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.

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