Reflections on a university city

Gainesville’s ancient Segal Building, as reflected in the windows of Santa Fe College’s new downtown Blount Center.

Every time I’m on University Avenue I am reminded of how much I hate that tall ugly building.

It doesn’t look like Gainesville. No doubt unscrupulous city commissioners conspired with greedy out-of-town developers to foist that monstrosity on us.

Still, the Segal Building, in all its Jacksonville ugliness, has been here since 1926.

So I guess it does look like Gainesville.

Seriously, what is the Gainesville look? I honestly don’t know, and I’ve lived here for nearly half a century.

Is it the classic-columned Hipp? The Spanish-style downtown library, or the brutalist federal courthouse next door?

What is the Gainesville ‘look’ anyway?

Hey, remember the Windjammer where Harry Crews hung out? Was that the Gainesville “look,” in all its shabby splendor?

I only ask because every time something new gets built in this city I hear a Greek chorus of “that’s not Gainesville!” That’s especially true when something tall goes up..and never mind that the ancient Segal Building still holds bragging rights.

Listen, nostalgia is a wonderful thing. I look back on my student days at UF with great fondness.

But when I was a student, in the mid-1970s, there were fewer than 24,000 of us. In a city of 75,000 people.

Now UF has upwards of 61,000 students. And Gainesville has grown to 141,000 residents.

We’re not a bucolic college town anymore.

We are not a college town anymore. We’re not Clemson (17,000) or Auburn (66,000).

We are a university city.

And frankly I like the energy and creativity I see in this still emerging university city.

The new hotel going up downtown is a game changer. The redesigned South Main Street and Depot Park are magnets for people and businesses. Innovation Square puts UF-research spin-offs exactly where they ought to be. And student apartment towers don’t bother me because they are within walking distance of campus. (What exactly is a “concrete canyon” anyway?)

Here’s what I think is the Gainesville “look.”

It’s automobiles cramming our major thoroughfares as thousands of suburban and small town commuters arrive here for work every morning and depart for home each afternoon. It’s the reason University Avenue and 13th Street turned into death traps. It’s why driving on Archer and Newberry roads can be a nightmare.

The price Gainesville pays for sprawl.

The suburbanization of western Alachua County is the price we have paid to pretend we’re still a small college town. The price we will continue to pay for remaining a jobs center for suburbanites is neither sustainable nor rational.

Density is Gainesville’s destiny. Growing vertically instead of sprawling horizontally will help make this university city more diverse and economically vital. The UF-City strategic development partnership to encourage “a strong urban core that enhances neighborhoods, attracts talent and investment and makes it feasible for faculty and staff to live close to campus” is the best example of town-gown collaboration I’ve ever seen.

Density is Gainesville’s destiny.

And I don’t understand the near hysteria that has greeted virtually every city effort, year after year, to encourage affordable housing, spark urban infill and make more inclusive decades-old zoning restrictions that were designed in the first place to keep us separated by race and economic strata.

The outcome of the upcoming city elections will be crucial to determining whether we will continue to mature into the university city Gainesville ought to be, or go on pretending that we can live in the past. The political rhetoric that we can somehow preserve in amber a college town that hasn’t existed for years strikes me as being a developer’s dream.

A suburban developer’s dream.

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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