Presented with two staff options for the future of the downtown Gainesville Streatery program, the Gainesville City Commission chose a third – committing to making some parts of downtown permanently pedestrian-only.
Initially, the Streatery program was launched in 2020 to close parts of SW 1st Avenue and a section of NW 2nd Street to allow local businesses to expand their outdoor seating areas during the early part of the COVID pandemic.
City staff returned to the commission Thursday morning to ask the commissioners what to do with those temporary measures.
City architect Sarit Sela suggested two options to the commission for the portions of SW 1st Avenue: take down the barriers and allow cars on the once-closed portions or work to change the closed areas into festival streets.
Changing over to a “festival street” model would convert the diagonal pull-in parking spots to parallel parking spots to allow the expansion of the sidewalk and developing more landscaped areas in front of the businesses. Traffic would be allowed on a festival street, but it could be easily closed for special events.
In a series of votes, the commission chose a hybrid model, voting 4-2 to make two blocks of SW 1st Avenue permanently pedestrian-only. The pedestrian blocks extend from SW 2nd Street to S. Main Street.
“I think that we, as a society, we just are so attached to automobile travel, that it takes emergency tools like this to really help us see how we can reimagine it,” said Commissioner David Arreola. “So my preference would be that we make these permanent car-free zones and address the safety issues and the aesthetic issues and improve people’s visitor experiences.”
Danny Hughes, who owns Loosey’s Downtown at 120 SW 1st Avenue, told the commission he had spent $100,000 on equipment and infrastructure in order to serve the Loosey’s tables outside in the Streatery area, and said he wanted to know if the Streatery project was going to be continued long term before he spent any additional money.
“I’ve said anytime anybody will listen, just let us finish it,” Hughes said. “If you create a basic minimum standard, we are going to do it faster and better and more appealing than any committee is ever going to be able to accomplish.”
The commission also unanimously agreed to look at converting the segment of SE 1st Avenue from S. Main to Sweetwater Park into a festival street. That segment of 1st Avenue runs by Bo Diddley Plaza, the county and federal courthouses and the Alachua County Library District headquarters.
Sela estimated that it would cost the city $1 million per block to convert 1st Avenue to a festival street, but said that conversion could be done in stages.
Changing over the remainder of 1st Avenue to a festival street would help connect downtown more strongly Sweetwater Park, which is a feature of a downtown strategic plan that the city commissioned.
“If a sidewalk is much larger … it changes how you engage with the space,” said Commissioner Reina Saco, who supported the festival street development of SE 1st Avenue. “You have a greater place to kind of stroll… It provides a lot more space for everyone, for our businesses and for our neighbors or anyone who visits.”
A motion to make the Streatery area on NW 2nd Street permanently pedestrian-only, however, failed to win enough support with the commission – deadlocking at 3-3. However, the commission did vote to ask the city staff to bring back a set of options for the NW 2nd Street portion of the Streatery, which closes a little less than half a block NW 2nd Street just off of W. University Avenue.
The NW 2nd Street Streatery is used by Flaco’s Cuban Bakery as an outdoor seating area. However, the Pleasant Street Neighborhood Association has asked the commission to lift the closure of the road and return it to use as an access point for the neighborhood.
Dotty Faibisy, of the neighborhood association, said the residents of Pleasant Street had lost one of the entrances to their neighborhood when the Streatery program closed the road.
“It’s an old street,” Faibisy said. “It’s an important street in the neighborhood, and we don’t want it blocked.”
Sara Puyana, who owns Flaco’s and two other businesses in Gainesville, asked the commission to keep the half-block of NW 2nd Street closed to traffic.
“I hear that there are frustrations with the space being blocked, but I think there are plenty of other streets that create access to the neighborhood,” Puyana told the commissioners.
The street is one-way, and Puyana said that before the pandemic motorists regularly went the wrong way on the road. She said that prior to the Streatery closure three separate cars had crashed into the restaurant, and that police would regularly have to block off the portion of NW 2nd Street from University to NW 1st Avenue.
“I want to work with our community,” Puyana said. “I want to make solutions.”
Commissioners Saco, Harvey Ward and Desmon Duncan-Walker voted against the motion to make the closure on NW 2nd Street permanent, preferring to look first at options and engage more with the community on potential solutions.
Because Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut wasn’t at the morning portion of the Thursday meeting to cast a tie-breaking vote, the motion failed to earn a majority of “ayes.”
“And I’m very, very concerned about how we can make sure that we are centering the needs of this existing community,” Duncan-Walker said. “So I don’t know what the answers are there either, but I will say that I don’t want to overlook that community.”