Brad Guy is interim director of the Center for Construction and Environment at the University of Florida. His work focuses on “green” architecture and sustainable community development.

Monday, 8 May 2000

GAINESVILLE, Fla.

My day started off with a doctor’s appointment. Then I submitted drawings for a permit to build a shelter on the urban Depot Avenue Rail Trail and had a long talk with an auditor from the University of Florida Inspector General’s office. We discussed a number of unusual things that we’re working on at the Center for Construction and Environment, which I direct — I hope the auditor is not more confused now than she was before our meeting.

The Old Gainesville Depot, site of controversy.

The day’s big event will be a presentation and discussion at 5:00 p.m. before the Gainesville City Commission about the Old Gainesville Depot, a 1907 building that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. For about four years, I have been working to get the building rehabilitated and made into a community-serving facility. We got the city to buy the building and managed to secure a few small grants to help with architectural analysis and community and neighborhood participation. The uses we analyzed and identified as optimal include a bike rental (the building sits on the Depot Avenue Rail Trail), a community meeting space, an art exhibit, an ice cream shop, a café, and a small-scale crafts incubator, all of which would work well with a park proposed for an adjacent site.

Unfortunately, about a year ago, a woman who has been trying to create a children’s museum for many years (anywhere but in this part of town) set her sights on the building and got the city to secure a grant from the Florida Bureau of Historic Preservation to rehabilitate it. While there is nothing wrong with a children’s museum, this woman has shown the most extraordinary insensitivity in trying to use friendships with the mayor and the editorial writer for the local newspaper to circumvent the community process we have been conducting. She has stirred up bad feelings among the local neighborhood leaders.

A 1922 map of the area, with the depot in the middle.

The depot is in the heart of industrial Gainesville and sits on a brownfield. The surrounding neighborhoods are predominantly African-American and lower income and have felt the disparities in infrastructure and police services for too long to appreciate a yuppie white housewife from the other side of town who wants to claim a building in the middle of the area and adapt it to a style and use that would be foreign to the realities of the area. (For example, the museum would include a Publix supermarket exhibit with plastic food so that children could play at supermarket shopping, while not three blocks away is a vibrant, real farmers market.)

We have had endless meetings with community members to identify their needs, and neighborhood leaders were gracious enough to meet with the children’s museum promoter to explain their perspectives. But she has always been incredibly vague and unresponsive, and she has no qualms about promoting her own agenda in spite of others’ efforts to work with her. The actions of the mayor and her friends are examples of the worst style of old-school backroom politics — in one person’s words, just-like-Christopher-Columbus imperialism.

We are now taking the issue to the “court” of the City Commission to try to keep the building as a mixed-use facility, and we’ve made some effort to get the neighborhood leaders out one more time for this evening’s meeting. I have tried to prepare a “professional” set of recommendations, including the option of opening up the process to allow other proposals for use of the building. It has been a long and arduous process, with several more years to go. Tune in tomorrow to find out how the meeting and discussion go tonight.

This is local, not big picture, but it has been a significant part of my activities lately and I think it’s representative of my efforts to get under-represented persons to participate (and feel like it is worthwhile participating) in the redevelopment of their areas.

Tomorrow I’ll inventory a University of Florida residence hall slated for demolition. We are trying to get the campus planning department to manage for maximum reuse and recycling of the “wastes” that will be generated.