district separating the campuses of Florida State University and Florida A&M University.  Today, it is being upgraded into a context sensitive street corridor, serving as the centerpiece a mixed-use urban neighborhood.

Approximately 10 years ago, the City of Tallahassee, with input from citizens and business owners, developed the outline for a destination district in the heart of Tallahassee, a connection between the two universities close to downtown that would be the hub of arts and culture in Tallahassee. With this vision in mind, the City adopted the Gaines Street Revitalization Plan. The goal was to create a pedestrian friendly street and improve infrastructure to help develop a destination district that would be home to a blend of commercial, residential and cultural uses.

The funds to pay for the majority of this project come from sales tax, not property taxes. Voters initially approved the funding for the Gaines Street project as part of the Blueprint 2000 sales tax extension. Subsequently, in 2004, the City of Tallahassee and Leon County agreed to set aside $27.7 million of Blueprint 2000 discretionary funds to pay for the road construction, property acquisition and development incentives. Additionally, the City received another $7 million in road maintenance funds from the State of Florida when the road right-of-way was transferred in 2008.

As part of the plan, electric lines would be moved off the street, deteriorating underground utility lines would be replaced, and the road would be rebuilt within the existing right-of-way to a 2-way, 2-lane street with limited on-street parking.

The project began in earnest in 2009, with the replacement of underground utilities along the corridor. Around this time, electric lines and poles were moved, where possible, from the Gaines Street right-of-way to mid-block locations.

In May 2010, Public Works began construction on the reconfiguration of the road. Work took place between Monroe and Macomb streets and was completed in early fall 2011.

The City put out the bid for Phase II, which runs from Macomb Street to near Stone Valley Way, in early summer 2011. Bids were open in July. Bids came back higher than estimated and had to undergo an extensive review by staff. The contract for Phase II was awarded to Allen's Excavation Inc. in October by the City Commission with a 4-0 vote.

The area known today as the Gaines Street Corridor has a rich history dating back to the founding of Tallahassee and earlier. This section includes a brief overview of the historic development of the area. For more detailed information, please see Appendix 1: Early Development of the Gaines Street Corridor.

Early Settlement–Located at the eastern end of the Gaines Street Corridor is Cascades Park. This area once boasted a waterfall known as the Cascade, and was one of the reasons this area was selected to be the capital of Florida. Tallahassee's first settlers reportedly camped in or close to the Gaines Street Corridor in 1824 and the original 1825 plan for the city encompassed part of the eastern end of the corridor. Remnants of the original 200 foot clearing around the city remain in today's All Saints Neighborhood. The corridor developed from east to west, with residential uses initially predominating.

The Coming of the Railroad–With the coming of the railroad to the area in 1837, industrial uses sprang up to take advantage of proximity to that important resource. The new Tallahassee-St. Marks rail line was operated by the Tallahassee Railroad Company, and followed closely the alignment of today's tracks. Initially, mules and horses hauled cotton and other goods along wooden tracks with iron rails to the port of St. Marks. A brief flirtation with the steam engine ended when the boiler exploded. The Pensacola and Georgia Railroad purchased the company in 1855, once again upgrading to steam engines, and opening a line to Lake City in 1860. They constructed a new depot which serves as today's Amtrak Station.

By the 1860s, the area adjacent to the rail line was home to a myriad of industrial uses, including steam saws, grist mills, foundries, lumber yards, and a brick yard. In the 1890s, the railroad became part of the new Seaboard Air Line Railway, and other companies also established lines in this area, including the Carrabelle, Tallahassee, and Georgia Railroad, and the Georgia Pine Railroad. Some of these new lines ran north of Gaines Street. Industrial development in the area continued to flourish, as new iron works, lumber companies, and bottling companies opened in the area.

The Establishment of Neighborhoods--Despite the growing industrialization of the area, several residential neighborhoods developed and flourished in the Gaines Street Corridor during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The All Saints Neighborhood had residences as early as the 1860s, and was platted for residential use in the 1880s. By the early 1900s, this was a flourishing neighborhood with a mix of white and black residents. Due to its proximity to the depots, it always had a scattering of industrial uses; however, it was not until the 1930s and 1940s that industrial uses started dominating the western half of the neighborhood.

Platted in the 1880s, the Stearns-Mosely Neighborhood was a vibrant African American neighborhood that had been situated on the site of an 1860s brick yard. Another African American neighborhood, Lincoln Valley, was destroyed with the construction of the Civic Center. A residential area north of Gaines now identified as the FSU Transition Zone once flourished as a neighborhood, although little research has been done on this area.

Zoning for Industrial Uses–Due to the increasing industrialization of the area, in 1925 the City voted to establish "business sections" near the train depots to allow business development without the consent of area residents. As a result of this action, All Saints, the FSU Transition Zone and other residential areas began experiencing even greater industrialization. In 1946, the Taylor Plan called for the eastern portion of the Gaines Street Corridor to be used for a series of state office buildings, resulting in the demolition of numerous residences. It further recommended that much of the western part of the area be zoned industrial and commercial, further reinforcing that area's growing character.

The challenge for today is to retain those significant features of the past, while allowing the area to become a vital and integral component of today's downtown Tallahassee.

All Saints Neighborhood

The All Saints neighborhood lies between Gaines Street and the railroad tracks.  In the early 20th century it also thrived as an industrial district.  Today, its becoming a district with upscale condos and live-work lofts.  The city's vision for these adjoining districts is to see them transform into a sustainable pedestrian friendly urban atmosphere.

The historic All Saints Neighborhood derives its name from the streets (including All Saints, St. Francis, St. Michael and St. Peter) that crisscross the area. This small enclave just south of Gaines Street includes a mixture of residential, office, commercial and industrial uses that have evolved over the neighborhood's 100 plus years of existence. The developed area is bounded by the Florida Department of Education building to the east, the railroad tracks to the south, and backs up to Railroad Avenue to the west. For planning purposes, the area is also defined to include a vacant block to the north of Gaines Street to provide important linkages to downtown Tallahassee.

Dating back to 1858, the Tallahassee Amtrak station is one of the oldest railroad buildings in Florida.  Passenger service was suspended in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina caused significant damage to tracks west of the city.

Cascades Park

Located along a stream known as the St. Augustine Branch, the 12-acre Cascades Park is a Nationally Registered Historic Place because it influenced the territorial government's choice of the capital city's location.

By 2006, a significant portion of the park had been closed to the public, due to soil and water contamination by coal tar released by a manufactured gas plant (sound familiar Jacksonville...."Confederate Park and Hogans Creek").

Today, the park is being restored to serve as a centerpiece of the proposed Capital Cascade Greenway.  The goal of the Greenway initiative is to provide stormwater, trail and road projects that are efficient, attractive, environmentally responsible, and support the revitalization of in-town and southside neighborhoods.  It is being funded by an extension of the local one-cent sales tax approved by voters in November 2000.


The city operated a manufactured gas plant in the southwest of the park from 1895 to the late 1950s, when they switched to natural gas and propane. As part of its normal operation, the MGP produced coal tar which was not valuable enough to be sold or reused, so it was simply discarded. Potentially harmful components of this coal tar, in particular polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes), have been detected in the soil and groundwater. A downward hydraulic gradient prevented the contaminants from spreading, but at the site itself, there was "a current or potential threat to public health and the environment".

In addition, a landfill on the southern edge of the park was used to dispose of municipal solid waste. The landfill was originally indented for biodegradable lawn waste such as tree limbs, but later it was reportedly used for other trash including construction and automobile waste and ash from the city incinerator on the east side of the park.

Remediation Project

In September 2005, the city made an agreement with WRS Infrastructure & Environment to clean up the site for $7.8 million. The plans are to excavate over 70,000 tons of contaminated soil and transport it to an EPA-approved landfill in Valdosta, Georgia, to remove three inches of sediment from 950 feet of the stream and install a protective liner, and to place a clay cap over 5,750 square yards of the landfill.

The project is currently reported to be ahead of schedule, and completion is expected by the end of October. When complete, the park will have an amphitheater, a baseball field, historic building renovations, and open green space for trails and community gatherings.

Graphic courtesy of City of Tallahassee

The Cascade Park area has served the Tallahassee community since the city was founded in 1824. Due to its previous use as an industrial site and its continual use as a channelized stormwater facility many environmental concerns surround the area. Cascade Park is a former superfund site that underwent remediation due to severe pollutants in the soil from old industry in the vicinity. Despite the clean up efforts, localized pockets of contamination remain. Located in a catchment basin for the downtown watershed, the floodplain envelops the future site and storm events have overwhelmed the existing channel, flooding local streets to the extent that it is considered a major safety issue. In addition, the sewer lines that cross the site, constructed of dated terracotta pipe, are susceptible to infiltration and exfiltration and may have further contaminated the waterways. Development of the Park will return this vacant land, just blocks from the Capitol, to an active public space. The remaining contamination will undergo spot remediation if located within excavation areas. The creation of the storage ponds will alter and expand the existing floodplain and reduce localized flooding on adjacent properties and roadways. The failing sewer lines will be replaced.

Cascade Park is designed as a floodable park. Of the 24-acre park, over three acres will be transformed into an urban wetland detention facility for storage and treatment of runoff from the surrounding 693 acre drainage area. The upper and lower ponds will serve as the detention facilities, engineered for 100 acre-feet of storage and an aesthetically acceptable permanent pool volume. The project, designed to handle the 25-year, eight-hour storm event, will reduce the flooding limits and the peak stage on the adjacent roads susceptible to flooding by an average of two feet. Construction of a by-pass box culvert will reduce flows directly through the Park and permit off-line treatment in the ponds. The pond perimeters will have planted edges and carefully designed littoral shelves, connected by a natural meandering stream with riffles, all of which will enhance habitat and water quality.

An alum system is also planned to allow flocculation of excessive nutrients and sediments, and prevent eutrophication. In the summer of 2009 Blueprint 2000 completed a grant application that was awarded $422,000 from the Department of Environmental Protection to help fund the alum system within the Park. Beyond stormwater control and treatment, Cascade Park is striving for sustainability and conservation in keeping with the City’s and County’s efforts to go “green.” Reconstructed wetlands, bioretention and extensive landscaping with native plants and trees will reduce velocities, enhance water quality, provide habitat and realize an overall high aesthetic appeal. Creation of a wetland fringe for the damsel fly and a proposed bat habitat will naturally reduce mosquito numbers. The park will have utility connects in preparation for the City’s reclaimed water line that will be used for irrigation and augmentation of the ponds. Lighting along the trails will use extremely energy efficient light emitting diodes (LEDs). The restroom facility will have water efficient fixtures and some parking areas will utilize solar lighting. Pervious pavers and rain gardens will be used when appropriate to reduce runoff. Parking areas will have tree cover to reduce the heat island effect. Site furnishings will largely be constructed of recycled materials and recycling receptacles will be prominent within the park.

Florida State University

FSU is one of two flagship universities in the State University System of Florida.  Originally known as the Tallahassee Female Academy, FSU's campus is the oldest continually used location of higher learning in Florida.  Before allowing male students, the Florida State College for Women had grown to be the third largest women's college in the United States.

Today, Florida State University aspires to become a top American research university with at least one-third of its graduate programs ranked in the Top-15 nationally.  Well known FSU alumni include Gov. Charlie Crist, Burt Reynolds, Texas Longhorn coach Mack Brown and Sen. Mel Martinez.

The neighborhoods surrounding Florida State feature a mix of uses that cater to FSU's 1,500 acre urban campus, its faculty and students.

The Tennessee Strip is home to several bars, night clubs and restaurants that area heavily supported by the city's college student population.

Unique Tallahassee

- The name "Tallahassee" is a Muskogean Indian word often translated as "old fields".

- Tallahassee was the only Confederate state capital east of the Mississippi not captured by Union forces.

- Until World War II, Tallahassee remained a small southern town, with virtually the entire population living within a mile of the Capitol.

- Recognized by Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine in 2007, as one of the "Top Ten College Towns for Grownups" (ranking second, behind Chapel Hill, North Carolina)

- Since 1968, Leon County residents have voted four times against consolidating the city and county.  In 1992, consolidation was defeated 60.2% - 39.8%.

- During the 1960s and 1970s Florida State University became a center for student activism especially in the areas of racial integration, women's rights and opposition to the Vietnam War. The school acquired the nickname 'Berkeley of the South'[36] during this period, in reference to similar student activities at the University of California, Berkeley and is also purported to be the site of the genesis of "streaking," which is said to have first been observed on Landis Green.

- The Capitol is usually referred to as a twenty-two story building. However, there are three underground floors, and no sixth floor (edit: There is a sixth floor, its just not accessible by elevator).

Learning from Tallahassee

A vision of a completed Cascades Park.

Upon a brief review of urban Tallahassee, two projects stand out as developments Jacksonville should follow.  The restoration of Casades Park essentially provides us with the process to take in restoring public amenities like McCoys and Hogans Creeks.  In addition, the redevelopment of the Gaines Street corridor serves as an example of bringing life and activity back to forgotten industrial and commercial districts.

Article by Ennis Davis


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