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.


  1. Downtown is gone slowly n slowly by day because of bo didly plaza closing even though people are going to the streets to dine closing that farmers market takes all those people away what a shame all that money for those downtown business gone slowly day by day

  2. Excellent observations, Ron. I hope your column motivates some City Hallers to take better care of our downtown before it falls prey to neglect with undesirable consequences.

  3. The thing that makes downtown great is also what is destroying it. Hundreds of different businesses, hundred of different real estate owners- everyone with different opinions, wants, and needs and no one is bringing them together. Everyone’s fighting over scraps.

    There is an organization called GDOT which is the downtown owners and tenants association, but it isn’t properly led. The person who was supposed to be leading it was negotiating- while in charge- to move his business interests to Celebration Pointe. The other leaders of GDOT have little to no business acumen and don’t understand how to protect downtown. The McGurns originally protected the area, but sold most of their interests and the same money that was behind the growth of downtown now secretly invests into Celebration Pointe.

    The Chamber of Commerce is run by business owners who care more about the western county growth. So much so they recently renamed the chamber the Greater Gainesville chamber. 90% of the board members live and work west of NW 34th Street. The chamber does essentially nothing for downtown. The county has buildings all over downtown that hurt the city growth, and they are intentionally focusing growth in the western county due to influence of organizations like the Sierra Club who don’t want eastern Gainesville developed.

    At a certain point, the community has to stand up for itself. We can’t expect our leaders to protect the businesses and downtown. Most have never had their own businesses. One who had a catering business, Gale Johnson, declared chapter 7 bankruptcy because she couldn’t run her business properly. They literally are not qualified to know what to do to help, and the city itself has an economic department who are unqualified to promote our local economy. Meanwhile, midtown is changing it’s scene and eliminating the cheap student dive bars- all of which are relocating downtown. Those types of cheap alcohol businesses do nothing for proper city growth and retail and potential art and culture revitalization.

    The St Francis House is creating a massive crime pocket all around it, and the CMC is allowing these dangerous people to stay around it’s buildings. There is a crack dealer in Porters the police are aware of, yet no one is arresting him. There is a chance this is happening intentionally because certain people on the commission and police force are afraid by removing the crack dealer the area will quickly gentrify.

    Downtown (From University Avenue to SW 4th Avenue) is doomed to seedy bars for the next 10 years unless something drastic changes. The city cares about new development and changing south main street before focusing on downtown. They’re being pressured privately by land owners and developers who want to redevelop south of Depot Park into skyscrapers. Their focus is totally off, and they’re spending their time listening to local lobbyists instead of the actual locals.

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