In the city’s defense it probably seemed like a good idea at the time.
I mean “temporarily” closing off sections of downtown streets so that restaurants could move their tables outside and safely serve more customers in this time of coronavirus.
But you know what they say about good intentions and the road to hell.
Originally the plan was to block off three different street sections – on SE 1st Street and SE 2nd Ave. But apparently some restaurants objected to losing their front door parking spaces – not to mention forcing their auto-oriented customers to walk all the way from a nearby parking garage (horrors!).
And so in the end the city closed off just one half of one very short block of SW 2nd Ave., giving Looseys the opportunity to offer a European style al fresco dining experience.
Bold move, Innovation City.
But wait, there’s more.
To celebrate this venture in public realm repurposing officials decided to close that tiny stretch of SW 2nd off to traffic in the same way that, oh, I dunno, a war-torn city might block its streets against marauding tanks.
They plopped a dozen squat, heavy, ugly yellow concrete boxes right down on top of the ancient brick street. And just in case somebody still didn’t get the message, they threw in a couple of red and white striped barriers festooned with “Road Closed” signs.
Let’s see you jump that, Evel Knievel!
Talk about downtown dining ambiance. They might as well rename SW 2nd “Checkpoint Charlie” and have done with it.
Listen, best intentions aside, the optics are terrible.
Rather like dumping a truckload of mulch on a skatepark to keep the kids from using it. Whose idea was that?
Oh, and then the city let downtown’s long-running farmer’s market slip away to Celebration Point because Bo Diddley Plaza remains closed on account of COVID-19.
That would be the same plaza that recently hosted a couple thousand Black Lives Matter demonstrators packed in elbow-to-elbow fashion…all with the city’s blessing.
A more rational solution might have been to allow the farmer’s market to reopen at the Plaza with precautions like mandatory face masks (most of the demonstrators were masked) and imposed social distancing between booths. But Gainesville bureaucrats are not generally known as meet-you-halfway kind of people.
If I sound overly critical of city government here it’s because Gainesville seems to be dragging its feet while other cities around the country, and around the world, are racing to make their streets and other public spaces more accessible to people who do not want to wrap themselves inside the steel cocoons commonly called automobiles in order to enjoy public spaces.
“Public and outdoor space has been at a premium during the coronavirus pandemic: bike sales have leapt, park use is way up, and even pavement chalk drawing appears to be having a moment,” reports the Thomas Reuters Foundation. “Now as many cities start to reopen, some are looking at their sidewalks, squares, parking lots and even streets as a hidden asset in boosting their economies.”
“The recovery will happen in public space,” ventures the Project for Public Spaces. “The sidewalks, streets, plazas and parking lots in every neighborhood are an asset that is waiting to be put to work. Many cities including San Francisco, Oakland, New York, and Seattle are closing streets to traffic to increase the usable pedestrian space for residents.”
I’m sorry, but Gainesville’s tepid experiment with opening up public spaces – and then making the result look like a war zone – is not nearly enough.
And make no mistake. Downtown is in trouble and looking seedier by the day.
For that matter, all American downtowns are likely headed for tougher times, predicts the on-line Governing news service. Thanks to the virus “many cities find themselves with a downtown that is now in danger of an extended period of decline. Finding a way to bring their downtowns back quickly is part of the post-coronavirus challenge they face.”
Will Gainesville rise to the challenge to save its downtown? Early indications are not encouraging. I ride through downtown Gainesville nearly every day, and every day obvious signs of neglect and deterioration become more apparent.
Fine, we’ve managed to keep tanks away from Looseys, at least temporarily. But in the long run City Hall timidity and indifference may end up wiping out decades of progress in downtown development.
In the age of coronavirus, San Francisco environment commissioner Tiffany Chu writes in Forbes, cities “are repurposing streets—once used exclusively for automobiles—for pedestrians and cyclists. The creativity, adaptation, and unprecedented speed behind this will keep us safe and lay the foundation for a more sustainable recovery.”
But not in this town, pal, not in this town.