Downtown’s war zone

In the city’s defense it probably seemed like a good idea at the time.

I mean “temporarily” closing off sections of downtown streets so that restaurants could move their tables outside and safely serve more customers in this time of coronavirus.

But you know what they say about good intentions and the road to hell.

Originally the plan was to block off three different street sections – on SE 1st Street and SE 2nd Ave. But apparently some restaurants objected to losing their front door parking spaces – not to mention forcing their auto-oriented customers to walk all the way from a nearby parking garage (horrors!).

And so in the end the city closed off just one half of one very short block of SW 2nd Ave., giving Looseys the opportunity to offer a European style al fresco dining experience.

Bold move, Innovation City.

But wait, there’s more.

To celebrate this venture in public realm repurposing officials decided to close that tiny stretch of SW 2nd off to traffic in the same way that, oh, I dunno, a war-torn city might block its streets against marauding tanks.

They plopped a dozen squat, heavy, ugly yellow concrete boxes right down on top of the ancient brick street. And just in case somebody still didn’t get the message, they threw in a couple of red and white striped barriers festooned with “Road Closed” signs.

Let’s see you jump that, Evel Knievel!

Talk about downtown dining ambiance. They might as well rename SW 2nd “Checkpoint Charlie” and have done with it.

Listen, best intentions aside, the optics are terrible.

Rather like dumping a truckload of mulch on a skatepark to keep the kids from using it. Whose idea was that?

Oh, and then the city let downtown’s long-running farmer’s market slip away to Celebration Point because Bo Diddley Plaza remains closed on account of COVID-19.

That would be the same plaza that recently hosted a couple thousand Black Lives Matter demonstrators packed in elbow-to-elbow fashion…all with the city’s blessing.

A more rational solution might have been to allow the farmer’s market to reopen at the Plaza with precautions like mandatory face masks (most of the demonstrators were masked) and imposed social distancing between booths. But Gainesville bureaucrats are not generally known as meet-you-halfway kind of people.

If I sound overly critical of city government here it’s because Gainesville seems to be dragging its feet while other cities around the country, and around the world, are racing to make their streets and other public spaces more accessible to people who do not want to wrap themselves inside the steel cocoons commonly called automobiles in order to enjoy public spaces.

“Public and outdoor space has been at a premium during the coronavirus pandemic: bike sales have leapt, park use is way up, and even pavement chalk drawing appears to be having a moment,” reports the Thomas Reuters Foundation. “Now as many cities start to reopen, some are looking at their sidewalks, squares, parking lots and even streets as a hidden asset in boosting their economies.”

“The recovery will happen in public space,” ventures the Project for Public Spaces. “The sidewalks, streets, plazas and parking lots in every neighborhood are an asset that is waiting to be put to work. Many cities including San Francisco, Oakland, New York, and Seattle are closing streets to traffic to increase the usable pedestrian space for residents.”

I’m sorry, but Gainesville’s tepid experiment with opening up public spaces – and then making the result look like a war zone – is not nearly enough.

And make no mistake. Downtown is in trouble and looking seedier by the day.

For that matter, all American downtowns are likely headed for tougher times, predicts the on-line Governing news service. Thanks to the virus “many cities find themselves with a downtown that is now in danger of an extended period of decline. Finding a way to bring their downtowns back quickly is part of the post-coronavirus challenge they face.”

Will Gainesville rise to the challenge to save its downtown? Early indications are not encouraging. I ride through downtown Gainesville nearly every day, and every day obvious signs of neglect and deterioration become more apparent.

Fine, we’ve managed to keep tanks away from Looseys, at least temporarily. But in the long run City Hall timidity and indifference may end up wiping out decades of progress in downtown development.

In the age of coronavirus, San Francisco environment commissioner Tiffany Chu writes in Forbes, cities “are repurposing streets—once used exclusively for automobiles—for pedestrians and cyclists. The creativity, adaptation, and unprecedented speed behind this will keep us safe and lay the foundation for a more sustainable recovery.”

But not in this town, pal, not in this town.

Cycling mural city

I love this town. There are murals everywhere, and it seems that new ones are being painted on Gainesville walls every day. Here’s a collection of murals I photographed just today during my ride through the middle of town.

This one is on the wall of the old Walker Furniture building on North Main. They look very angry, except for the cat who looks bored.
Just a block or two later, still on North Main. She’s got a lot on her mind.

Next to the Friends of the Library building on North Main. Dogs in shades.

Same place.
Gainesville’s newest murals, on a wall on SE 5th Ave. in the Springhill neighborhood behind GRU.

And this.

And this one.

And these.

A memorial to Breanna…and to love.

Child’s play.

Here’s looking at you kid.

And finally, this intriguing, vine-covered image on NW 1st Ave. Just behind the new Midtown Wawa.

Is this a great town or what?

Sweetwater turns sour

There’s nothing like a pandemic to make you appreciate a good park.

During the lockdown parks in Gainesville, and around the nation, were well used indeed.

“This is a critical time for public space, perhaps more than we’ve seen in past decades,” Bridget Marquis, of Civic Commons, tells City Lab regarding the surge in park use in this time of coronavirus.

Unfortunately, she adds, “We’re seeing the gaps and how we’ve let them erode in many places.”

She might well be talking about Sweetwater Branch Park.

Sweetwater Branch Park is a three block stretch of trees and creek that borders downtown on the west and the Bed and Breakfast District on the east. Its neighbors include the public library, the Matheson Museum and historic Matheson House and the Thelma Bolton Center.

One might consider this oasis of green amid so much asphalt and concrete an invaluable public asset. You might imagine Sweetwater Branch regularly playing host to, say, Shakespeare in the park, paint-outs to showcase local artists, ARTSPEAKS poetry readings, local history reenactments, used book sales to benefit the library…activities that would lure visitors to spend money downtown.

And there is this: Sweetwater Branch terminates at SE 4th Ave. The only thing between it and Depot Park is two blocks of GRU property that the city wants to redevelop into the Power District. Unearthing the long-buried stretch of creek on that property would make it possible to create a greenway extending from Depot Park to University Avenue and perhaps beyond.

But judging from its stewardship, here’s what the City of Gainesville seems to consider Sweetwater Branch Park’s “highest and best” use: Wasted space.

Much of Sweetwater Branch is hidden under a thick cloak of invasive vegetation. This makes convenient cover for enterprising, um, homesteaders who rig shelters along the creek.

Some nearby residents won’t use the park for fear of aggressive panhandling. The staff at the Matheson knows all about the squatters who sleep in nearby bushes and leave piles of garbage strewn in their wake.

It’s hard to believe that the same city that created Depot Park as an activity-intensive people magnet is content to allow Sweetwater Branch, downtown’s green heart, to languish in neglect and disuse.

This should be unacceptable to downtown business owners who are struggling to attract customers post-virus. To the B&B proprietors who want their guests to enjoy the grace and beauty of “old” Gainesville. To library patrons and museum visitors. To residents who wish to use their park for recreation and reflection without being harassed.

Let me be clear. It isn’t street people who are ruining the Sweetwater Branch experience. They have simply claimed a park that the city doesn’t seem to have much use for.

The responsibility must fall squarely on a bureaucracy that apparently can’t be bothered to properly maintain and program a park that lies just one block away from City Hall.

Cynthia A Bowen, president of the American Planning Association, writes that downtown parks “are the essential places for play in the live/work/play environment that cities across the country are striving to provide. As a result, people expect more from our parks. They must now be green and provide relaxation, as well as offer entertainment, social interaction, communication and unique experiences.”

A city that aspires to lure residents and businesses alike back to Gainesville’s historic center simply cannot allow its downtown park to fall so woefully short of expectations.

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

Sweetwater in distress

This is Sweetwater Branch Park. Other than the Duck Pond, it is the longest stretch of Sweetwater Branch Creek still accessible to the public. It is Gainesville’s downtown park.

2. It’s not a big park. Just a few blocks of graceful trees and gently flowing water.

Still, it is the largest area of green space remaining in downtown Gainesville. A tiny oasis of nature in an area that has more than its share of concrete and asphalt.

It is also strategically located. It is bordered on the west by the downtown entertainment district and on the east by Gainesville’s Bed & Breakfast District. Its neighbors include the Matheson Museum and the historic Matheson House, the public library headquarters and the Thelma A. Bolton Center.

Anyone who knows downtown redevelopment understands the strategic importance of a green park to the heart of a densely developed city. If you are trying to convince people to live, work and play downtown, they are going to want a park in which to stroll, run and contemplate nature’s beauty and serenity.

And yet Sweetwater Branch may be one of the most underused parks in Gainesville. The city’s Parks and Recreation Staff schedule virtually no events there. Strollers, runners or dog walkers are seldom seen in appreciable numbers.

Which is not to suggest that there are no signs of use, or abuse, of Sweetwater Branch. Indeed there are many such signs. If you talk to people in the neighborhood about why they don’t use Sweetwater Branch Park they are likely to cite public safety concerns and aggressive panhandling.

Sweetwater Branch once ran free and clear through the historic center of Gainesville.

But over the years, in the name of progress, the creek was ditched and diverted and much of it was buried as a inconvenience to development.

To the point that, today, Sweetwater Branch Park remains one of the longest relatively undisturbed portions of the creek still visible and still accessible to the public.

Unfortunately, much of the creek in the park is overgrown with invasive plants, silted up and strewn with broken bits of concrete and debris. It is a creek under stress. A creek that is less an attractive water feature than a partially hidden eyesore.

A downtown park should be a beehive of activity.

Sweetwater Branch Park could be a center for cultural events that would create an economic benefit for all of downtown: Shakespeare in the park, a showcase for Gainesville’s history, used book sales to benefit the library, Paint-outs to showcase local artists.

The possibilities are endless.

But first the city must exercise responsible stewardship over the park.

And neighbors, surrounding businesses and other stakeholders must take ownership of “their” park and demand that neglect of this most abused natural asset stop.

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.)