Department of Doing fails to support neighborhoods

by Janice Garry

Something just ain’t right. 

I don’t pretend to know everything, but I know when something just ain’t right. What’s going on in our city, specifically in the Department of Doing (silly name, I know, but that’s what it’s called), just ain’t right. 

A city that listened.

Four years ago I was involved in the city-wide revision of the Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code. Were you there? Do you remember how great it was to participate with the city? 

I live in vintage Oakview Neighborhood. I and all my neighbors received notices in our mailboxes about upcoming community workshops. All the other neighborhood citizens received notices. We received emails with detailed information about meeting times with links or attachments of pertinent documents. We were welcomed to well-organized workshops in large venues that could accommodate the hundreds of us who cared about our neighborhoods and showed up. 

Ralph Hilliard, Planning Manager, gave excellent, detailed presentations about proposed zoning changes to our neighborhoods. Andrew Persons, who is still a Senior Planner for the city, was there. After the presentations, citizens were given the opportunity to line up at the mic to ask questions. Dozens of us stood before city staff to ask questions and express concerns about proposed changes to our neighborhoods. And the city listened. Proposed changes to our neighborhoods were dropped. While the new Land Development Code was changed to encourage higher city density, our neighborhoods were left intact. I bragged to fellow citizens, to friends and family near and far how great our city was. And how our city staff listened. In 2017, the Comprehensive Plan was completed and enacted. 

Is the city listening now?

GNV Rise

Last year GNV RISE was a sharp contrast. It just so happened that a couple of watchful citizens attended a meeting at which significant zoning changes allowing higher density and businesses in our neighborhoods were proposed. City staff in the Department of Doing had been meeting for months with developers to come up with the plan. Citizens were not informed or invited. 

In August 2018 these watchful citizens notified a handful of people and from that a movement was speedily born. At the September, October and November City Commission hearings, when the proposal was to be transmitted to the state, more citizens showed up. We spoke out and protested such a significant zoning change without our involvement. Gail Johnson proposed and commissioners voted for a delay until workshops could be held in November. 

The workshops were not organized to educate citizens as a whole. They were tables with piecemeal information. They were unhelpful. We continued to mobilize. By the city commission meeting on November 29, some 170 citizens showed up and for five hours citizens spoke, nearly unanimously, in opposition to GNV RISE. Commissioners unanimously voted against it. It took a monumental effort to get the city to listen. We refused to be ignored.

Is the city listening now?

The Reef Apartment Project

Lee Malis lives on NW 3rd Avenue. Usually a quiet kinda guy, he’s been shouting for months to the Department of Doing, commissioners and city staff about the intrusion of a developer. The Reef Project was approved by the Department of Doing (notice the theme here?). Never mind that the project had significant violations from the Land Development Code that was just enacted in 2017. Never mind that Thomas Hawkins, former commissioner and attorney specializing in land use wrote a detailed email that reached all seven commissioners, outlining the problems. Never mind that neighbors to the property were not included in required meetings. Never mind that the developer had moved forward with the development, had damaged property that has a shared claim by Mr. Malis and that the developer filed law suits against Mr. Malis.  The Department of Doing approved a flawed design. The neighborhood will suffer the consequences. We are still shouting. 

Is the city listening now?

The Pleasant Street Condo Project

Also on NW 3rd Avenue, an apartment complex has been approved by, you guessed it, the Department of Doing. The approval was made despite RC (residential conservation) zoning that only allows single family homes and duplexes. Objections were raised and, on December 17, a hearing took place with a magistrate at which citizens appealed the approval of the project.  Even though things aren’t settled, the Department of Doing permitted the developer to remove every single tree and plant on the property. It is now a desolate mass of dirt and tree stumps.  

Is the city listening now?

The destruction of St. Michael’s church

Perhaps most heartbreaking was the barbaric destruction of St. Michael’s church on NW 23rd Ave. and NW 43rd St. 

The building was designed by Nils M. Schweizer, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, who is considered America’s greatest 20th century architect. The Historic Preservation Board of Gainesville voted unanimously to nominate the building as a local landmark and a public hearing was to take place. The Department of Doing allowed a delay of the hearing. 

Before further arrangements could be made, the Department of Doing issued a permit to destroy the building. The day after Christmas, bulldozers took it down. Twelve hundred citizens had signed a petition asking to preserve the building. It could have been reused. The city was not listening. 

What’s changed?

In late 2016, the Planning Department was eliminated and the Department of Doing was created. It was advertised as being a new citizen-centered place. The motto “Citizen Centered People Empowered” was born. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. The above examples speak to that. 

A group of citizens has formed to share a voice that will be heard. Our aim is to preserve the character of Gainesville and our vintage neighborhoods. We truly want to be Citizen Centered People Empowered, not just the leverage of a slogan. The management of our city needs a culture change. 

To connect with us, look for us on Facebook Gainesville Neighbors

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