The vision thing

Pegeen Hanrahan was working in the county environmental protection office when Gainesville Regional Utilities bought the old Gainesville Gas Company.

GRU wanted to break into the natural gas business. But Pegeen worried about the “black goo” seeping out of the ground at the company’s old coal gasification plant on South Main Street.

As a county employee she couldn’t do much about it. As a city commissioner, and later mayor, she could.

For years Hanrahan and fellow advocates focused on transforming GRU’s biggest environmental liability into a source of community pride.

Today we call it Depot Park.

Turning a toxic field into the city’s most popular park was the work of two decades. An epic undertaking spearheaded by commissioners, city staffers and a cast of supporting players laboring away in Gainesville, Tallahassee, Washington D.C. and elsewhere.

“I wanted to get that project to the point that the city had to do it,” Hanrahan said in a recent presentation she made at the Matheson Museum sponsored by UF’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning.

But if Depot Park was a success story, Hanrahan also cited an epic Gainesville failure – the on-again, off-again efforts to turn another liability into an asset.

“It cost us a bunch of lives because we couldn’t sell a vision for a better University Avenue,” she said.

True. At various times over past decades city leaders tried to make the case for redesigning Gainesville’s “signature street.” At one point they even brought in nationally known consultants to help reimagine an avenue that would enhance public safety while fostering a more lively and prosperous UF-downtown corridor.

But new elections brought new priorities. And invariably the vision of transforming University Avenue into a “complete street” was abandoned.

That we are, once again, focused on University Avenue is only because neglecting it all these years did indeed “cost us a bunch of lives.”

Now I worry that we may be going for the quick fix without bothering to sell a long-term vision for University Avenue.

“Realistically, we expect this (work) to be done within the year,” Mayor Lauren Poe says of proposals to make University Avenue safer than it is now.

That’s fine. But I wonder if in our instant gratification culture, doing something fast has become more important than doing it right. Why bother with the vision thing when expediency works?

Listen, I’m all for better sidewalks, roundabouts, mid-block pedestrian crosswalks and the other enhancements we’ve been hearing about.

But ten years from now, maybe sooner, Gainesville will regret it if we didn’t choose to two-lane University Avenue when we had the chance. That we didn’t fight to turn a sterile car corridor into a prosperous urban street.

Multi-laned roads exist to move cars. Conversely, an urban street is “a platform for building wealth,” Strong Towns reminds us. “On a street, we’re attempting to grow the complex ecosystem of businesses and homes that produces community wealth. Successful streets are environments where humans and human interaction flourish.”

Safety enhancements notwithstanding, if it remains multi-laned, University Avenue will still be designed to move cars, not to serve the needs of the thousands of pedestrians, cyclists, transit riders, midtown business owners and residents and others who interact with University every day.

Commissioners in Hanrahan’s time were willing to sell a vision for Depot Park. It took time and money, but today few would argue that it wasn’t worth it.

Can we please do the same for University Avenue?

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

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