February 2017 Special Section

UF Plan Focuses On Town-Gown Connections


Written By: Chris Eversole

WHAT BEGAN FOCUSED ON PLANNING FUTURE CONSTRUCTION NOW ASPIRES TO CONNECT PEOPLE

Diane McFarlin discovered a refreshing change when she moved back to Gainesville four years ago after a long hiatus.

“When I left more than 25 years ago, there was more of a town-gown divide than there was town-gown unity,” she said. “When I returned, I was pleased to see notable advancements based on better unity and a shared sense of mission. Shrill discussions had been replaced by ones based on trust.”

McFarlin, who was the Gainesville Sun’s executive editor from 1987 to 1990, now is dean of the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications.

She’s helping propel a growing collaboration between UF and the Gainesville community – serving on the steering committee for UF’s Strategic Development Plan.

Over the past year, the steering committee has worked with both university and community stakeholders to “think big” about a common vision for the next 50 years.

“Our overarching goal is to be a premier institution that the state, the nation and the world look to for leadership,” UF President Kent Fuchs said. “As we work toward that goal, we will also want to create a community that others strive to emulate.”

AN EVOLVING PROCESS

The planning process began with a focus on the physical environment – where buildings go, how the landscape looks – but it evolved from there.

“It’s been rewarding to see the focus shift to the spirit of collaboration to help UF and Gainesville thrive,” McFarlin said. “This has truly been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.”

Concrete action proposed in the plan includes making the campus more inviting to visitors through creating five town squares including two at its entryways, such as the main entrance at SW 13th Street and SW Second Avenue.

Extending the welcome mat is essential, said Albert White, a community leader who is active in the planning process.

“When I come to campus, it’s intimidating, and it’s easy to become frustrated,” he said. “I think maybe I shouldn’t be there.”

Other immediate plans include the following:

• Devoting $250,000 for grants to faculty and students to develop solutions to community problems

• Offering $50,000 in grants for art projects that highlight the community

• Offering $50,000 toward supporting local environmental issues

• Creating a cooperative body to help UF and the City of Gainesville work on issues

ENCOURAGING CREATIVE COLLISIONS

The plan strives to foster collaboration and a sense of community in two areas – the eastern third of the UF campus and area between the campus and downtown.

Short-term plans on campus call for a $2 million remodeling of the Plaza of the Americas. Long term, UF will make Newell Drive a tree-lined “Main Street” connecting the central campus and the medical center.

The university will concentrate new buildings in the core campus so it can improve collaboration, said Charlie Lane, the senior vice president and chief operating officer. “Proximity to other disciplines enhances learning and accelerates collaboration.”

UF will benefit from higher densities, as other institutions do, Lane said. “We’re not even half as dense as Ohio State University, and we’re far less dense than Purdue,” he said.

The new emphasis on collaboration with the community is crucial, Lane said. “This is what an academic community is about; it’s about engaging the community,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve done nearly enough of that in the past many, many years.”

The plan also calls for working with the city for intentional growth of east-west corridors, including the following efforts:

• Enhancing University Avenue, which now has a 37 percent vacancy rate, to make it more vibrant as a retail and dining destination

• Adding some form of “fixed transit” to University Avenue, such as a streetcar

• Turning SW Second Avenue into a boulevard with a linear park, which would require removing on-street parking

• Developing SW Fourth Avenue, which forms the southern boundary of Innovation Square, into the focal point for technology-centered development

The plan aims to make the resulting urban village attractive to faculty and staff. “When a potential faculty member considers a position at this university, he or she does not simply look at salary, benefits and school ranking,” McFarlin said. “Factors they weigh include, ‘Can I walk to home from my office?’”

HONORING THE PAST

The plan needs to preserve the history and the culture of the midtown area, noted White, who grew up in Gainesville and who is an advocate for neighborhood preservation.“

As I move around town, I hear people say that nobody downtown listens to them,” he said. “We must connect with the neighborhoods and collaborate with them.”

UF students and faculty increasingly impact the community, McFarlin noted.

• Innovation Square SW Fourth Avenue, which runs at the south end of Innovation Square, would become a focal point for activity related to innovation.

• Second Avenue The plan proposed creating a linear park on SW Second Avenue.

• Union Road Campus Square UF Strategic Development Plan calls for a more welcoming main entrance to campus.

• University Avenue The plan envisions a more vibrant West University Avenue.

For example, the College of Journalism and Communications has created an annual gathering called “Frank” that attracts people from around the country to explore new strategies that drive social change.

An outgrowth of “Frank” is “Changeville,” an art, music and film festival that focuses on community-building.

In three meetings on the strategic development plan, McFarlin sat with Susan Davenport, the president and CEO of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce – who came here from Austin, Texas.

“We discussed the potential for Changeville to grow to be something like South by Southwest, a widely popular multimedia festival in Austin,” she said. “The idea raises all kind of interesting possibilities.”

The Gainesville City Commission is developing its own strategic development plan, City Manager Anthony Lyons noted.

“UF and the city can build on each other’s successes,” he said. “These plans recognize that we can no longer work in silos to reinforce this false division of our joint purpose, which, simply put, is to work with the people.”

Senior Writer CHRIS EVERSOLE has been a keen observer of business, government and culture in the Greater Gainesville area while living here over the past two decades. His experience includes work with the University of Florida and Alachua County Government. He also has been a journalist and public relations professional in the Tampa Bay and Sarasota- Bradenton areas, as well as in Michigan, Ohio and New York.

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