Gainesville skyline

Published: Wednesday, January 15, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 14, 2003 at 9:10 p.m.
In our more nostalgic moments, we seem to have this vision of Gainesville as a quaint academic village, a small town nestled up against a mighty university.
In truth, Gainesville is built, not on a village model, but on a suburban model. The city proper is a place that most people drive through (and as quickly as possible, we might add) as they commute back and forth between work and the subdivisions and apartment complexes that continue to spread out into the suburban fringe and beyond.
If Gainesville were truly developed on a village model, downtown and the stretch of University Avenue between UF and downtown would not continually be struggling to survive as economically viable business districts. And the much-touted "emerald necklace" of urban-defining green lands would encircle a much smaller, denser metro area.
This nostalgic view of a Gainesville that never was tends to cloud our vision of Gainesville as it could be. For instance, we are a community that professes to dislike suburban sprawl - and yet attempts to counter sprawl by encouraging high density urban infill in Gainesville's core are invariably met with fierce resistance from surrounding neighborhoods.
It's time to face the reality that Gainesville is not a village. But Gainesville's central core can be something else; it can be a more liveable, walkable, economically sustainable and ultimately more attractive city.
It can be none of those things, however, if we continue to delude ourselves with that myth that our suburban community is really an academic village.
The outcry against the ambitious Midtown project, which proposes to build a series of three high-rise apartment and hotel buildings on just 4.3 acres of land in the vicinity of the much-neglected 6th Street corridor between University Avenue and 2nd Street, has an all-too-familiar refrain to it.
Gainesville doesn't need tall buildings, the critics say. It'll just make us look like South Florida.
If you want to see the essence of South Florida, check out the still expanding subdivisions and apartment complexes that begin west of 34th Street and sprawl for miles out toward Newberry and Archer. It isn't high-rises but wasteful land-use practices that make us resemble South Florida.
If the Midtown project - with its 264-unit undergraduate complex and 268-unit graduate complex and 298-room hotel - were indeed developed in "traditional" Alachua County fashion, it would be likely split among two or three separate localities of several acres each, and all of them situated somewhere far to the west of UF. Talk about emulating South Florida.
High-density urban development is a viable antidote to suburban sprawl. And growing up is much preferable to growing out.
To hold to the myth that our quaint little village atmosphere would be destroyed by tall buildings is to live in denial of the reality of Gainesville as a suburban community.
So why not a Gainesville skyline? In cities all over America it is high-density, high-rise development which makes possible the critical mass of people that keep downtown business, commercial and entertainment districts viable.
In this case, high-density and high-rise development along the blighted 6th Street corridor could provide the missing link that will finally connect downtown with the university.
It will bring new vitality to struggling University Avenue, make possible more frequent and efficient mass transit services in the urban core, and help attract new investment and spur revitalization in surrounding neighborhoods that have been long neglected.
It will ultimately give UF students and employees a choice between a short walk or shuttle ride to campus, or a longer daily commute, or bus ride in from the suburbs.
One can argue that Gainesville doesn't "need" any more apartments or a new hotel, or that the community is already overbuilt in that regard.
But of course, government doesn't get to make that call. It is the market that must ultimately decide whether Midtown or similar projects are viable. If they are not viable, then presumably investors will not risk their money on them.
Controversy over the Midtown project has sparked debate over whether Gainesville should have restrictions on building heights, and whether high-rises should be restricted to, say, the 130-foot height of Gainesville's only existing "skyscraper," the Seagle Building.
Enacting such restrictions would certainly cater to our nostalgic image of Gainesville as a quaint little academic village. But it would also be a self-perpetuating concession to the reality that Gainesville is the kind of city that most people drive through on their way back and forth to the suburbs.
It's time to grow up, Gainesville, not out. We're not a village. But we may yet manage to become a compact, sustainable urban vibrant city center.

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