People power stops upzoning near Depot Park

by Tana Silva

On Feb. 22, an outpouring of concern about Gainesville’s future turned back a private initiative to allow maximum development beside Depot Park. The stakes were high and the vote consequential, yet no news media covered the city commission special meeting in advance. Still, remarkably, people showed up and called in to address the commission, three minutes at a time, and collective wisdom prevailed. 

The 5-2 vote by the commission, with Lauren Poe and Adrian Hayes-Santos in dissent, denied attorney David Coffey and his clients, heirs of Jim Stringfellow Sr., rights to develop the heirs’ 4.82 acres on the south edge of the park with downtown land use and zoning up to 14-story buildings. That was to be the first piecemeal upzoning in the South Main-Depot-Power District area, with city staff’s blessings and support. Next would’ve been the city-owned 10-acre Regional Transit System site beside the park, without a long-sought vision for redeveloping the entire area incrementally for greatest public benefit.

The vote potentially signaled a turning point in recent years of public input being ignored if not hampered. An irrational sudden technocratic shift of governance in 2016 increasingly cut the public out of decision making, much to the whole city’s detriment. The City got rid of commission standing committees and review boards and tightened control over public participation, questioning, and dissent in what should be robust democratic self-government. The drama and disarray in city government, the lack of accountability, the unbridled spending and debt, reliance on consultants, hiring sprees and widening pay gap, indulgence of commission members’ whims, fake “community engagement,” caving to UF and private interests, leverage and asset giveaways, all that and more has spiraled from the centralization of power. That’s not Gainesville, and Gainesville is talking back.

At the meeting as elsewhere, commissioners Desmon Duncan-Walker and Cynthia Chestnut called for wide-open discussions with meaningful public involvement, unafraid of airing tensions that have been building. “I don’t want developers to control how Gainesville looks,” Duncan-Walker said. Neither did people at the meeting. Chestnut said that on her recent campaign trail, what she heard most was people’s frustration over what’s happening to their city and neighborhoods and being left out of those decisions. She said housing is being used as a catch-all justification to open the door to upzoning all over Gainesville. Sure enough, the applicants, staff, and some commissioners trotted out the usual ruses and excuses – housing, sprawl, density, equity, growth – when it was admittedly about money. The same rhetoric is driving other extremely damaging proposals being pushed now, as a lame-duck mayor comes to the end of his many years on the commission. 

A comprehensive plan update reflects that agenda; UF is planning downtown; city Power District plans veer toward upzoning and sale; Opportunity Zone tax breaks encourage huge developments all the way to Melrose. The vote to deny Coffey upzoning is an encouraging sign that a commission majority will rescue collective visioning just in time. The 2013 Power District redevelopment plan makes an excellent starting point.

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