My lost cause of choice

For reasons I cannot fathom, the San Felasco Planning Section – basically an affiliation of local planners – invited me to come and talk to them about….oh, I dunno, planning, urbanism, journalism, life the universe and everything etc. For what it’s worth, here are some excerpts from Ron Cunningham’s Adventures Of An Accidental Urbanist.

I stand here today before this impressive amalgamation of planners and visionaries in tribute to two people.

James Stewart and Dom Nozzi

Stewart, who famously said, in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, that “Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.” And Nozzi who might just as well have said: “Well shut my mouth.”

I was forever tilting at windmills.

And I was definitely into lost causes. I was against the death penalty, and for gun control, I was for restoration of the Ocklawaha River and, God help me, for unification of Gainesville and Alachua County governments.

I could go on and on, but really, it’s too depressing. Suffice it to say that in nearly 40 years of opinion writing I have racked up an impressive list of lost causes.

As editorial page editor of the sun I was a professional fighter of lost causes. But then I was free at last!

But a funny thing happened to me on the occasion of my retirement as editorial page editor of The Sun. Suddenly, as both a Sun columnist and a FREE GNV blogger, I was free to pursue only those lost causes that I still had some passion about. As opposed to the depressingly long list of losers I was expected to write about in the course of my job.

Which is how Ron vs. AutoAmerican Anarchy became my lost cause of last resort.

Don’t worry. I’ve got this.

Listen, there is nothing I can do about Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis.

But maybe, just maybe, I can get people in Gainesville to feel guilty about Granny D. the sweet homeless lady who was run down and left to die alone on Williston Road.

Or to remember 4-year old Dylan Roberts, who got in the way of a speeding automobile as he crossed east University Avenue on his way home from the park.

Or to contemplate the sheer arrogance of a homegrown football hero who assumes it his birthright to drive his new car 104 miles an hour on Newberry Road. But at least he wrote an apology essay by way of court-ordered repentance.

By the way, when I was executive director of Bike Florida we lost a very nice man on Newberry Road. A gentleman who had come here all the way from Arizona to ride his bicycle in Florida.

The teenager who killed him – as our rider was cycling inside the marked shoulder – told police he was momentarily distracted when his cell phone fell to the floor of his pickup truck and he bent down to retrieve it. An accident, of course.

We have a very, um, liberal definition of the word “accident” in autoAmerica.

So perhaps I became an accidental urbanist because I came to believe that there is very little that is accidental about the bloody autoAmerican carnage we inflict upon ourselves on an almost daily, if not hourly basis.

Let alone the degree to which we have allowed the care and feeding of cars to dictate the very design, function and destiny of our urban spaces.

As a consequence, I have come to believe that putting cars in their place – slowing cars down, rethinking parking and even eliminating cars where possible – is the very foundation upon which all of “smart growth” urbanism must necessarily rest.

So how did it come to this for me?

Perhaps it began when my kids came home from kindergarten one day and said that their teacher, Mrs. Amos, told them about her son, Bernie, who was killed on NW 16th Ave while he was riding his bike to Westwood Middle School in 1991.

Unbelievably, I actually had to write an editorial or two in support of getting proper school zone warning signs near the scene of that “accident.” I say unbelievable because even after that child’s death there was still resistance to the very idea of slowing cars down on an over-engineered city street.

And, yes, NW 16th remains an over-engineered high-speed city street to this day.

A ghost bike dedicated to the memory of a cyclist killed on University Avenue.

And I will tell you, as a cyclist, that there is nothing like experiencing city streets on a daily basis from the seat of a bicycle to convince you that there is something insane about designing a city with the primary objective of moving cars around and through it as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

And hang the consequences to pedestrian, cyclists and other living things.

My point being that over the years I have come to acquire an abiding fascination with what makes a city – and most especially our city – work.

And how to make it work better.

Freedom of speech or city employment? You can’t have both.

Which brings me to Don Nozzi. Author of “The Car is the enemy of the city,” and for a time my own personal urban planning Jiminy Cricket.

Nozzi was a City of Gainesville employee who, for a brief period, wrote a series of guest columns for The Sun about urbanism, traffic calming and the like.

That lasted right up until his bosses told him he could exercise his free speech rights as guaranteed by the United States Constitution or he could continue to be gainfully employed by the city of Gainesville. But he could not do both.

Understand that Nozzi was not writing about city specific issues. He was simply writing about issues that were important to him from the perspective of someone who had been specifically educated to intelligently understand and talk about those issues.

He eventually left town. But Dom and I have maintained contact over the years, so I know he has continued to share his expertise, and engage in public discussions about urban planning in Richmond, Va., Boulder, Co. and most recently Greenville SC.

Which I suppose leads to my first suggestion to this group. If you care about your profession, and if you believe that good planning matters please speak out. You have a unique story to tell. Have the courage of your convictions and tell it.

In some respects Gainesville is a place where good urbanism goes to die.

That said, I do understand – as a journalist and trained observer of the human condition – that Gainesville can indeed be hazardous duty for planners.

Ask Andres Duane. A nationally renown planner, he was commissioned some years ago to create a design plan for College Park.

Which he did. And which we proceeded to studiously ignore because….well because who the hell is Andres Duane anyway and what business does he have telling us how to do things here in GNV?

(Oh, I have to interrupt this narrative to share with you my favorite Andres Duane quote: To wit: “The DOT has destroyed more American cities than Gen. Sherman.” Amen.)

But back to GNV’s apparent aversion to matters of urban planning:

Ask my good friend Victor Dover. He came to town because we asked him to help us redesign the linear death trap known as University Avenue. He did. And then he went home to Miami.

And we continued to overlook University Avenue’s flaws for many more years, until a critical mass of student deaths finally forced us to confront the consequences of our neglect.

I once interviewed a Ft. Pierce planner who had previously worked in Gainesville. And I’ll never forget what he told me:

“The problem with Gainesville is that everybody’s really smart and they all love to argue.”

Not in our backyards!

It is my own personal belief that Gainesville’s problem when it comes to matters of urban planning and development is that we all know what we are against – inclusionary zoning, gentrification, urban infill, tall buildings and, of course, greedy out of town developers, corrupt city commissioners and venal planners.

Pick your favorite villain.

But somehow we never get around to saying what it is we are for.

What’s a city for?

Case in point:

The difference between Starke and Gainesville is that the people who make up Stark’s economic base remain safely behind prison bars, while ours have an annoying habit of wanting to live among us and around us.

Do you ever wonder why so many people in a city that depends so much on the tens of thousands of students who come here to pursue an education seem to hate students so much? Why the phrase “student housing” is deemed almost an obscenity around here?

I was editor of the Florida Alligator in the mid-1970s, when the city enacted limitations on how many unrelated students could live in the same house.

I remember writing an editorial wondering why the city didn’t just force all of us students to live in tents out at the fairgrounds and have done with it.

Students have to live somewhere don’t they?

Nearly half a century later I am still dumbfounded that the construction of so many student apartments literally within walking distance of campus – exactly where they ought to be – is so often demonized in city commission public comments, the opinion pages of the Sun and elsewhere.

Why wouldn’t we want to house as many students as possible in multi-story buildings in close proximity to campus so they don’t have to drive? Isn’t that good urban planning?

Gainesville redesigned South Main Street with humans in mind.

Which is not to suggest that we never get anything right around here, far from it. For instance, we know very well how to calm traffic and create people friendly places where cars once ruled supreme. Just look at South Main Street, Depot Avenue and Depot Park.

South Main used to be a four-lane high speed car corridor….where, incidentally, I once got a speeding ticket. Hey, blame the sin, not the sinner.

Now it looks like a street designed for humans. Traffic is calmed but not gridlocked. And it is a veritable people magnet.

In Contrast, University Avenue is still pretty much a traffic sewer.

Contrast this to University Avenue: Gainesville’s “Signature Street.”

Yes, I understand that there are lots of plans in the works to finally “fix” University Avenue. And I hope that this time, in time, they finally come to fruition.

Because University Avenue really can be and should be our signature street. A generator of wealth rather than a traffic corridor dedicated to getting impatient suburbanites to work and back home again as quickly as possible.

My problem is that I’ve been writing about University Avenue for too many decades to take anything for granted. And I am still bracing for the inevitable autoAmerican backlash to the very idea of forcing cars to behave themselves on University Ave. Please, prove me wrong, GNV.

South Main Street is slowly reinventing itself.

Despite everything I’ve just said, I remain an optimist about Gainesville’s future as a thriving university city. Yes, Ron Cunningham can be both a cynic and an optimist.

We have shown with Depot Park and South Main Street that we understand how to use strategic planning to help bring a deteriorating part of the city back to life.

I would submit that what’s happening at the old Baird Center – to cite just one example – is an urban revitalization success story. Even as it is a cautionary tale….since the Acrosstown can no longer afford to be there.

Regardless, it could not have happened without well-thought out and well planned public infrastructure improvements. Without good urban planning.

The best example of town-gown collaboration I’ve ever seen.

Which is why I believe that the city-UF strategic plan partnership that’s unfolded over the last four or five years is the best and most encouraging example of town-gown cooperation I’ve ever seen.

I say this because my first job at the Sun was higher education reporter. And I covered UF during years in which city issues barely registered as a blip on Tiger Hall’s radar screen.

But things have indeed changed in recent years, and for the good.

It began in earnest when then UF President Bernie Machen committed to developing Innovation Square….perhaps in partial atonement for tearing down the old Alachua General Hospital.

And it really started to gain momentum when Machen hired Charlie Lane – who in turn hired a Boston consulting firm – to begin the process of reimagining a new town-gown urban partnership.

Because, to quote from the University of Florida’s strategic plan website: “Aligning the city and university could turn Gainesville into a proving ground for solutions to challenges facing cities nationwide.”

It also suggests “leveraging the expertise of UF researchers to address local issues and establishing an investment strategy to translate UF research and ideas into local start-ups.”

Finally, the plan recommends “evaluating ways to establish a presence in downtown Gainesville for some of the university’s programs, especially its cultural amenities.”

UF and the City jointly funded the downtown strategic plan.

Subsequently, UF and the City jointly funded a downtown strategic plan. just the latest indication that these partners are serious when they say that we cannot have a great university without a great university city.

And I especially think it significant that UF’s strategic planning efforts recognizes the importance of fostering “a strong urban core that enhances neighborhoods, attracts talent and investment and makes it feasible for faculty and staff to live close to campus”

Every time I ride my bike through Pleasant Street I see a neighborhood reinventing itself, even as it retains its traditional shotgun-house character. And you can’t ride through neighboring Grove Street and not notice the sheer energy as represented by numerous home-grown enterprises.

Pleasant Street and Grove Street remain separated by an 4-lane high-speed stroad we call 8th Avenue. But I’ve been told that the City has already made plans to traffic tame that stroad. When that happens you will see a shared renaissance, a shared destiny, in both of those no-longer car-separated neighborhoods

In my ramblings through inner city streets I am seeing more and young families that have chosen to live in the center of the city rather than out in the burbs. Precisely because they want to be within walking distance of downtown, UF, Depot Park and other GNV destinations.

That to me, is good urbanism. And we need to keep building on it.

There’s nothing ”cookie cutter” about this city.

And anyone who thinks GNV is turning into a “cookie-cutter” city simply because there are some franchise fast food places across the street from campus really doesn’t get around town very much.

There is nothing cookie-cutter about the 4th Avenue Food Park, Depot Station South, the uniquely local vibes of the SW 2nd Ave pedestrian zone, LeBowski’s, First Mag and Cypress and Grove, Luke’s Bagels, the small start-ups hidden away in the upstairs spaces of downtown and countless other home grown enterprises.

From my perspective this city is much more vibrant and interesting today than it was in my student days in the ‘70s. I look at Gainesville and I see a hotbed of thriving, local entrepreneurship. A sense of shared creativity that stems from putting creative people in close proximity to one another and letting them do their thing.

None of which has happened in a vacuum. It’s happening because people like you planned for it.

I think the most exciting thing about Gainesville today is that young people – and not just students – are coming here because they like what they see, and they want to be part of it.

Gainesville is on the cusp of something special.

On the whole – my morbid obsession with cars notwithstanding – I would say that good urban planning is alive and evident in Gainesville. The Greek Chorus of Naysayers notwithstanding.

My big concern at this point is that the negativism and nostalgia for the “good old days” that never were, which has been so apparent in the current mayor’s race, is going to foster a post-election backlash that will cause either the city or – more likely – the university to throw up their hands and say: This isn’t worth it.

That’s happened before. As I have already mentioned, there have been many years in which alienation between city hall and Tigert Hall created an “us vs. them” atmosphere.

We simply can’t afford that anymore. Not now, when we are on the cusp of becoming a vibrant university city.

Listen, I used to end a lot of my Sun columns with:“I love this town.” But I do not do that anymore.

Now I write: “I love this university city.”

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