Our organic city

Three snapshots in time:

Snapshot 1. It’s 1974 and I’m writing for the Alligator. During a staff lunch in a nicely appointed courtyard across from campus, one of our reporters looks around and opines that the space is a good example of urban renewal.

Snapshot 2. It’s 2010 and I’m sitting in that same courtyard. My favorite restaurant, Cafe Gardens, is closing after a three decade run. As a last meal it’s a sad occasion.

Snapshot 3. Now it’s 2020 and another favorite haunt, The Swamp, is gone. So is the courtyard and the building that once housed Cafe Gardens.

Things change. By definition urban renewal is never a one-and-done.

We’re all upset over the loss of The Swamp as it used to be. It was a Gainesville institution. But I don’t buy some of the bitter comments I got on Facebook when I posted a photo of the demolition: “This is what infill and gentrification look like. Congrats to all of you who voted for this. You won!”

Not sure when exactly we voted for infill and gentrification. I do remember that Cafe Gardens closed because the family that ran it got out of the business. And that the old Swamp is no more because the people who owned it made a new business plan.

And I’m not sure what we as a city could have done to keep those buildings, that courtyard, or those institutions just the way we liked them.

I do know this. A city, any city, is like a living organism. It can simultaneously grow (Midtown), stagnate (downtown), and even germinate in unexpected and wonderful ways (check out the 4th Avenue Food Park).

But it is always changing.

A lot of us miss the old county hospital…my kids were born there. But its replacement, Innovation Square, is slowly transforming and strengthening the town-gown fabric that is Gainesville’s urban core.

Would we be a better community if thousands of UF students were driving in from apartments near I-10 instead of walking to campus? Maybe. But it seems to me that the clustering of apartments around UF – yes even the high rises that we love to hate – is urban renewal as it’s supposed to work.

I know we’ve all got a hate-on for The Standard because it ruined the town forever. But personally I blame that notorious South (of here) Florida developer W. McKee Kelley for destroying Gainesville’s village-like ambiance.

He’s the one who started constructing the Segal Building. In the 1920s.

No, seriously. Gainesville used to be a railroad town, but the railroads left. Then it was a college town. Now we’re a university city. And I believe we are a more mature, interesting and diverse community for our growing pains.

Does that mean our land use and development codes are where they should be? No, we clearly need a better vision for how we grow and what that growth will look like. I assume that’s why we’re getting ready to have a moratorium on development.

Gentrification is an issue for another day. But if they ever do put infill on the ballot I’d vote for it. Because we know what the alternative is: Celebration Point, and Butler’s “town” center. Big boxes. And traffic jams on Archer and Newberry roads as people funnel themselves to and from sprawling subdivisions that keep spreading west toward the county line.

We have already met the enemy, and it isn’t The Standard.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com. Email him at rondarts2008@gmail.com.

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