Sides clash over Matheson lot

The parking lot adjacent to the Matheson Museum is now off limits to patrons since the law firm of Folds and Walker, which is also adjacent to the lot, has set a rent price that the museum says it cannot afford.

ROB C. WITZEL/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, January 20, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 20, 2003 at 12:29 a.m.
"Parking Lot Closed." That's the message that has been greeting would-be visitors to the Matheson Museum downtown since last summer, along with the direction to park on the other side of University Avenue next to the Alachua County School Board's Kirby-Smith Center.
Just east of the local history museum, the lot that used to be open to visitors now is cordoned off and has been largely unused since last summer. The law firm next door that owns the property, Folds and Walker, decided to set a price for renting the 15 spaces - $718 a month, or about $48 a space - that the museum says it cannot afford to pay.
To Allison Folds, the only partner remaining at the firm since the museum's 1994 opening, the relationship gone sour is similar to most rifts between a landlord and a tenant.
"We allowed them to park there for years and years," Folds said. "We reached a point where . . . it just didn't work."
The museum's directors see things differently.
"To me, it's the cruelest kind of thing you can do to the community," said Dr. Mark Barrow, a retired cardiologist and emeritus member of the Matheson's Board of Directors. "If the citizens and other attorneys (in the area) knew what they're doing, they wouldn't look too kindly on it."
Barrow asserts that the Matheson is a nonprofit enterprise that provides a service of charting the area's history, and asking its visitors - about 4,000 a year - to traverse University Avenue is a question the museum should not have to ask.
When the Matheson opened, an agreement was in place that allowed the museum to use one side of the lot for its visitors because it had paid to pave and landscape what had been a vacant area.
"We put $25,000 in it in good will and good faith," Barrow said.
At the time, the law firm had more partners and required more spaces than the 20 or so directly behind its office building.
But that agreement expired and set off the current standoff where the law firm asserts that it has the right to do what it wants with its property, and the museum says the firm is asking more than the market value.
"The (spaces) should cost $25 to $30 a month max," Barrow said.
Lisa Auel, executive director of the museum, said the Matheson can't afford to pay $718 a month - or $8,616 a year - because it operates on a yearly budget of $85,000 that accounts for a staff of three, the museum's programs and utilities.
Auel said Folds has turned down the museum's offer to pay $300 a month to use the east side, or five spaces, of the lot like it had in the past.
The sticking point, Folds said, is that museum visitors often used more spaces than the ones on the Matheson side of the lot.
"Sometimes there'd be one car in (the lot) and sometimes you couldn't move," Folds said. "That only might happen a half-dozen times a month, but when it did, it was frustrating."
Because of this, Folds said he decided that the museum can either pay to rent the whole lot or not at all.
Barrow acknowledged that Matheson visitors sometimes did park on the law firm's side, but said the firm usually wasn't using those spaces anyway.
"What do they want us to do, have a parking attendant?" he asked. Another problem, Folds said, is that, "We have all the liability . . . if someone is injured, we are responsible."
Barrow's counter, "We can buy our own liability (insurance). That's not an issue."
But Folds said, "That doesn't keep us from being liable" as long as the law firm owns the property.
Folds said he has withdrawn previous offers to sell the lot because the firm now believes it adds significantly to the property value.
Brian Kanely, transportation services manager for the city of Gainesville, said when the city leased parking spaces to individuals during the day in the past - at the lot where the new courthouse is being built, for example - the standard rate was $15 a space each month.
But Kanely added that parking space downtown is increasing in value and that, "Private companies are going to charge what they're going to charge - it's supply and demand."
Folds said another difference is that the museum would be getting the spaces for 24 hours a day, not just during work hours on weekdays.
For now, Barrow said the museum is considering a project with the city to build its own parking lot with at least 30 spaces on some of the property it owns north of the Matheson House, the well-known 145-year-old home just behind the law firm's offices.
And Folds said the law firm tentatively plans to rent out some of the open office space in its building so those lawyers and their clients can use the parking lot.
But he was quick to add that the firm is open to talking to the Matheson's directors if they change their minds and become willing to pay what the firm considers a reasonable rental fee.
"We would still be amenable to renting out the entire space," he said.
Despite the standoff, both sides say they are not feuding.
"It's not a personal thing," Barrow said. "We're not mad at each other."
In fact, Auel said Folds has allowed the museum to use the lot for free on some special occasions such as last year's Festival of Lights.
"It's their property - they're free to do what they want with it," Auel said. "I'm just sorry it's not ours."

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