We must save Gainesville's historic districts

Published: Sunday, July 1, 2007 at 11:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, July 1, 2007 at 11:30 a.m.

Gainesville has five officially designated historic districts. Three are near downtown and were originally developed during the late 19th century. The other two, University Heights North and South, are by-products of the early 20th century establishment of the University of Florida campus.

In the days before increased personal mobility, university faculty and staff built many modest and tasteful homes nearby. They created areas that remain distinctive in terms of structural style and neighborhood sense of place. A basic assumption of official preservation policy in Gainesville is that these historic neighborhoods are especially valuable parts of our city and should be protected from inappropriate change.

Not surprisingly, the ill-advised enormity of UF growth in the late 20th century threatens these historic places. Because of proximity to the university, nearby residential areas have been targeted by Gainesville's absentee landlords and developers. They initiate an oft-repeated, destructive scenario.

Landlords buy historic homes and rent them to student occupants. Little effort is made to maintain the properties, nor require renters to act as responsible neighbors. Within a few years these structures deteriorate to a point where families will no longer be interested in purchasing them.

Consequently, the most valuable portion of properties has switched from structures to the land. Developers follow, purchasing deteriorating homes for demolition, to be replaced by high density, low quality multi-story rental units.

The City of Gainesville has established procedures to protect historic districts from inappropriate development. An historic preservation board, appointed by the City Commission, reviews and makes recommendations regarding proposed construction in historic districts.

The City has an historic preservation planner and staff who work with standards established by the United States Department of the Interior in making recommendations to the Preservation Board. The Board then approves or disapproves of any proposed project.

On June 12 the Historical Preservation Board unanimously rejected plans for a large project in University Heights South that would demolish some historic structures, to be replaced with multi-story apartments. City planners had recommended approval of the project if changes were made in regard to the height of proposed buildings, setbacks from streets, compatibility in terms of architectural styling elements, and the general pattern of structures and open spaces. The developer rejected these recommendations and the Board responded with its disapproval. An appeal of this decision is expected from the developer at the City Commission meeting of July 9.

In Gainesville there are two good goals of urban planning that are incompatible in some places. The first is preserving historic districts for the distinctive character that they give to the City. The second is so-called "infill," favoring redevelopment of areas near city centers.

Exercised correctly, urban infill revives derelict areas while discouraging sprawl. However, infill that increases population density and structural size is not appropriate for historic districts. By definition, historic districts were and should remain moderate density, high quality structural neighborhoods. Allowing high density development destroys the character of these historic places.

Gainesville's five historic districts are in varying stages of preservation. Check the City web site for maps of their locations and drive around to take a look. The district around the Duck Pond and the one to the southeast of downtown are relatively well maintained and improving. Our oldest preserved African American area around Pleasant Street is somewhat decrepit, but being appropriately redeveloped with the help of various government programs.

However, the two historic districts near the university are in danger of disappearing. A number of extraordinary examples of our most distinctive folk housing form, the Gainesville chert house, have already been demolished near campus. Lack of appropriate land use regulations and poor code enforcement around student rentals is leading to general deterioration.

The neighborhood landscape around the University of Florida campus requires special consideration before alteration. A good deal of sensory degradation has taken place in this area in the past quarter century. The historic district protective concept needs to be vigorously applied to maintain this important area in the sense of place of our city.

Send an e-mail message to our City Commissioners and Mayor telling them to support the Historic Preservation Board's June 12th decision on University Heights South development.

Sandra M. Lamme is a member of the Gainesville Historic Preservation Board.

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