Year later, dreams unfulfilled for old Army Reserve site


The old armory building at 1101 NE Eighth Ave. in Gainesville is shown in this Sept. 13, 2012 file photo.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, October 29, 2013 at 3:52 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, October 29, 2013 at 3:52 p.m.

In October 2012, about 50 residents and nonprofit group representatives crowded into a community meeting to offer ideas for the future of the former Gainesville Army Reserve Center.

One year later, those dreams remain just that as the city has yet to retake ownership of the property from the federal government.

The 35,000-square-foot red brick building still stands vacant behind a barbed-wire fence along Northeast Eighth Avenue. A large, downed tree lies across the front of the seven-acre property. Discarded fast-food bags, soda bottles and empty cigarette packs are among the trash strewn along the western edge of the property. The front lawn is mowed regularly, thanks to a group of neighborhood volunteers who try to keep up the grounds and hope to see the property transformed into a community park.

The city sold this site to the federal government for $1 in 1950, with a condition that the property revert back to the city when it no longer was used by the Army Reserve.

In 2009, the Army ended its six-decade presence in the building and moved across the street and to the east. In 2011, the federal government officially informed Gainesville officials that the property would go back to city ownership.

At the October 2012 "visioning session," the community's ambitious ideas included an incubator for nonprofit agencies, a community garden, a farmers market, a community kitchen, a job-training center, an arts center and a senior center for east Gainesville.

But Gainesville officials tempered the excitement with the financial reality that the city did not have any money identified for the extensive renovations needed to get the building into modern, usable condition.

Over the summer, the U.S. Army conducted additional environmental tests on the building, and the city is now in the midst of updating cost estimates to clean up lead paint and asbestos.

The current projection is $350,000, and Assistant City Manager Paul Folkers said the additional testing conducted over the summer might well drive up that price. The city is seeking federal funding to go toward those cleanup costs.

"The city gave this property to the federal government for $1 in 1950," Folkers said. "Certainly we're pleased to get the property back, but we think it's fair and appropriate to get the property back in a clean condition without environmental issues."

Folkers said an agreement to assume ownership will eventually go to the City Commission. Commissioners then will consider the future of the site and whether to solicit proposals for its use with the possibility that multiple groups or organizations might locate in the sprawling building.

Commissioner Randy Wells helped organize last October's meeting and has met with a resident group formed to provide input on the future of the property. Wells said a community neighborhood park, a memorial to honor the Army reservists who served at the center and an occupied, renovated building would combine to "create something that really adds vibrancy to the community."

But Wells said he does not see the city taking the lead.

"The city is definitely not going to be the primary mover and shaker on this one … the city doesn't have the resources to make this happen but can be supportive in a lot of ways that do not include money."

While a year has passed without the transfer of ownership, community interest in the property has not disappeared.

Northeast Neighbors neighborhood resident Tom Lyons, who lives a block from the armory, is president of a resident group, Friends of Reserve Park, formed to advocate for a community park at the property. Members help by mowing the lawn fronting Northeast Eighth Avenue.

Lyons said the group would like to see a community garden, green space, a playground for children and some type of memorial to honor the reservists who came through the center.

"It's a great little neighborhood, but we don't have a little park area of our own," Lyons said.

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