Into the woods with you

“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.”

John Muir

Turns out the social distancing thing is easy to do at Sweetwater Wetlands Preserve.

On Monday my daughter and I must have walked a couple of miles around Gainesville’s wastewater purification facility disguised as a city park…and still didn’t cover all of its vast acreage.

It looked like there were maybe a hundred others present, but the sheer size of the preserve is such that nobody seemed in danger of passing within, um, catching distance.

Keeping six feet between humans? Easy.

But 20 feet from the gators, please. Because this virus is bad enough, losing a few fingers will really ruin your day.

Listen, if you’ve got kids at home, I can’t recommend Sweetwater strongly enough. You’ll walk the energy right out of ‘em.

Only instead of just saying “keep away from the gators, children” throw in “and the people too.”

On Tuesday we practiced our social distancing skills at O’Leno State Park. Crossing the swinging bridge freaked out the dog, but he loved the trail that follows the Santa Fe River through dense woods and palmetto scrubs to that place where the river vanishes underground.

Florida’s state parks have cancelled special events, camping, pavilion rentals and such, but as of this writing they remain open for…let’s just call it wilderness therapy. Likewise some city parks are still open for day use.

Suddenly the way most of us live our daily lives has been seriously disrupted. My son, in San Francisco, is under virtual lockdown, with parole granted only for brief trips to the grocery store.

But keeping our social distance around here doesn’t have to mean 24/7 house arrest. And as it happens, we live a community that has long invested generously in wide open spaces.

If nothing else take frequent walks around your neighborhood to avoid cabin fever.

But go a bit farther afield and you can walk for miles in the San Felasco Hammock without brushing up against another human being. Ditto the Newnans Lake Loop, near Windsor. And the Susan Wright Trail stretches for nearly 5 miles through the Prairie Creek Preserve.

To name just a few local walk-in-the-woods options.

Just remember to take water and wear good shoes.

Oh, and for you gym rats suffering from withdrawal symptoms? Try doing your spinning on a real bicycle for a change.

Gainesville is a bikable city. You can get almost anywhere via mostly neighborhood streets.

And as a side benefit, research shows that cycling can help strengthen your immune system.

I hear you, you’re afraid to share the road with cars. No problem.

The Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail is a world-class, car-free recreational treasure, and it’s more than a 30-mile round trip. If you’ve never been on it you’ve cheated yourself.

Look, we don’t know how long all of this social upending is going to last. And sticking as close to home as much as possible is our best recourse. That is especially true, of course, if you haven’t been feeling well or are starting to show symptoms. Stay home!

But these troubling times also present the opportunity to acquaint yourself with the best our region has to offer – wild spaces and bikable neighborhoods – without breaking the social distancing taboo.

Hey, Alachua County is where nature and culture meet, right? And while our culture may be under some stress right now, our nature beckons still.

Signs are everywhere

Of late I have taken to spending my afternoons wandering aimlessly around Gainesville on my bicycle. It’s just the way I practice my social distancing in the time of Coronavirus. This is my town and I like to keep a eye on it.

Of course these are not normal times. Not even close. So I’ve been stopping on my solitary sojourns to take photographs.

This is the Thomas Center. A previous city manager had this entryway redesigned and called it Gainesville’s “front door.” Which was kind of weird because it’s located in the back. Anyway, the idea was to present a friendly welcoming face to city residents.

But these are not welcoming times.

I stopped by the Duck Pond and learned that the neighborhood’s swans have been faring little better than us humans in this time of calamity. The female died last winter and the male has just come down with bumblefoot and has been taken away for treatment. We are all in this together.

Roper Park is a delightful pocket of green, pastels and primary colors. A place where Duck Pond residents can sit in the shade and watch their kids play. Closed now. But I saw a boy skateboarding in the parking lot of the church across the street.

It’s true. You can’t fight city hall. You can’t even get into it.

A reminder that we have already endured yellow fever epidemics. We can beat this.

On the plus side, we can hang on to those overdue library books as long as we want

Free stuff at Bo Diddley Plaza. But there’s a catch…

We will skip the obvious cliches about death and taxes.

Reminders of better times than these.

The way we were.

The way we are.

As life goes on.

My last stop of the journey: They closed our neighborhood park. Did they put up this sign to keep people out or keep Mother Nature in?

Wither downtown?

I’m not sure when the south end of downtown’s First Street began to turn into skid row. But the signs were there.

Like when the outside seating disappeared from Starbucks.

And when they tore down Jon Wershow’s old law firm building, and the adjacent pocket sculpture garden, to be replaced by a dirt parking lot with a shabby wooden slat fence.

Each morning street people congregate along the fence – joking, smoking, panhandling. Still more gather in the Sun Center courtyard.

Some even bring their own chairs because, well, you can’t sit outside Starbucks anymore.

The parking lot is supposed to be temporary. Presumably when it’s a hotel the “pop up” skid row will pop up somewhere else.

Still, these days you can practically follow the trail of shopping carts, sleeping bags, blankets, cans and bottles down South Main.

Listen, our homeless issues pale in comparison to those of many other American cities. And we are an intelligent, and compassionate, enough people to manage those issues without panicking.

But here’s the thing about our downtown street scene.

When students descend en masse, from sunset into the wee hours, the street people tend to be lost in the crowd. It is in the cold light of day that the area’s growing air of seediness is revealed in stark relief.

Downtown doesn’t have a homeless problem so much as a people problem.

Ours is basically a two dimensional downtown: Party central at night, a parking lot for government workers during the day.

It doesn’t have to be that way. And thanks to a still-blossoming town/gown strategic partnership we may soon have the opportunity to decide what downtown Gainesville ought to be when it grows up.

City Manager Lee Feldman is negotiating with the University of Florida to create a master plan for downtown Gainesville. “We’re just in beginning stage of talking about how we will approach a new planning process,” he says. “Downtown is critical, not only to city but also to the university. And we both recognize the need for it to be successful.”

Of late we haven’t had many downtown champions. GDOT (Gainesville Downtown Owners and Tenants) has gone dormant and is about to reorganize under another name. The Chamber of Commerce is located downtown, but its heart has long been in the suburbs. And while the city has invested millions of dollars to reengineer Main Street, redesign the Bo Diddley Plaza and build Depot Park, its day-to-day downtown stewardship might best be described as one of benign neglect.

“We’re looking at this to see how we can engage all the stakeholders in a process to come up with a common idea of what to do about downtown,” says Andrew Telles, UF’s collaborative initiatives director. “We have interesting resources at the university, cultural (institutes), arts in medicine, programs that are of the university but can’t exist without the people of the community.

“What can we bring downtown that will draw more people to the area during the day, late afternoon and evening? What can other stakeholders look to own? People will avoid that area unless there is something to draw them in.”

Downtown has been through cycles of prosperity and neglect, often driven by economic and social forces beyond our control. But if we are half as smart as we think we are in this university community, we ought to be capable of creating the downtown we want and deserve: A thriving, three-dimensional, 24/7, live work and play Heart of Gainesville.

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

I wonder

Design is destiny

Not all roads must lead to ruin.

South Main Street funnels traffic into downtown Gainesville. It traverses mom-and-pop businesses, an industrial district and Depot Park. Big trucks, cars, buses, walkers and cyclists all use South Main in more or less peaceful coexistence.

Archer Road also brings traffic into the heart of the city. On the way it runs right through Gainesville’s “medical mile,” past the VA Hospital and UF Health’s tightly packed hospitals, clinics and labs.

Archer is also traffic-,transit- and pedestrian-intensive. And some of its pedestrians must get around with the help of canes and wheelchairs.

Slowing traffic where there are lots of sick and elderly people – and thousands of health care workers – would seem to be good public safety policy. I assumed that was the reason 25 mph speed limit signs were once posted on Archer between SW 23rd St. and SW 13th St.

Because we know that speed kills.

But it turns out that the 25 mph limit was just a temporary inconvenience for drivers while road construction was underway. Last month, the limit was raised to 35 mph.

Not that posted limits count for very much. Archer was designed for speed. Multiple, broad travel lanes, no on-street bike lanes or parking, no roundabouts and good straight lines of sight all conspire to empower fast drivers.

The speed limit on South Main is 30 mph. But unlike Archer, South Main was deliberately designed to move traffic at a slow, steady pace. A single, narrow travel lane, on-street bike lanes and parking, roundabouts, landscaped median and other “traffic calming” designs induce motorists to behave themselves.

South Main used to look a lot like Archer, and it similarly invited rural highway speeds.

True confession: I got my last ticket on the old South Main speedway. In retrospect, I should have pleaded entrapment by design.

If you haven’t been paying attention, South Main is beginning to blossom. Depot Park and the Cade are people magnets, and new businesses are beginning to spring up in a corridor once known more for urban blight than vitality.

In contrast, Archer’s medical mile continues to be traffic-centric. Moving cars as quickly and efficiently as possible is goal No. 1, with public safety a distant second.

Why UF isn’t demanding that the state turn that stretch of Archer into a South Main clone is baffling to me. If though traffic was diverted around the medical complex and onto SW 16th Avenue, only people who had health business to attend to would need to drive through medical mile.

The old South Main speedway is newly redesigned by the City of Gainesville to improve the urban quality of life. It is reviving a once moribund part of the city without disrupting, only slowing, traffic.

Archer was designed by the state to do exactly what it does. Move a lot of cars very quickly.

But here’s the thing. All over America, cities are waking up to the necessity of obliging cars to behave themselves in order to make the public streets safer and accessible to people who do not seal themselves up inside protective metal cocoons.

In any sane society the safety of people who get around with the help of wheelchairs and walkers would take precedence over the convenience of fast driving.

But that’s the story of autoAmerica.

We can be better than that in Gainesville. We can choose to design our own destiny. Not all of our roads must lead to ruin.

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

Suburban strategy 101

On paper, state Sen. Keith Perry and Rep. Chuck Clemons represent Gainesville. But for all practical purposes their job is to contain the city, not see to the best interests of its residents.

Perry and Clemons are classic suburban Republicans. Gainesville is an island of blue in an otherwise north Florida sea of red and is treated accordingly in Tallahassee.

It was a slap to the face of our “representatives” when city voters decisively rejected their scheme to remove Gainesville Regional Utilities from city commission control. So now they’re back with still more anti-city devilment: Subjecting Gainesville to a legislative “audit” just to make sure it isn’t being run by a bunch of crooks.

You might think this is being done out of political spite. But perhaps there is a method to this continuing legislative maliciousness against all things Gainesville.

Maybe its just another cog in the GOP’s suburban strategy machine.

Don’t look now but the Republicans are losing the suburbs. Have been ever since Trump took office. Practically every election since then has reflected an erosion of GOP strength outside cities. It is why Republicans lost control of the House in 2018. And the erosion continues in the run-up to the 2020 elections.

“Republican support in the suburbs has basically collapsed under Trump,” Republican strategist Alex Conant told the Associated Press in the wake of Democratic victories in Kentucky and Virginia. “Somehow, we need to find a way to regain our suburban support over the next year.”

The war of spite Perry and Clemons are waging against Gainesville may not help Trump. But it could benefit Clemons, who is facing a tough challenge from Gainesville Democrat Keiser Enneking.

Enneking almost beat Perry in the last election, and would have if not for some GOP-dark money chicanery. If Trump enters Florida as a wounded incumbent, down-ballot Republicans like Clemons stand to suffer from the fallout.

And make no mistake, Clemons is vulnerable. He just managed to squeak by his last challenger, Jason Haeseler. If Trump bombs in the suburbs, he could very well suck Clemons and other Republicans down with him.

And the stakes are huge for the party in 2020. After the census comes reapportionment. If Florida Republicans get too badly cut up in Trump’s shredded coattails, their ability to front-load elections in the GOP’s favor over the next decade could be jeopardized.

How better to aid Clemons’ survival than to whip up some good old-fashioned “We-Hate-Gainesville” froth among the suburbanites?

Is your commute into the city too long? Blame Gainesville liberals who would rather spend money on buses and bike paths than traffic lanes. Hey suburbanites, why should your utility dollars fund city parks, police and all the services that benefit from having a municipal-owned utility? (Answer: Because if Gainesville didn’t exist neither would its bedroom communities. Those daily commuters are driving here to work.)

This is all just part and parcel of the GOP’s larger suburban strategy. You can see it being played out every session, when dozens of bills are introduced to eat away at the home rule authority of cities. My favorite so far this year is legislation to keep GRU and other municipal owned utilities from using their revenues to fund city services.

Perry told WCJB that the bill, by West Palm Beach Republican Mike Caruso, has merit because utility-generated revenues give some cities “an unfair taxing advantage.”

Listen, Gainesville isn’t being represented. It is being scapegoated.

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

Who are we anyway?

What do you think when you think about Alachua County? Aren’t we that special place “Where Nature and Culture Meet”? Aren’t we springs and prairie and forests and rolling green hills surrounding a dynamic university city?

And if we set out to build an event center, a sports palace to attract visitors, wouldn’t we want to place it where, you know, “Nature and Culture” actually meet?

Wouldn’t we want to show off the best we have to offer?

Our dynamic downtown arts scene.

Our newest and best park and the museum that celebrates what makes us innovators and inventors.

Our town-gown culture that breeds more innovation still.

Who are we anyway? What are we? We’re Gator Country set amid real gators and buffalo and so much more.

This isn’t us, is it? This is just more of the same autoAmerican landscape that you can see anywhere in Anywhere USA.

We’re really going to put our events center here? We’re going to welcome our visitors to a place where Commerce and Asphalt Meet? Is that really us?

Granted there are certain expediencies to inviting the world to our own little slice of autoAmerica.

I-75 is the perfect asphalt delivery system. It will allow our visitors to drive directly to their chain-owned hotel, attend their chosen event, eat at any number of chain-owned restaurants, shop in the big box of their choice…and then gas up and get the hell out of town. It is the autoAmerican way.

Will they even suspect that there is this amazing Innovation City just beyond sight of that asphalt delivery and departure system? Will they care? Do we even want visitors to come and see who and what we really are?

Or are we only interested in filling Interstate-adjacent beds, supporting minimum wage restaurant jobs and funneling shoppers into big boxes before we send them back to wherever they came from?

Who are we? What are we about? Are we just another way stop on the autoAmerican autobahn? Is that really the best vision Alachua County Commissioners have for our community’s future?

If so, we need commissioners with better vision. Because asphalt and commerce is a poor substitute for that magical place where Nature And Culture Meet.

Food trucks today

You know what Gainesville really needs on its march to become Innovation City?

More food trucks.

Ok, that’s a simplification. But it is one of the “baby steps” that Jim O’Connell says the city should take as Gainesville continues to nourish and grow it’s own start-up tech culture.

O’Connell is director of UF Innovate. His job being to “push patents out the door,” to channel the fruits of faculty research into new companies and new jobs.

And to keep as many of them as possible here in Gainesville.

“I have roughly 400 people working in the Innovation Hub who have to go someplace else to eat lunch,” he says. “We need a food truck park, and right now there are no guidelines on how to create that.”

Actually there soon may be. A food truck draft plan has been circulating in City Hall and will soon go before the Plan Board for review.

But baby steps aside, the larger point O’Connell made at a breakfast presentation last week was one of setting realistic goals and expectations for Gainesville’s high-tech future.

Gainesville is never going to be Silicon Valley. Building the financial resources and tech infrastructure that has developed around institutions like Stanford and MIT was the work of decades and will not likely be replicated in a city that is primarily known for “football and The Swamp…we don’t have the brand to compete on that level.

“Nobody is going to move to Gainesville and put 5,000 jobs here,” he said. “Organically, home-grown companies are the ones that will stay put.”

And while UF faculty “are great for generating ideas and patents,” it is usually younger grad students who go forward and create start-up companies.

“We need to attract them and keep them here, and they want to live in the downtown area,” he said. “We need high-end condos where somebody making 80 grand a year can walk to the bars, restaurants, micro-breweries and all the stuff people that age have come to expect.”

And as new companies take root, they will also need laboratory and office space that doesn’t currently exist. “We need more. We don’t have it. And we will lose companies if we don’t have a way to provide it.”

And that’s the dilemma. Of late Gainesville has experienced a construction boom that seems to be mainly focused on high-end student housing. It’s been happening all up and down University Avenue and 13th Street.

But at some point there is bound to be a glut in that sector. And then what comes next?

Just how, or even if, the city can encourage close-in residential and commercial development of the kind O’Connell says is needed to support the start-up economy is a complicated question. Even more so is whether developers and financial institutions will be willing to take the risks involved in creating something other than student housing.

“We are entrepreneurial ecosystem developers,” O’Connell said of UF Innovate. “We need to work on the money, the management team, the infrastructure…we need to create the entire continuum.”

But, he said, “my team cannot do all this on their own. We desperately need people on the outside, people with business acumen…We need a public-private partnership.” And currently there appears to be “no strategy, no plan,” to foster Gainesville’s entrepreneurial infrastructure.

Hence baby steps. This notion of town-gown collaboration on “simple, quick solutions so we can start marching forward.”

So food trucks today, high-end apartments tomorrow?

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.”