Just give us 800 ft.

San Francisco’s Market Street and New York City’s 14th Street are now off limits to most cars. This, according to citylab.com, being indicative of a “wave of cities around the globe pedestrianizing their downtown cores and corridors…”

It is worth nothing that some college towns have been way ahead of the curve in reclaiming their downtowns for people – not just to save lives but to promote economic vitality.

I’m thinking of Pearl Street, in Boulder, Col.; State Street, in Madison, Wis.; and Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall.

I’ve walked those streets and observed a downtown street life that is more diverse, prosperous and enjoyable than anything we have here. And while Gainesville’s is primarily a nighttime downtown, those streets generate considerable daytime activity.

Boulder and Charlottesville are pedestrian malls, while State Street – linking the University of Wisconsin and the state capitol – allows buses, taxis and select other vehicles.

Here in Gainesville we close portions of University Avenue for the Homecoming Parade, and the rare Open Streets event. But that’s about it when it comes to making life a little less convenient for motorists as a trade-off for an enhanced street life.

But, what if we started out small and liberated just three downtown blocks for people? Maybe even ease into it and begin with weekends only.

Gainesville and the University of Florida will soon collaborate on a new downtown master plan. If I were looking at ways to enhance downtown’s “street cred,” while making it a friendlier and more inviting place for dining, retail and relaxation, I’d consider turning SE 1st Street, from University Ave to The Hippodrome, into a “pedestrian zone,” following the Boulder and Charlottesville (people only) model or Madison’s (vehicles restricted) example.

That stretch of 2nd is about 800-feet long, and that’s a good thing. “Car-free shopping streets have a better chance to succeed when smaller and their limited scale makes them easy to implement. Most car-free shopping streets are between one and three blocks long,” according to Build A Better Burb.

Creating a “people” corridor on First Street wouldn’t impede downtown traffic flow. It would sacrifice dozens of on-street parking slots. But with two parking garages and on-street parking remaining on the perimeters, that’s a small price to pay for a prosperous, people-centric downtown.

And there is a powerful case to be made for rethinking downtown parking.

Imagine the former parking spaces of SE 2nd sprouting outdoor cafes, street vendors, sculptures and fountains. Imagine travel lanes being given over to buskers, artists, flower sellers and street bands. Imagine an inviting place for folks to converge and collaborate, to see and be seen.

No question there would be resistance from business owners who fear the loss of nearby free parking. But the case can be made that restricting vehicles reaps greater rewards.

In a recent piece in CityLab.com, Brooks Rainwater, senior executive with the National League of Cities, cites Rotterdam’s decision to limit cars in its city center. “At first, area shopkeepers were concerned that customers wouldn’t be able to reach their shops without the ability to drive up to their storefronts,” he wrote. “But as evidence continues to show, retail actually improves in pedestrian zones.”

All I’m saying is give people a chance, Gainesville. A chance to claim a space for their own without the hassle of having to dodge heavy moving objects. It might be the key to the downtown revival that has eluded us so far.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com.

Schools and sprawl

Listen, I’m not going to quibble over whether the school board paid too much for the site of a future school in Jonesville.

I won’t argue that the board broke faith earmarking money for a “someday” school that voters clearly intended to be spent rehabbing the schools we already have.

I’m not even going to take issue with the logic of laying out $3.68 million for land that won’t be used for a decade while we’re in the middle of a pandemic that is likely to cripple school district budgets for years to come.

I do question, however, school board member Rob Hyatt’s defense of the purchase on the grounds that “there will be a need for a new school on the Jonesville property within 10 years.”

I’ve got to ask, Rob:

Is it the policy of the Alachua County School District to blindly chase suburban and exurban sprawl no matter the costs?

Or is it possible that the school district is itself promoting sprawl by announcing its intention to accommodate new development wherever it goes?

We know that the availability of good schools is a major consideration when it comes to buying a home.

And we can be fairly certain that for the next 10 years, realtors looking to sell homes in Jonesville and beyond will be telling young families and parents-to-be that “new schools are on the way, so better buy now before prices go up.”

Which is a much better sales pitch than “of course, you will have to put your kids on a school bus.”

A policy paper titled “Education and Smart Growth,” makes the case that chasing growth with new schools is a recipe for fiscal and educational calamity. Among other impacts, “a new school on a distant site can act as a growth magnet, helping draw people out of older urban neighborhoods and into new subdivisions on the metropolitan fringe.

“It is well understood that school quality determines where many families will choose to locate within a region. If new schools are being built on the edge of town and they are perceived to be superior, as new schools often are, then families who can afford the move will often relocate…

“Even families without school age children are impacted as school quality has a significant influence on residential property values.”

In an article titled “School Sprawl,” planner Edward T. McMahon argues that “Construction of large schools on the outskirts of communities not only gobbles up land, it is rarely cost effective. The cost of new school construction is frequently higher than rehabilitation or building additions onto existing schools.”

One consequence of school sprawl, McMahon writes, is that “all over the country smaller, old schools are being closed in favor of bigger, new schools in far flung locations.”

Say, whatever happened to Prairie View Elementary anyway?

This community already has a well documented achievement gap that runs largely along east-west and urban-suburban lines. Continuing to build new schools to serve ever more distant wealthier and whiter suburbs will only exacerbate that gap.

And it’s not necessary. If the state of Florida has done anything over the past decade or more it has been to promote “school choice” in the form of private schools, religious-backed schools, charter schools, home schooling and more.

Parents do have a choice, and the notion that our school district is by itself capable of providing “neighborhood” schools for all regardless of location, distance or sprawl development is ultimately an exercise in fiscal and educational bankruptcy.

Charles Marohn, president of Strong Towns, calls suburban development a “Ponzi scheme,” wherein “the local unit of government benefits immediately from all the permit fees, utility charges, and increased tax collection…” but ultimately acquires “long-term liability for servicing and maintaining all the new infrastructure.”

“A near-term cash advantage for a long-term financial obligation is one element of a Ponzi scheme,” he writes.

Whether the school district deliberately promotes sprawl or simply chases it the end result is the same. Board members are buying into a Ponzi scheme.

Flirting with algorithms

Spark wonder, invent possible
Sheltering the past
Waiting for a return to normal
Be a superhero: Stay home!
Art parked here
Through the looking glass
Ode to the Chitlin’ Circuit
This space reserved for creative loitering
“When in doubt go to the library,” J.K. Rowling
Only Gators get out alive
Queen of the winter flowers
Like a bridge over troubled asphalt
“Knowledge is good,” Animal House
“Aaron DaCosta is happy over the receipt of a fine dog, which recently arrived from New Orleans”
History of Gainesville: Jess G. Davis
Where Lake Alice goes to pray
Originally called Sunkist Villa: Was that a great name or what?
“The train you have been waiting all your life may not stop at your station,”
M.M. Ildan
“Embrace the power of little things and you will build a tower of mighty things,” I Ayivor
“I really learned to sing in church,” D. Parton
“You can’t just hoard your ideas inside the Ivory Tower” G. Church
Gateway to Gatorland
Imagine
All the world’s a stage
Fifty years…and hit pause
Remember and Reimagine
(Hipp’s 2020-21 theme)
“I felt like I might as well have been living in another part of the solar system,” B. Dylan
“You belong among the wildflowers,” T. Petty
I came, I saw, I cycled: R. Cunningham

Riding out the virus

He stands, day after day, staring out at the deserted street, a rough leathery hand arched to shade a weather-worn face.

I know, that could be any one of us these days. But I’m talking about the cigar store indian standing sentry inside Havana’s Wine and Cigar Lounge.

I frequently ponder his haunted gaze while cycling the empty downtown street that connects the unused Bo Diddley Plaza to the sealed Hippodrome.

This is Gainesville in a time of coronavirus.

Ah, but where there is hope there is life. Depot Park’s walking loops remain well-used. The Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail is entertaining more cyclists, runners and skateboarders than ever. There are picnics and yoga on the lush green Thomas Center lawn. And the trail following Hogtown Creek through Loblolly Woods is a favored destination for social distance strollers.

I have been embarked on a sort of social distancing experiment of my own these past weeks, cycling hundreds of miles on Gainesville’s streets, avenues and trails. Studiously avoiding human contact while trying to keep in touch with all that is so unique, so alluring, so…well…so Gainesville.

Along the way I’ve been taking pictures and posting photo essays on my blog as a tribute to our university city.

And they’re not all pretty pictures. One day I followed the broken course of our ironically named Sweetwater Branch from where it flows out of a pipe at the Duck Pond until it finally empties into Sweetwater Preserve. Here a drainage ditch, there a lovely winding creek. We gutted it, buried it and used it to carry off our effluent – and then spent millions trying to clean it up.

On another day I rediscovered Gainesville’s truly spacey Solar Walk. How often have most of us driven past it, on NW 8th Ave., without giving those meticulously sited pillars a glance? Closer examination reveals a display that is simultaneously a mathematical salute to the solar system and a flight of artistic fancy.

Strolling the deserted grounds of the Tu Vien A Nan Temple, with its enormous Buddhist statues, was a revelation. Gainesville’s downtown parking garage, emptied of cars, turns out to be a fantastic street art gallery. And the heroic bronze images of Steve, Danny and Tim are lonely figures indeed when no one is there to do selfies with them.

On a narrow street near the Thomas Center I encountered a winged victory-like sculpture that looks to have been been carved whole out of a dead tree trunk. And taking a random turn onto a Florida Park street I came upon a historical marker commemorating the Cox Cabin, built in 1936 and still standing.

Cycling through a nearly deserted UF campus makes for a beautiful if somewhat eerie journey. The new baseball stadium is coming along splendidly and is sure to be ready when (if?) the next pitch is thrown.

Urban cycling has been experiencing a resurgence in this time of coronavirus, so much so that some cities have even closed streets to cars to better accommodate human beings. Gainesville is a more cycle-friendly city than most, blessed with miles of tree-lined old neighborhood streets and off-road trails that can facilitate two-wheeled meandering while avoiding much of the traffic.

Tired of staring out the window with a haunted gaze? Try practicing your social distancing on a bike for a change. You may be glad you did.

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of the Sun. His photo-essays are posted at the top of his blog at https://floridavelocipede.com.)

Gainesville doesn’t close

Captain Quarantine is everywhere. On the walls, in city parks, on Facebook and Twitter.

It’s a bit silly perhaps. But the dumpy little cartoon guy’s message is deadly serious: “Be a superhero. Stay home!

“We wanted to inject a little levity into the situation,” says Gainesville City Manager Lee Feldman.

Listen, we can all use a smile right about now.

And here’s something else we can feel good about.

Donald Trump may have dithered for months. Ron DeSantis for weeks.

But Gainesville and Alachua County officials didn’t have the luxury of sitting in some far away office and bemoaning “fake news.” They acted with little hesitation to limit public gatherings, close unessential businesses, order residents to stay at home…and carry on as best they could with “business as usual.”

Fortunately, Feldman brought along his “Pandemic Response Playbook,” when he moved into the city manager’s office barely six months ago.

“Whether it’s a pandemic, a recession or a hurricane it’s the same playbook,” said Feldman. “The important thing is to be methodical and collaborative, think through the issues and don’t jump to conclusions.”

City Hall may be closed. But essential city services are not in lockdown.

Those “community builders” (Feldmanese for city employees) who can do their jobs at home are. Some whose jobs have been temporarily sidelined have been repurposed to do things like making calls to check on elderly shut-ins.

But GRU crews are still out and about. Public works is taking advantage of relatively empty streets to repaint lanes and do roadside maintenance. Cops are doing traffic control at mass food distribution events and providing security during coronavirus testing.

Some cities have stopped doing transit. But RTS buses roll still.

“We’ve given drivers necessary protective gear,” says Feldman. “We’ve reduced occupancy on the buses and gone to rear door entry. We’re cleaning the buses more frequently.”

Overall “we want to make sure everybody is protected while the work is still going on. We’re using this time when things are shut down to do work that might otherwise inconvenience businesses” or disrupt traffic.

And perhaps most remarkable, the old intergovernmental feuding that has haunted city-county relations for generations seems to have been exorcised. Mayor Lauren Poe goes on about “how well we have been able to work with the county and how responsive Hutch (commission chair Robert Hutchinson) has been. He made sure to consult with us before any emergency order went forward. He Incorporated our concerns in the orders.”

What, no fighting over who has “absolute” authority? What’s wrong with these guys?

What’s right is that city and county governments are those which are closest to the people. We are all, as Feldman never tires of saying “neighbors,” and neighbors look out for one another.

Still, the real test of local government’s effectiveness will come after things return to some semblance of normal. Lost tax revenue, business closings and joblessness will all conspire to challenge our collective ability to bounce back.

“What role can we play in helping avoid displacement of residents?” Poe poses. “How we help local business stay afloat? We have so few resources but all eyes will turn to us first.”

One way or another, coronavirus is going to test the resilience of daily life hereabouts.

“We’re going to have to deal with a significant economic blowback,” says City Commissioner Harvy Ward. “How can we do things differently and creatively” and with fewer resources? “There’s really no template for that.”

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at floridavelocipede.com.