Only kidding Gainesville

A lot of folks like to think of Gainesville as being a progressive university community. But, really, we’re a typical suburban American city.

The signs are everywhere – the way we’ve designed University Avenue, 13th St. 16th Ave. etc. for the express (pun intended) purpose of getting motorists in and out of town as quickly as possible, for instance. And never mind the occasional dead cyclist and pedestrian, or the sacrifice of walkability and economic vitality in our urban center. 

But we got another reminder of our suburban sameness when the city commission backed off GNV Rise in the face of an angry public backlash. With opponents hurling accusations of corruption and incompetence, the city’s modest plan to encourage a more affordable housing mix was dismissed as just another venal scheme to enrich South Florida developers and destroy neighborhoods.

To turn Gainesville into Orlando. Another Miami.

Oh, and that ugly word, “gentrification,” got tossed around in hand-grenade fashion. Never mind that the flip side of gentrification is segregation.

And that’s what we’re really talking about here. 

Like most American cities, we in Gainesville self-segregate ourselves. Mostly by income, but also by race. And we are comfortable in our little niches.

Daniel Herriges puts it very well in his recent Strong Towns essay: “Go to any planning meeting in an American suburb and you’ll hear plenty of talk about ‘protecting neighborhoods,’ but from what? From the side effects of new residential construction.”

In the end, what’s what the knee-jerk opposition to GNV Rise amounted to: Protecting neighborhoods from “others” – prospective neighbors who don’t look, sound and earn like we do. Students, low income workers, single moms and their kids, young people just entering the workforce and, of course, people with different shades of skin.

We’re freezing ourselves in amber here in Gainesville. Which by default means fostering sprawl, sprawl and more of the same.

It’s not that GNV Rise couldn’t use more work, any plan can. Conspiracy theories aside, it was at best a modest attempt to begin to grapple with a very complicated challenge. 

These days UF’s biggest housing problem doesn’t involve students. It’s finding affordable and proximate housing for lower income workers, entry level professors, graduate assistants, lab workers and so on. Lacking options folks inevitably end up in the suburbs – or maybe Putnam and Levy counties – and driving to campus each day; creating a horrible parking situation on campus and daily traffic snarl for Gainesville. 

Eventually UF’s strategic planners – whose consultants have bullishly promoted Boston-type urban infill as key to our town-gown quality of life future – are going to figure out that Gainesville is only kidding when we say we want the same thing. 

No, infill is gentrification. It’s a developer’s plot. Infill won’t protect neighborhoods.

Anyway, there’s plenty of developable land remaining on the west side between here and Cedar Key. And if the Plum Creekers get their way, eastward sprawl is just over the horizon. 

All we need are more cars. We’ve already got the stroads to accommodate them.

There’s an election coming up. If history is any indication, Lauren Poe is in trouble (only one incumbent, Pegeen Hanrahan, has been reelected since we started picking mayors separately from other commissioners). Poe’s opponents will likely run on the “protect neighborhoods” platform, just like Tom “The neighborhoods are getting hammered!” Bussing did.

There is also a pretty good chance that City Manager Anthony Lyons is going to be forced out. All of which means that the city commission will likely become more cautious about taking chances and making changes come the new year. 

GNV Rise will likely not rise again in 2019.

And if that comes to pass, Tigert Hall may begin, slowly and quietly, to back away from its strategic partnership with Gainesville on the grounds of municipal fickleness.

But at least we will have protected our neighborhoods from others.

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