Mandy Millam used to walk into City Hall worried about the old Army Reserve property in northeast Gainesville.
But Monday night, she felt calm.
The Recreation, Cultural Affairs and Public Works Committee met Monday night to discuss requests for proposals for the 6.8 acre lot and the old building that sits on half of it.
The city plans to keep half the land at 1101 NE Eighth Ave. to build a new park. Commissioners and committee members are accepting proposals to develop the other half of the available land.
Millam, president of the Friends of Reserve Park, and other members of the group have been pushing city commission members for years to restore the old property.
“It’s untapped potential,” Millam said. “We really need something more than just decomposing building and collapsing trees in our neighborhood.”
The city of Gainesville made a deal with the U.S. Army in 1950 to transfer ownership of the vacant land to the federal government with an agreement that the land would be returned when it was no longer needed. Three years later, the land was turned into the C.R. Layton Army Reserve, complete with an underground firing range, drill hall and living areas, city records show.
More than 60 years later, in 2011, the city received a call that the property was of no further use. According to city records, the Army had plans to build a new reserve across the street, leaving the old one to slowly crumble.
Tom Lyons, Friends of Reserve Park treasurer, lives one street away from the site where the city hopes to build a park. He is also the parent of a young child and said one of the biggest problems in the neighborhood is that there is no access to parks without crossing a major road, presenting a safety concern to families.
Lyons, whose brother is a reservist, thinks the park would be important because it would honor Army reservists like his brother.
“It’s an Army reserve property, and making some sort of park in honor of reservists who are currently active duty troops and don’t get the recognition for that … it would be nice to honor them,” he said.
The building has not been used since 2009. Tests done by the Army showed the reserve’s tiles and pipes are filled with mildew, asbestos and lead paint, according to a 2014 city of Gainesville agenda summary.
The city had hoped the Army would take care of these issues permanently before turning the land over. Instead, the Army offered to encapsulate the pipes, effectively wrapping the asbestos, not removing it.
The total costs of eliminating the asbestos is about $350,000, according to city estimates in the agenda summary.
Any reuse of the building would require extensive work. City records show the roof needs to be replaced, the heating and cooling systems need repair and renovations are needed to meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards, which require the building to have railings added to its bathrooms, ramps and elevators.
City staff decided in 2014 to wait and evaluate at a later date to decide whether the reserve was worth saving or destroying, according to agenda records.
So the old brick building sat. Tall weeds grew on the grounds. The parking lot cracked. The place where reservists once practiced their shots was silent.
“It’s a blight,” Lyons said. “It’s got barbed wire around it, and it just looks awful.”
At Monday’s meeting, commissioners, committee members and citizens discussed what each proposal, either to restore the building or demolish it, should contain.
They were all in agreement that public benefits and access, park compatibility with the surrounding neighborhood and fiscal impact on the city should be weighed equally.
City Commissioner Randy Wells said he hopes any bidders that come forward have what is best for the neighborhood and park in mind, as well as economic benefits for the city.
“I see a possibility of accomplishing both some benefit for the immediate neighborhood right near by — the ability to walk to green space and have play space — and something that brings positive energy and life to this area,” he said.
Wells said about a half dozen ideas have been brought forward, and he expects more before the bidding process begins. He agrees with Millam and Lyons that the accepted proposal should reflect the service of Army Reserves.
“This property served as point of the U.S. Army Reserve for more than 50 years, and so there’s a history of service at this property that I want to be honored, whatever the repurposing of the site is,” Wells said.
Both Millam and Lyons are hopeful that the meeting has started real progress toward the construction of a new building and park.
“It needs revitalization, and this is the key,” Millam said. “We really think this property and revitalizing it is going to add a lot of continued value.”
Lyons echoed Millam’s sentiment.
“It’s the domino effect,” Lyons said. “Once this property gets redone in the right way, not the wrong way, then people will be moving to the neighborhood in droves.”