Monday, December 21, 2009

City Commission/CRA Meeting 12/21/2009

I attended the City Commission/CRA meeting today at City Hall along with David Ballard. The upshot of the meeting is that following the CRA presentation and citizen comments, the CRA did not receive approval to go design phase of Plaza redevelopment.

The CRA had made no alterations to the proposal it submitted to DRAB last week. In the presentation, the CRA did make repeat acknowledgment of the importance of music to the success of the Plaza, although these statements were qualified to reflect CRA belief that music/arts should not drive the Plaza design. Rather, the Plaza should be functional across other uses, on a 16-hour-per-day basis. These uses included, but were not limited to: urban market, pedestrian thoroughfare, and gathering place.

A closer look at the CRA proposal shows that with the proposed design, the CRA feels that their redesigned Plaza will be a place of congregation for UF students (who will gather prior to going to the clubs), dinner/theatre patrons (who will gather prior to attending Hipp shows and eating at restaurants, and an after-work or weekend meeting place for neighborhood residents.

I noted once again that the portion of the CRA proposal that showed desirable parks in other cities also contained a photo of ballet dancers on the existing Plaza stage. Other Plaza photos were supplied to show the Plaza as completely vacant; these seemed chosen specifically to portray the Plaza as a dark and deserted place.

It is the CRA's contention that the Plaza "functions as a separate place," not one that is integrated into the greater whole of downtown Gainesville. The Free Fridays concerts and the farmers' market were spoken of as "positives," but the space was called "negative...the rest of the time." Not taken into account were the multiple citizen-produced events that take place during the year.

A major comparison has been made to Bryant Park in New York City. In making this analogy, which was based on relationship of park to large public building (i. e. Bryant Park to the New York Public Library and Bo Diddley Plaza to the admin. building), there was no mention of the large numbers of homeless who gather in Bryant Park.

CRA feels that Bo Diddley Plaza "does not contribute to downtown (and is a) non-descript, ancillary feature."

The CRA goal is to reposition the Plaza as a "site of great concerts and an urban market." Again, more mention was made of the concert series in this meeting than was made in last week's DRAB session. The CRA stated that the Plaza is above all a "vacant, neglected space" with "infrequent" concerts," and that the ultimate goal should be to "prioritize daily activity."

The issue of visbility from University Avenue through to the Hampton Inn was again stressed. This would involve demolishing the existing stage. The CRA said that although one did not need a degree or particular background in urban redevelopment, that urban designers had been consulted about their proposal and that the urban designers had specifically mentioned the lack of visibility with the current stage in place.

The CRA ended by saying that they would like to move forward into design, although they would not go into design detail at today's meeting.


Member Lowe suggested that money be spent on more event programming and also to bring in more vendors. Member Lowe commented upon the acoustic value of the existing stage and its other functions. The CRA countered that there were at present no specific design suggestions, and Member Lowe's comments ended with reiterating that there should be more of an investment in activities.

Member Donovan stated that the Plaza had been a three-year concern of his and spoke of the "dirty language and behavior around the 'shelter' (his term for the Plaza)"; the bandshell/stage was "irritating to walk by."

Member Donovan stressed that the biggest obstacles in the existing design were the bandshell and the bathrooms. He cited the bandshell/stage as the reason people did not use the Plaza as a thoroughfare: "You wonder when the lions will be released." Member Donovan is in favor of demolishing the bandshell/stage and suggested relocatin the performance area to the raised area where the homeless currently congregate towards the back of the Plaza. Further, he proposed an activities director for the Plaza.

Mayor Hanrahan mentioned the "large number of e-mails from the music community" and acknowledged that the Plaza functions well for special events and that the number of attendees at these events has grown. She asked how much of the problem was structural and how much of it was a set of circumstances. When asked by Mayor Hanrahan if there were to be no permanent bandshell, the CRA replied "I'm not sure what you mean." CRA used Mayor Hanrahan's question to return to the issue of "flexibility for everyday use."

During Mayor Hanrahan's comments, the concerns of the "music community" were brought up, and it was stressed that the "music community" was not the entire community, and although that community's input was important, it was not reflective of the city as a whole. (Note: I am not a member of the music community and neither is the Civic Media Center, which was also represented. It was my feeling that too much stress was put on the feelings of the music community, which did not take into account the reactions of the 18,000 people who came to a Free Fridays concert this past season.)

Anthony Lyons of the CRA spoke next. Although he said he "loves concerts," he called the Plaza a "dead space" and was the second CRA member to remark that he didn't know what Mayor Hanrahan meant in her question about a permanent bandshell.

Member Mastrodicasa asked Mr. Lyons what feedback he had received on the proposal when it was submitted to DRAB last week. Mr. Lyons said DRAB had been "appreciative" of his direction and that there was not a "negative." Based on last week's DRAB meeting, DRAB suggested a proposal that was inclusive of performing arts.

Member Mastrodicasa supports events and mentioned that UF had invested in creating a better bandshell space on the UF campus. She asked if it were possible to update present bandshell and stated that she was in favor of asking for public input.

Member Henry spoke next. He mentioned the problem with the current programming, which is geared towards the evenings, and asked to add daytime programming along with food vendors. He stated that the "dip" in the amphitheatre was not "people-inviting."

Commissioner Hawkins closed out this section of the meeting by reiterating the "visual obstacles" that caused for a new design. He stated that, at minimum, the new design must incorporate a permanent top (roof) for the performance area and that permanent electrical outlets must be installed (at present there are neither of these items in the design). Commissioner Hawkins asked Mr. Lyons to obtain citizen input and acknowledged Mr. Lyon's prior statement about obtaining business input. He asked for a follow-up presentation with a minimum of three options, but possibly five to seven, that would differ on the basis of context areas. Commissioner Hawkins felt the bandshell should be oriented away from downtown and that a gazebo in the southeast corner might be a solution, utilizing "temporary acoustic background."

David Ballard of Cultural Affairs spoke about maintaining the functionality of the present bandshell and offered a counterproposal of a music park. Mr. Ballard reported 18,000 concert attendees in the 2009 season and presented survey results that indicated the percentage of people who frequented downtown businesses before or after a concert.

Bob McPeek, Cathy DeWitt, and Joe from Civic Media also spoke.

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