Hutch then and now

The many faces of Hutch

Hutch runs an Airbnb for indigenous fish.

The water in the tank is a bit murky, it comes from his well and is supplemented with liberal doses from nearby streams and wetlands “for the microorganisms.” And it is thick with vegetation, also harvested locally.

And his guests?

He’s got some crawdads. And tiny glass shrimp. A hog choker, a Madtom and who knows what else in there.

“I dip them out of local water bodies and then take them home for a while,” says Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson, late of the Alachua County Commission and these days still hiding out from Covid in his house tucked away deep in Flamingo Hammock. “The fish stay for a month and then I take them back to where they came from. It’s the ethical way to keep fish.”

And, before you ask, yes, he’s also got lots of plastic flamingos – on shelves and window sills and everywhere – because nobody ever accused Hutch of having a dry sense of humor.

Virtual county commission meeting

If your last glimpse of Hutchinson was back in the day when the commission was still hosting face-to-face meetings, you probably wouldn’t recognize him now. Back then he was clean shaven, closed cropped and likely sporting a tie. Now he looks like nothing so much as some sort of cracker Santa – white bearded, mustached, hair near to touching his shoulders.

“I call it my Covid mullet,” he grins. “I’m not getting it cut until I get a vaccine.”

And, listen, don’t worry about Hutch running out of things to do with his 12-years of public office finally behind him. He’s adding another room to his house for a billiard parlor. “My intent is to hustle all my friends and have half dozen jars on wall for my favorite charities. Nobody plays for free.”

“On November 17th, when I leave office at noon, my new business card will read: ‘Pool hustler for charities; deep woods gravedigger; on-call raconteur.’”

Naturally, he will continue his role as “Senior Executive Gravedigger” at Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery. The “green” graveyard was his brain child after all, and somebody’s got to man the shovel. But he says he will resign from most of the numerous boards and committees that have taken up so much of his “free time” these many years.

One foot out the commission door

Because, among other things, that pontoon boat sitting in the shed out back is begging to be launched on Newnans Lake again.

“I grew up on the lake,” says the 68-year old Gainesville native. “I learned about critters and even more about ecosystems on Newnans.”

Meanwhile, his rock group of some 30 years, Weeds of Eden, continues to practice in the “Flamingo Band Cave,” in anticipating of at last being able to do live gigs again. “We practice in separate corners, stay masked, and use different entrances.”

Hutchinson first got himself elected to the commission in 1998, after which he and fellow first termer Dave Newport proceeded to drag Alachua County – practically kicking and screaming – into a new era of growth management and land use planning. “Over the decades, the county commission had been laissez faire about growth, do whatever you want to do, while the city’s reputation was ‘shut it all down.’

“The grand bargain we made was that it was going to be easier to build in the city but the county had to put in some sort of rational scheme for developing in the suburbs.”

Hutch changes his identity and then turns over the job to Anna Prizzia

Randy Reid, former county manager recalls “I think he joined the commission at unique time when growth was a paramount issue. Hutch to me has a huge legacy. He took seriously the comprehensive planning process, and he was pretty pragmatic about getting things implemented right.”

And all of that might have worked out pretty well – if the county hadn’t already approved thousands of exurban lots for development, if the Legislature hadn’t ended up gutting the state’s growth management laws and…well, if Hutch and Newport hadn’t been unceremoniously dumped four years later in favor of more pro-growth candidates.

Which is not to say that growth management was a total wash for his involvement. “A big part of the plan was establishing a urban defining greenbelt…an emerald necklace” around Gainesville, he recalls. “I tried to get the county to establish a small fund for land conservation, maybe half a million or so, and got nowhere.

“So I decided that the only way we were going to accomplish anything was with a public initiative.”

It is not for nothing that Pegeen Hanrahan, former Gainesville mayor and a director of the Trust For Public Land, calls Hutchinson the father of land conservation in Alachua County.

Having previously founded and directed Alachua Conservation Trust – which has since brought tens of thousands of acres into protected status – Hutchinson proceeded to launch Alachua County Forever. Approved by voters in 2000, that general bond obligation would ultimately generate more than $43 million and bring more than 20,000 acres of land worth more than $84 million into public ownership.

“He is certainly the person in Alachua County most responsible for protecting natural land,” said Hanrahan, who would later team up with Hutch and other conservationists to win voter approval, and then reauthorization, for the Wild Places and Public Spaces sales tax initiative.

“He’s just a person who doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘no’,” she says. “He’s extremely energetic he sets his mind to getting something done, and he certainly throws his whole energy behind it.”

Hutchinson would not return to the commission for a decade. Elected again in 2012, he would continue his environmental and conservation activism, but two other issues would engage his attention as well.

“When I came back we were killing more than 4,000 animals a year, 25 animals a day, just for population control,” he recalls. “We had to ask a county employee to figure out how to dispose of all those bodies – incineration, rendering whatever – it was incredibly depressing.”

At the time, Maddie’s Fund, an organization dedicated to establishing “no kill” shelters, was putting up millions of dollars for pilot programs around the nation. “They picked half a dozen counties to experiment with and we were one of them. They gave us 10 years of funding and we are essentially the first no-kill community in the southeast.”

Maddie’s Fund required a previously unheard of degree of cooperation between the county, animal welfare groups, veterinarians and other stakeholders. “Getting a low cost spay and neuter facility was key and that was tough because at first a lot of veterinarians resisted,” he said. “We created a huge foster pet care network, and Operation Catnip,” which traps, neuters and returns feral cats to the wild.

Who is that masked man?

“You have to be incredibly cleaver to catch them,” he said. “And we have almost 100 people working this assembly line to neuter up to 200 cats a day.”

But Hutch’s greatest legacy in his final years on the commission was arguably the work he has done to improve metal health services in the county and the criminal justice system.

He says Alachua County became the first local government in the nation to provide “mental health first aid” to all its employees. “It’s an eight-hour course that teaches what to say and do when you are with a person experiencing a mental health crisis – it keeps both them and you safe. The curriculum was originally developed in Australia, where it was widely taught. Locally, we were early adopters.

“It also saves lives by reducing stigma and by featuring local mental health resources, both of which increase the likelihood that a person will seek help.”

He also co-founded Gainesville Peer Respite, a mental health support group run entirely by people who have themselves experienced mental illness. The peers “provide support for those in mental health crisis, including a comfortable house where up to five guests can stay for up to a week.” And he has worked with the courts and law enforcement to divert more offenders with substance abuse or mental health problems away from incarceration and into treatment programs.

“He was the first commissioner to really give voice to the mental health in our community,” says Maggie Labarta, former director of Meridian Behavioral Healthcare. “The system is pretty fragmented in this community and Hutch was very interested in mapping it out so he could see how it all worked. He understood how difficult it was for someone in distress to navigate the system.”

Speaking of living under distress, Hutchinson spent the last several months of his term as commission chair, and found himself dealing on a daily basis with the just emerging Covid crisis.

“I was very happy to be the chair during this period,” he says, “I knew i was a lame duck and that helped me make tough decisions. The first emergency orders were made by me and the county manager. We looked at what other communities were trying and we grabbed the best ideas. We were doing research day and night and some of the emergency orders were being rewritten on an almost daily basis.

“We were getting little or no help from the feds or state government,” he added.

Looking back on his 12-years in office and some of the issues he championed, Hutchinson muses: “I was much more of a socialist than the system allows me to be. I didn’t pull any punches, I was willing to say what’s on my mind. So I guess I have at least that in common with Trump.

Weeds of Eden still abide

“But I’m 68 and this is a young person’s job. To do it right takes 60 or 80 hours a week. At one point I was on 12 different boards and committees. Commissioners are paid well and I think we need to work full-time on the job.”

But that was then, and this is now. Now billiards, boating, burials and the band await his full attention.

Carbon fever dreams

I drove to St Augustine for the Christmas lights.

I saw a strange lady in my bathroom at the Casa Monica. She was laughing at me.

I looked out my window to see the Christmas lights. I saw cars.

Cars spewing carbon on ancient streets where conquistadors once strode.

I asked Henry Flagler what the hell happened.

He said “You got the wrong Henry, pal. Ask Ford.”

And St. Augustine’s lion scowled.

What damnable infestation is this!

But things forever change.

Eventually the rising sea will claim what Menendez built.

And even the cars, spewing their carbon still, will have to give way.

The future is in the water.

And the past will fade into memory.

And the lady will laugh. And the lion will scowl.

Our dumbest stroad

This is the NW 8th Avenue Stroad, between NW 6th Street and Main. It is quite possibly the dumbest Stroad in Gainesville.

Why dumb? Because the sole ‘utility’ of a stroad is to move large numbers of cars as fast as possible through the urban landscape.

And this stroad certainly does that…for precisely six blocks. West of 6th Street 8th turns into a traffic-calmed two-land road. East of Main Street ditto.

So what do we as a community give up as the price of moving a lot of cars fast for just six blocks?

This stretch of 8th Avenue is known primarily for its empty buildings and desolate landscapes.

Separated by just a handful of businesses.

And half a dozen or so homes in various states of repair.

And the absence of street life in any meaningful sense of the phrase.

Which is hardly surprising. A sterile car corridor offers virtually no reason for people to want to congregate there. This ‘destination’ is no destination at all.

It is, simply, hostile territory to be gotten through as quickly as possible. Preferably in a car.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. This stroad can be redesigned into a “Complete Street” easily and relatively cheaply.

But, really, why bother? Why not just leave it alone.

Well, for one thing, this stroad cuts like an asphalt knife between two vital neighborhoods. To the north is Grove Street, which is shaping up as a hotbed of local entrepreneurship.

And to the south is Pleasant Street, one of Gainesville’s traditional African-American neighborhoods which is in the process of revitalizing itself.

Converting the 8th Ave. Stroad from a non-place to a place would bring these two neighborhoods together and help create a new epicenter for human-centered economic opportunity in Gainesville’s urban core.

Instead of this.

We could chose something like this.

Or this.

Slowing down cars, or ‘calming traffic’ is key to unlocking the economic potential of this long overlooked corridor.

We know how to do it. And the benefits are undeniable.

We can change the 8th Avenue paradigm.

Whatever its original intent, the 8th Avenue Stroad is a failed experiment in both urban mobility and urban renewal.

Dare to imagine a better future in place of the 8th Avenue Stroad.

The truth will finally out

Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it. Jonathan Swift

Turns out that falsehoods also have a longer shelf life.

I was angry, but not particularly surprised, to get an email from our neighborhood association alerting me to a proposed city charter amendment that will allow Gainesville to spend money on paved “trails and transportation corridors” within the Hogtown Creek Watershed.

It stated that voters passed that prohibition on paving back in 1998 when the city “was planning to cut down large areas of trees and vegetation to pave what was termed a ‘transportation corridor’ large enough for trucks from the Loblolly…through Ring Park.”

Wow! Trucks careening up and down Hogtown Creek.

Which was nonsense then and it’s still nonsense.

In fact, the city wanted to build a seven-mile creekside bicycle path. Like the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail, only this one through the middle of town.

More than two decades later I wasn’t surprised to learn that the falsehoods that drove that initiative still has legs.

Just to be clear. Nobody was trying to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes when the Hogtown Creek Greenway was proposed. It had been the subject of extensive research and public discussion for years.

The city had already assembled most of the necessary land. And in 1992 Gainesville got a $1.5 million state grant to help built the trail. Gainesville’s greenway won out over 50 other projects to get that money.

And for good reason. The trail, according to its 1994 master plan, would accomplish several worthwhile goals…chief among them to help “protect, restore and preserve the remaining ecologically sensitive” features of Gainesville’s much-abused creek.

Back in the day, then-City Commissioner David Coffee and I took a ride on fat tired bikes along the proposed route of the trail. What we found along the way was instructive and disturbing – abandoned appliances, litter-strewn wetlands, eroded creek banks…all indicative of an ecosystem suffering from classic out-of-sight-out-of-mind neglect.

The greenway would have helped instill a community stewardship ethic for the creek. Because that’s what trails do…people love them, they use them and then they want to protect what it is they are enjoying.

So how did we go from stewardship to the creekside truck corridor that stampeded voters into killing the greenway?

It was clear that the initiative was largely driven by people who owned homes along the creek and who didn’t want their privacy invaded by “those people” – i.e. people, possibly of other races and backgrounds, who might enjoy the greenway.

To appreciate the irony of that ginned-up backlash you need to remember that the proliferation of homes built too close to the water is itself a major source of Hogtown’s pollution and erosion problems.

Listen, approving the city charter amendment to remove that misguided paving prohibition won’t automatically get us a greenway. There’s no money earmarked for it and there might not be for a long time.

But we know that people love trails and that they use them. So much so that even our conservative Republican legislature has committed millions of dollar to extend and connect Florida’s fragmented greenway network.

Maybe we will get that trail someday. But at least let’s finally cut the legs out from under the falsehoods that killed the Hogtown Creek Greenway.

Vote yes on: Eliminating Restrictions on Construction of Paved Surfaces on City-Owned Land.

On University Stroad

University Avenue should be a Gainesville showcase and an economic driver. Instead it is a car corridor with little wealth building capacity.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about stroads.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. You officially have no life, Cunningham.

But, really, if what we’ve been through with Covid – what we’re still going through for that matter – doesn’t get us to thinking about how things work in our community and how we might improve things don’t work so well, then what’s the point?

So let’s talk about stroads. And to kick this discussion off I’m reposting a column I wrote for The Sun in 2014. Six years later it still feels surprisingly relevant. Perhaps more so because of some of the things the city has been doing lately to try to keep downtown and midtown restaurants afloat during these times of pandemic.

Let’s talk about stroads.

The Urban Dictionary defines stroads thusly:
“Noun. Portmanteau of ‘street’ and ‘road’: it describes a street, er, road, built for high speed, but with multiple access points. Excessive width is a common feature … Unsafe at any speed, their extreme width and straightness paradoxically induces speeding. Somewhat more neutral than synonymous traffic sewer.“

So basically a stroad (a.k.a. traffic sewer) is a street that doesn’t work very well as a street and a road that doesn’t function very well as a road.

University Avenue for all practical purposes functions as an inefficient traffic pipeline for people who want to get in and out of town as quickly as possible.

My favorite local example of a stroad is University Avenue, especially between 13th Street and downtown. With its four lanes of traffic, multiple lights, skinny sidewalks and 30 mph speed limit (seriously, does anybody drive 30 mph on University?) it is neither an efficient mover of traffic nor conducive to walking or doing business.

University Avenue is basically a suburban road impersonating an urban street. Which is a shame, because it really ought to be this university city’s signature street. That’s what Victor Dover told the Gainesville City Commission in 1999.

“Great cities are defined more than anything else by their great streets. Great streets are the public rooms of a city. And they are almost always a result of careful planning.“

Dover is an urban planner of national repute and co-author with John Massengale of a new book “Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns.“

His firm was hired by Gainesville some 15 years ago to help make University Avenue a great street. And the techniques for doing are being used by cities around the world to bring back struggling downtowns and urban commercial districts: fewer and narrower traffic lanes, wider sidewalks, on-street parking or bike lanes and other enhancements designed to slow traffic, promote streetside commerce and make strolling and shopping a more pleasant experience.

“It’s only going to get more difficult if you wait.” Dover warned.

Truer words were never spoken. In fact, the commission actually voted to turn University from a stroad to a street. Its redesign was placed on the long-range Transportation Improvement List, on track to top of the list by 2010.

But then the inevitable “don’t you dare try to slow us down” backlash materialized, commissioners got skittish and the project was quietly dropped.

Since then we’ve all turned our attention to fighting the cars vs. people battle elsewhere ­— first on Main Street and then on Northwest 16th and Eighth avenues. And nobody talks much about our “signature street” anymore.

But I have a feeling that this question of redoing University Avenue will surface again one day, if only because the trendlines are all running in its favor.

One thing that’s changed over the last 15 years is the astounding success of RTS; a lot of people who used to drive to campus are now taking the bus.

Couple that with the fact that UF’s Innovation Square initiative and the “Innovation Gainesville” economic blueprint are both designed to attract and retain more young start-up entrepreneurs.

Gainesville has always been a “young” city demographically, and IG economic strategy aims to build on that. And one thing we know about millennials is that they are less inclined to drive and more supportive of transportation alternatives than their elders.

Gainesville’s redesign of south Main Street demonstrated that you can ‘calm’ traffic without creating the much feared gridlock.

And although much-derided ­— primarily by motorists who have been forced to slow down — I believe that before too many years go by, the narrowing of Main Street will revitalize the entire corridor between Eighth and Depot avenues. Empty storefronts will be filled, new businesses will open, a vibrant street life will emerge.

And, inevitably, people are going to ask “Why aren’t we doing this on University Avenue?” It was a good question 15 years ago, and it’s still a good question.

“This is a street that has no sense of itself, it could be any suburban roadway in the country,” Dan Burden, of Walkable Communities Inc., told me in 2002 during a stroll down University Avenue. ”… it’s not the highest and best use of University Avenue.“

Not much has changed on University Stroad since then. But my guess is that the next generation of Gainesville political, civic and business leaders will sooner or later put the creation of Gainesville’s signature street back on the list of things to do.

Because, seriously, do we need a traffic sewer running through the heart of Gainesville?

It’s never a good sign when the most attractive aspect of Gainesville’s “front door” is reflected in the windows of passing cars. Oh, and what about those empty storefronts?
Walk the length of University Avenue from downtown to UF. The first thing you notice are all of the parking lots. The next thing you notice are the empty storefronts.
Despite the considerable investment the city has made in lighting, facade improvements, landscaping, signage and sidewalks, University Avenue continues to have a bleak, rather seedy appearance.
Talk about Anywhere USA. Where is our ‘signature’ street?
It wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time University Avenue was scaled for people as well as automobiles. But that was a long time ago.
But we don’t have to accept the way things are simply because they’ve been that way for a long time.

Lighter than air

Consider the weight of water.

It is the most destructive force on Earth. And yet at time is seems it is almost lighter than air.

Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.” Lao Tzu

“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” W. H. Auden

“In one drop of water are found all the secrets of all the oceans.” Kahlil Gibran

“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.” Loren Eiseley

“We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one.” Jacques Yves Cousteau

“Water is the driving force of all nature.” Leonardo da Vinci

“A drop of water, if it could write out its own history, would explain the universe to us.” Lucy Larcom

(Pop quiz: Find the drop that looks like a skull).

“The fall of dropping water wears away the Stone.” Lucretius

“What’s exceptional about our blue marble is not that we had water. It’s that we held on to it, and that we still do. While the ancient oceans of Venus and Mars vaporized into space, Earth kept its life-giving water. Cynthia Barnett

Get out of our bedrooms

As a student of irony I can’t help but admire the city commission’s passion for renter’s rights. In that cause commissioners have been pondering an ordinance that has landlords pulling out their hair and predicting that it will send rents sky high.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m in favor of the ordinance.

But the irony is that city government is itself Gainesville’s biggest violator of renter’s rights. And has been for decades.

Listen, this is a liberal town. Everybody says so.

We celebrate diversity. We hang banners on Pride Week. We welcome all regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation.

But since the 1970s city government has occupied our bedrooms, our living rooms and our kitchens in the most intrusive manner imaginable.

Simply put, the city says that no more than three people can share a house unless they are legally related.

How is that not a violation of our civil liberties? Of our right to free association?

I was a student at UF in the 1970s when the city imposed that restriction. And nobody pretended that it was being done for any other purpose than to keep students from infesting the city like…oh, I dunno…head lice.

It’s not like we are Black Jack, Missouri, which used a similar ordinance in 2006 to tell Fondray Loving, Olivia Shelltrack and their three kids that they couldn’t live in the five-bedroom house they had purchased.

Not so long as they lived together out of wedlock.

University of Missouri law professor Rigel C. Oliveri cited that case in a 2016 Florida Law Review article, in which she argued that a decades-old Supreme Court case upholding the right of cities to do what Gainesville and Black Jack do is “wholly incompatible” with “modern jurisprudence.”

We have “seen profound changes in how Americans live: increased numbers of people are living together outside of wedlock; nonmarital births and child-rearing are on the rise; and the Supreme Court has recently recognized a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. Direct governmental regulation of private intimate conduct, such as fornication and adultery, has diminished almost entirely.”

Nonetheless, she wrote, some local governments continue to “interfere with people’s ability to live together outside of a traditional marital relationship.”

Lately, we’ve been talking a lot about affordable housing. Amid all the sound and fury generated by the discussion, GNV Rise fell but ADUs rose.

But still nary a word about the impact of Gainesville’s last-century restriction on access to affordable housing.

“We haven’t talked about it as a rule, I think, because of political pressure” from neighborhoods close to the university, says Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos, who wants to abolish the ordinance. “It is one of the impediments to affordable housing.”

That’s certainly the contention of the Bedrooms Are For People initiative, which aims to relax similar restrictions in another university city, Boulder, Col.

“Given the pandemic, we are now seeing more people losing their jobs, not able to find work, they are facing eviction,” campaign organizer Eric Budd told Reason magazine, “this would allow people more housing options, it would allow people to share resources, allow people to help each other if they come into financial trouble.”

Boulder commissioners resorted to legally questionable tactics to keep that initiative from going to a vote. In this town we seem to take the position that it’s simply not a suitable conversation for polite company.

Hey Gainesville, get out of my bedroom!

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at Email him at

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 Email him at