The Gainesville City Commission delayed a decision Thursday on how to proceed with the Thelma Boltin Center that currently sits vacant and in need of repairs.
Instead, the motion directs staff to engage with the community on the project and return on Nov. 2 to vote on a direction. The motion also tables a nearly $500,000 contract with Wannemacher Jensen Architects, Inc. for the design of the building following a partial restoration path.
The motion, made by Commissioner Bryan Eastman, passed 5-2 with commissioners Reina Saco and Casey Willits in dissent.
“It’s ridiculous to go back on something we’ve already agreed to do when we were given the same facts we were given today,” Saco said. “But somehow the facts mean different things today than they did six months ago?”
Saco added that the building’s condition and cost to repair will only increase with delays.
The issues started in December 2020 when staff discovered that the roof was partially collapsed and hired a firm to assess and secure the roof. Gainesville code enforcement declared the building dangerous in August 2022 and shut off utilities.
City staff appeared before the Historic Preservation Board in December 2022 with options for the site, and the board picked the partial restoration. In April 2023, the City Commission also selected that option.
However, the plan calls for the demolition of all but two walls, leaving some citizens to criticize the term “partial restoration.”
Community rebuttal of the partial restoration plan continued on Thursday with public commenters disagreeing with the plan. The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners also asked the city to reconsider its plan at a joint meeting in August.
Eastman said he thinks the partial restoration recommended by staff and the Historic Preservation Board will be the way forward, but he recommended meeting with the Duck Pond neighborhood first to explain the plans and assure that the historic nature will be retained instead of a modern, out-of-place building.
He said these conversations would also allow conversations about whether or not a new wing is needed or if the north wall would need to be moved to accommodate more space behind the auditorium stage.
Betsy Waite, director of Wild Spaces and Public Places, said it’s a functionality question. More space would expand the stage’s usability. She said the city doesn’t have details on what the extra space would look like since a contract for design work, on the agenda for Thursday’s meeting, hadn’t been approved.
Once the design started, she said the concepts could come before the commission or preservation board for feedback.
But, Eastman noted that eliminating the extra space might allow three walls to stay put instead of two and keep the same auditorium footprint.
After the community engagement, the Boltin Center will return to the City Commission on Nov. 2 for the next phase.
“We had community input,” Saco said. “We had a timeline of how much community input we’ve had for several years now.”
Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker asked staff if Gainesville had a maintenance plan for city facilities, especially historic buildings, so that the commission doesn’t find itself in the same position again.
Phil Mann, special advisor on infrastructure and capital projects, said he’s currently developing a work plan for all Gainesville facilities including proactive work that can be done.