I’m not sure when the south end of downtown’s First Street began to turn into skid row. But the signs were there.
Like when the outside seating disappeared from Starbucks.
And when they tore down Jon Wershow’s old law firm building, and the adjacent pocket sculpture garden, to be replaced by a dirt parking lot with a shabby wooden slat fence.
Each morning street people congregate along the fence – joking, smoking, panhandling. Still more gather in the Sun Center courtyard.
Some even bring their own chairs because, well, you can’t sit outside Starbucks anymore.
The parking lot is supposed to be temporary. Presumably when it’s a hotel the “pop up” skid row will pop up somewhere else.
Still, these days you can practically follow the trail of shopping carts, sleeping bags, blankets, cans and bottles down South Main.
Listen, our homeless issues pale in comparison to those of many other American cities. And we are an intelligent, and compassionate, enough people to manage those issues without panicking.
But here’s the thing about our downtown street scene.
When students descend en masse, from sunset into the wee hours, the street people tend to be lost in the crowd. It is in the cold light of day that the area’s growing air of seediness is revealed in stark relief.
Downtown doesn’t have a homeless problem so much as a people problem.
Ours is basically a two dimensional downtown: Party central at night, a parking lot for government workers during the day.
It doesn’t have to be that way. And thanks to a still-blossoming town/gown strategic partnership we may soon have the opportunity to decide what downtown Gainesville ought to be when it grows up.
City Manager Lee Feldman is negotiating with the University of Florida to create a master plan for downtown Gainesville. “We’re just in beginning stage of talking about how we will approach a new planning process,” he says. “Downtown is critical, not only to city but also to the university. And we both recognize the need for it to be successful.”
Of late we haven’t had many downtown champions. GDOT (Gainesville Downtown Owners and Tenants) has gone dormant and is about to reorganize under another name. The Chamber of Commerce is located downtown, but its heart has long been in the suburbs. And while the city has invested millions of dollars to reengineer Main Street, redesign the Bo Diddley Plaza and build Depot Park, its day-to-day downtown stewardship might best be described as one of benign neglect.
“We’re looking at this to see how we can engage all the stakeholders in a process to come up with a common idea of what to do about downtown,” says Andrew Telles, UF’s collaborative initiatives director. “We have interesting resources at the university, cultural (institutes), arts in medicine, programs that are of the university but can’t exist without the people of the community.
“What can we bring downtown that will draw more people to the area during the day, late afternoon and evening? What can other stakeholders look to own? People will avoid that area unless there is something to draw them in.”
Downtown has been through cycles of prosperity and neglect, often driven by economic and social forces beyond our control. But if we are half as smart as we think we are in this university community, we ought to be capable of creating the downtown we want and deserve: A thriving, three-dimensional, 24/7, live work and play Heart of Gainesville.
(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com.