What is Gainesville's look?

A rendering of the Midtown Development proposed for SW 2nd Avenue and 6th Street.

Published: Sunday, January 19, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 19, 2003 at 2:09 a.m.
When Boca Raton developers Marvin and Ben Schachter first released plans for the trio of high-rise buildings they plan to construct in Gainesville, reaction to the 20-odd-story structures was fierce and immediate.
Some said the curved glass front of a proposed 23-story hotel looked like something that belonged on the beach in South Florida, not a landlocked college town.
Others worried that the entire complex - more than twice as tall as the largest building downtown - would loom over the city's mostly two- and three-story landscape.
And many people have remarked that the building somehow doesn't "look like Gainesville."
Which raises the question: What kind of building does look "like Gainesville?"
From the Spanish colonial look of the Thomas Center to the squarish, modern look of most city and county government buildings, to the brick-clad Gothic buildings on the University of Florida campus, Gainesville is home to a grab bag of architectural styles. And local architects and city officials find it hard to say which style comes to the fore.
In other words, what makes Gainesville unique when it comes to style is that it has no single dominant type of architecture.
You might say the city has a certain mutt-like quality, and that is part of its charm in the eyes of many.
"There really isn't a distinct Gainesville style," said former City Commissioner John Barrow, an intern architect and founder of the Florida Community Design Center. "Just drive around and you'll see lots of styles, all jumbled together - and that's the way it should be."
In recent years, the city has exercised increasing control over the design of buildings within the city limits. But even in the city's historic districts - old neighborhoods including the Duck Pond area, University Heights, the Pleasant Street neighborhood and the Southeast Historic District- there isn't a signature architectural style.
"These neighborhoods evolved over time, and there isn't a single style," said Darlene "D." Henrichs, the city's historic preservation planner.
Gainesville's historic downtown neighborhoods grew in spurts during periods like the 1920s and 1940s, when UF underwent enrollment booms, Henrichs said. But even in neighborhoods where most of the homes were built during the same period, building styles vary widely.
"Many of our historic buildings are from the 1920s, which was a period of revivals," she said. "So you have colonial revival next to Spanish revival next to classical revival. If there's a theme, it's variety."

Revolving around the people

Revolving around the people Tom Saunders, the city's community development director, says Gainesville's architectural vision revolves around people, not design styles.
"I think the variety of styles in Gainesville is a strength, not a weakness," he said. "There may not be a common style, but there is a common feel."
Saunders says most Gainesville buildings have in common a "human scale" that makes them seem approachable to the average person strolling by on a sidewalk.
The city, he said, has put in place land-use rules designed to preserve that feel. The city requires a certain amount of window space in every building, giving buildings more of a "storefront" feel. City rules also force most builders to put parking spaces behind their buildings, moving buildings closer to the street where they seem more accessible.

A charged word for Midtown?

"Scale" is a charged word in the debate about Midtown - which is by far the largest development ever proposed for downtown. With an estimated cost of $300 million to $500 million, the three mixed-use buildings would stand an average of 280 feet, dwarfing its nearest downtown competitor, the 130-foot Seagle building.
Midtown would add more than 500 apartments with space for 1,500 people. A parking deck in the bottom floors would include about 1,000 parking spaces, and the three buildings would have room for roughly 45,000 square feet of office space. And this would be built in an area that is now home to mostly one- and two-story business buildings.
Would Midtown destroy the city's sense of scale, towering over the smaller buildings currently downtown?
Barrow doesn't think so - as long as the developers stick to their plans to put red-brick and stucco storefronts on the first few floors of the complex.
"When you go to New York, you're surrounded by 50-story buildings, but you only really look at the first few stories," he said. "That's where people interact with the buildings, and if a building works at that level, height doesn't matter so much."
Barrow thinks Gainesville should consider setting up a city-wide design review board that would allow a panel of architects to review designs of new buildings. At present, designs for city buildings are reviewed by the City Plan Board, which is primarily tasked with determining how the building plans comply with various city codes.
"For the most part, the people reviewing these projects now aren't trained as architects," Barrow said. "We need people with more design experience to make these decisions."
But even he doesn't want the city to designate a single "Gainesville" building style. Mandating a single style for Gainesville buildings - even if one could be decided on - would lead to a city that looks "creepy and fake," he said.

Policies elsewhere

Other cities have imposed a single style on local buildings. But they're typically older than Gainesville, cities with a single historic style that city leaders intend to protect.
"We're trying to protect the historic area from what you might call 'corporate architecture,'" said David Bertram, senior planner for the city of St. Augustine. "We don't want people to drop your average gas station or chain restaurant in the middle of a bunch of historic buildings."
In order to protect the city's stock of historic buildings - some of which date back to the 1500s - St. Augustine has set up style standards for 3,500 parcels in and around the city's historic downtown. Buildings on each lot must be built in the style traditionally associated with that lot.
But in Ann Arbor, Mich. - a city often regarded as Gainesville's twin - variety is the rule.
"I don't know that there's a design out there that really says, 'Ann Arbor,'" said Larry Pickle, head of the planning department in the city of 114,000 that is home to the University of Michigan.
Like Gainesville, Ann Arbor does have design standards for old residential districts that have been declared historic. As in Gainesville, the "university Gothic" style rules on campus. But there's no truly distinct Ann Arbor style, Pickle said.
Pickle said Ann Arbor is embroiled in a debate about big buildings and is now considering a limit on building heights in the downtown area. Some residents are still upset with the effects of two high-rises built in the 1970s - one standing at 26 stories and one at 30 - on the city's downtown, which consists mostly of buildings about five stories.
"I don't think the debate has to do with the architecture," Pickle said. "It has to do with the density of people living downtown, and the traffic they bring. Ann Arbor wants to stay a quiet college town on one hand, and wants economic development on the other, and the two don't always mesh well together."
Tim Lockette can be reached at 374-5088 or lockett@ gvillesun.com

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