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

That time in Montreal

In which we continue our armchair travels during these times of Covid lockdowns and what with Americans being banned from just about every other country in the civilized world. Thanks a lot, Donald.

In the summer of 2013 Jill and I took a cycling trip through southern Quebec and wrapped it up with a weekend in Montreal. Turned out that this major city was as fun to cycle in as the countryside and small towns around it.

Which leads me to the first point I want to make about Montreal. For a major metropolitan area, it is surprisingly bike friendly. Everybody seems to bike. And you can get around the city quite easily, and enjoyably, on two wheels. (BTW: I have no idea what that sign means but it looks, um, bikish.)

Of course, having made the above comments, I must concede that this was August so nobody was exactly up to their sprockets in Canadian snow.

But moving right along, the next best thing I loved about Montreal was its murals. A section of the city at the foot of Mt. Royal seemed to be mural central for Quebec.

Make something of yourself why don’t you.

Any face in a crowd.

That’s right, we eat cars.

Serve you right.

I got nothing.

Ever get that feeling you’re being watched?

My favorite. It keeps me awake at night.

But forget the murals. This city has it’s own dragon.

Not to mention globular objects of all sizes.

But never mind all that. Let’s do some city scapes.

It’s enough to make you dizzy just walking around.

I think I saw this in a Leonardo DiCaprio movie.

Pop quiz: Which one of these buildings is leaning?

Which one of these images makes you want to drink?

This is a very famous Montreal edifice. I just don’t remember which one.

Oh, and before I forget, they have some very, um, interesting pursuits in Montreal. Like surfing the St. Lawrence rapids.

Plus lots of other cool things to do.

Oops. Left this mural out from the batch earlier. This one seems rather, I dunno, dystopian.

Cool things all over the map.

I’d love to, um, re-cycle Montreal. Assuming of course that Canada ever lets us Americans back into their country again.

GNV Mural Route map

As promised here is a route map for the great murals tour of central Gainesville. You can download the map and cue sheet at https://ridewithgps.com/routes/34241958

Just a 10 mile jaunt through the heart of Street Art Central, beginning at Tom Petty Park and ending at Porter’s Community Center.

Most of this tour takes place in the most bike friendly section of town. Just be careful when crossing major streets like 13th, University and Main. When viewing the murals on University, best ride on the sidewalk.

You will begin your cycle mural tour at Tom Petty Park, although I couldn’t find an actual mural of Tom Petty. This might be his dog, though.

But not to worry, Tom shows up at least three times on the mural tour. The first time at the 1.1 mile mark when you get to see his wildflower mural at Sidney Lanier School.

Shortly after that, at about 1.7 miles, you will be in the heart of the Grove Street neighborhood and its treasure trove of murals. Some of them take a little searching out but pay attention to the cue sheet and you should find them all.

At 2.8 miles you will have reached the Fifth Avenue Community Garden mural and maybe it’ll make hungry.

And that’s ok, because El Indio, at 3.1 miles, has food and murals.

By 4.1 miles you will have reached the old Leonardo’s 706, which is now out of business. Sad, but there are some pretty good murals remaining in the alley and on the side wall.

At 5.5 miles and you are in the jungle….or rather what passes for the jungle on the old Walker Furniture building.

If this full-building mural behind Flaco’s, at 6.1 miles, doesn’t make you blink, you probably need to stop downtown for a brew.

At 6.5 miles you have reached the heart of downtown’s mural scene. Do yourself a favor and walk through the city’s parking garage. It’s the best indoor mural gallery in town.

The GRU 5th Avenue wall, in the heart of the Springhill neighborhood is a feast for the eyes at 7.3 miles. Take your time and enjoy.

But not too much time. Because just a few blocks away, at 8.2 miles, is the Rosa Parks Bus Station, jam packed with art and history.

At 9 miles you’ll find the First Mag murals. One of them is inside the beer garden. You know what to do.

Another Petty mural at 9.4 miles.

And a message is of – what else? – community at the Porter’s Community Center at 10.4 miles and end of tour. Of course, if you left your car at Tom Petty Park you’ll still have to ride back and get it.

Seriously, there’s a ton of great art on this route. Good hunting.

Taking it to the streets

Streets are for people too

To mask or not to mask that is the question.

Except at Looseys.

“We are not going to debate you at the door about our policies,” reads a sign at the downtown restaurant. “We will just ask you to leave.”

Which is not to say that the masks don’t come off at Looseys.

Yes, you must cover your face while ordering at the door. But not at the dozen tables that appeared to be fully occupied on a recent balmy Friday evening.

Each carefully spaced to achieve optimum Covid-era distancing.

Looseys couldn’t manage that sort of distancing inside. But these tables are strategically placed outdoors, on the brick surface of NW 1st Avenue.

And just across the street, in city parking lot #10, large tents have been erected to handle the, um, overflow. Half a block away, Crane Raman’s tables occupy still more street space. The Paramount Grill has put tables on the sidewalk…not a problem, since pedestrians now have an entire blocked-off street in which to avoid close contact with one another.

Just across University Avenue, Flaco’s Cuban Bakery has erected a canopied patio on what we used to call NW 2nd Street. There, customers can admire the smiling death heads wall mural while waiting for their food.

But wait a minute. Who turns car corridors into a dining rooms anyway?

Well, since Covid19 they’ve been doing it in New York, Paris, Portland and in cities large and small pretty much all over the map. So why not here in Gainesville?

“I would put it that we’re not closing the streets to cars,” says City Manager Lee Feldman. “Rather, we’re opening up public space to pedestrians. All the health professionals tell us that it’s better to put as much business activity as possible outdoors. There is less exposure in the open air.”

Under the city’s temporary experiment in open air gastronomic expediency, one lane of University Avenue, across from UF, has also been closed. And a southbound bike lane was commandeered to give diners more eating room on Main Street – with signage notifying motorists that, yes, cyclists really do have as much right to be in the traffic lane as they do.

“This idea that (on-street) parking has to be an absolute is ludicrous,” Feldman says.

What’s been lost in the process are lots of on-street parking. But by way of trade-off, you can park in the city’s downtown garage for free.

How long these temporary closings will last is anybody’s guess. But while the immediate objective is to offer some financial relief to participating restaurants, the city also has an opportunity to observe and learn from this experiment in “tactical urbanism.”

“So its temporary now, but we are going to learn from this that maybe we don’t need as much road space as we think we need, and maybe its more about people than cars.”

Gainesville and UF are getting ready to jointly sponsor a new master plan for downtown. So perhaps what will ultimately emerge from all of this is a vision for a more people-friendly, less auto-centric city center.

“The current COVID street closure phenomenon can be the leading edge of a new conversation on what streets can be, prompted by citizen interest and proactive government,” urbanists Bruce Chamberlain and Dan Hemme write in the on-line Planet Citizen.

Sadly, it took a pandemic for many of us to finally get that message.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com. Email him at rondarts2008@gmail.com.

One more trail old friend

Louis always insisted on walking faster than the rest of us.

Rain or snow.

He was our fire master extraordinaire.

And our Sliding Rock slider.

Which is not to say he was above taking a well deserved break.

Sometimes too well deserved.

And he always hiked in tattered shorts no matter the weather.

In the Rockies

And the Smokies.

He loved his hot chocolate.

And his feet were not always firmly planted on the ground.

Lost in contemplation.

And we’re pretty sure he’s out there still.

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 www.floridavelocipede.com. Email him at rondarts2008@gmail.com.