A new start for an old building?

Whoever said “beauty is only skin deep,” could have been talking about that Gainesville historic edifice formerly named after a dead confederate general.

These days we just call it the School Administration Building, which lacks panache but at least doesn’t make anybody mad.

“It’s a gorgeous building, it takes a pretty picture on the outside, but not on the inside,” Superintendent Carlee Simon says. “It’s 121 years old. Energy efficiency is a huge concern. It’s a school that got diced up into offices so we have all these small, weirdly shaped rooms. We are all squeezed in like sardines.”

Not to be overly sympathetic toward taxpayer funded office workers, but somebody’s gotta run a school system approaching 30,000 students. And working out of cracker boxes isn’t exactly conducive to productivity.

Simon’s vision is to see both county and school district staff sharing office space in a new, more appropriately designed HQ. That makes sense when you consider that the county and school boards share exactly the same constituency and geographic boundaries.

But an equally pertinent, and perhaps more intriguing, question is what a repurposed SBA building – liberated from its bureaucratic moorings – might mean to downtown revitalization.

For starters, turning it back into a school could considerably boost efforts to lure more young families back into the city center. And that’s been a long held dream around here.

But it might not be feasible.

“I don’t think anything’s out of the question, but to convert an ancient building back into a school” while meeting all requisite safety, health and technical standards might be so costly that “the juice wouldn’t be worth the squeeze.”

“There are many other things we could do,” Simon continues. “This could be an historic hub, an event space, a museum. This is a beautiful piece of land.”

Government being what it is, it will likely be years before the SAB is up for grabs.

But we are right now in the middle of an ambitious joint city-UF downtown master planning process. And just the prospect that, one day, a square city block in the very heart of downtown adorned with green space, festooned with towering oaks and anchored by a legacy building might be available surely deserves thought and discussion.

Cultural center. Community theater (how do you think we got the Hipp?). Mixed use with shops, cafes, art studios and perhaps even the odd apartment or two. The possibilities for public-private partnerships are endless.

It’s right across the street from the Matheson Museum and Sweetwater Park, next door to the library and Bo Diddly Plaza and close enough to Thelma Bolton to pop over and borrow a cup of sugar.

We’re talking symmetry, baby!

And talk about a missing link! A handful of advocates are trying to talk the city into developing an urban greenway that would stretch all the way from Depot to Tom Petty parks and back, following Sweetwater branch for much of the way. A renovated SAB (seriously, we’ve got to change the name, I suggest the RC building) is strategically situated to be its virtual hub.

Listen, a sardine tin full of school bureaucrats isn’t the “highest and best” use imaginable for a graceful old building that has served Gainesville since the turn of the last century.

Let’s use our imagination, people, and let’s start now rather than some day down the road.

And can we please begin by coming up with a better name?

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

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