Historic Preservation In Gainesville At A Crossroads After Planner’s Resignation

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 Five years ago, historic preservation in Gainesville almost came to an end.

“Those were the words that were said, that we need to end this and we need to get rid of it completely,” Mayor Lauren Poe said. “Where we are now is in a rebuilding process.”

An ordinance clarified the local historic preservation board’s power, the City Commission’s role in helping it and process of future preservation. As part of the process, the commission and board held a joint meeting in April 2019 to discuss hiring a preservation planner.

One year later, the position was filled. Four months later, the position became vacant.

“It is up to the board and citizens to demand better,” the new planner, Salvatore Cumella, wrote in his resignation email titled “Looking Forward” and addressed to the preservation board.

“I have found that years of the city’s neglect of a formal preservation program have taken its toll on the attitudes and culture associated with historic preservation,” Cumella said.

The commission and board held another joint meeting, virtually on Oct. 28.

“I think he hit every point,” Commissioner Gigi Simmons said about Cumella’s email.

Simmons also discussed the strained relationship between the commission and board.

“What you have is contention, you have a lot of animosity, and it makes it extremely difficult for current board members and past board members to do their jobs,” she said.

The cause? Deceit and conflicting agendas, Simmons said. She recalled, for example, when in the early 2000s the city planning department told her that her neighborhood, Porters, could not be registered as a historic district because non-historic homes were recently built there.

Though Porters was founded in 1884, it is still not recognized among Gainesville’s historic districts. That is even though the registered districts – Pleasant Street, Northeast Residential, Southeast Residential, University Heights-North and University Heights-South – feature homes both contributing and not contributing to their respective histories, Simmons said.

The commission and board need to establish common intentions and develop trust, she said.

“Until we have some real conversations, we’re just going to be going in circles,” Simmons added. “And while we’re going in circles, our neighborhoods are going to be destroyed.”

Board members said it’s difficult to perform as expected when working solely as volunteers.

“We are particularly distressed at the lack of a full-time staff support,” said Bill Warriner, the board’s vice chair.

Both the planning and historic preservation boards exist to advise the commission. The former covers issues such as land use and zoning, while the latter reviews historic district matters.

Many on both sides agreed that it would be difficult to find and retain the experienced planner the city requires with the current salary for the position. The preservation planner could earn between $48,208-$67,491 a year, while a Gainesville city planner can make $70,000-$100,000.

Poe said another $10,000- $20,000 could be added to the budget if it makes the position more competitive and less directed toward entry-level applicants.

However, the preservation board wishes for more than a higher-paid planner.

Its advocates point to St. Augustine and its nine square miles of land, about seven times smaller than Gainesville’s 61 square miles. St. Augustine has two full-time preservation planners and two full-time archaeologists, said Jennifer Wolfe, a historic preservation officer there.

At Fernandina Beach, there is one preservation planner: Cumella. He’s been there since 2016.

At the joint meeting in Gainesville, Warriner said he was concerned about out of town interests encroaching on the board’s objectives. His colleagues agreed that the issue goes back to not having a full-time staff to help keep developers away from historic buildings and districts.

St. Augustine has similar concerns, Wolfe said.

“We have development pressures, too, combined with the influx of tourism and new residents with a preservation learning curve,” she said.

Wolfe said creating a master plan for preservation and having a supportive, dedicated city administration and commission have helped preserve St. Augustine’s history.

Another problem in Gainesville is that the board did not attract the number or type of applicants they had hoped for. Finding new and capable board members is just as hard, officials said.

“It takes judgment calls, it takes knowledge, it takes an understanding of the different styles of architecture you’re dealing with and of the history of the neighborhoods,” Preservation Board Chair Jay Reeves said. “It’s not easy for anybody to just walk in and do.”

Reeves is among those members who have served on the board for many years. He said he tried to step away, only to be recruited again, because no one would fill his position.

Elizabeth Hauck and other new members said their board experience has been underwhelming.

Hauck, an administrative assistant at the University of Florida College of Design, Construction and Planning, said she has been disappointed since joining the board in February.

Her application process included no questioning or reference requests. She thought her duties would include those outlined in the ordinance: Updating the inventory of historic places, expanding historic neighborhoods, finding funding and encouraging preservation efforts.

Instead, Hauck said, “All we do is look at windows.”

She added: “I just feel that there is so much more to historic preservation than just windows and trim on buildings. We have to look at the larger picture of these entire neighborhoods.”

Another board member, Michelle Hazen, noted that the board has no final authority, and that the commission can overturn any of its preservation suggestions.

Case in point: In December 2018, the board attempted to register the building that once housed St. Michael’s Episcopal Church as a historic landmark, protecting it from demolition. The board asked for a month to register the building after the holiday season, Hazen said.

However, demolition of the church began the day after Christmas that year after the Episcopal Diocese of Florida, based in Jacksonville, pushed for the action. A meeting during which the building might have established it as a landmark was scheduled for a week later.

“Where’s all of the work that we did as board members, as individuals?” Hazen said. “Poof. It’s gone.”

As for hiring a new preservation planner, Hazen said it is important to find someone not only with knowledge of the community, but someone who has also dealt with development pressures.

Three Gainesville residents called in to speak during the joint meeting.

Melanie Barr, a Duckpond resident and former board member, said that some of the duties put on her successors are too demanding for volunteers and should be handed by a full-time staffer.

“The state of historic preservation here is dire,” said Barr, who in the early 1990s moved into a historic house she helped save from becoming a parking lot.

Marty Hylton, director of historic preservation at the University of Florida, advocated for a revised delay for property demolitions in a district, an issue that Cumella had been working on.

As of now, the board has 90 days to decide whether to block any demolition request. A revised version would allow more time to register properties in historic registries, possibly saving them.

Hylton called for creating a heritage overlay district in communities such as Porters. While not as rigid and prescriptive as a historic one, it would still protect an area from development, he said.

The commission is looking to designate more neighborhoods as historic districts, Commissioner Reina Saco said. Which ones, though, were not discussed at the meeting.

Commissioner Gail Johnson offered six ideas for helping the board: Weaving historic preservation into the commission’s equitable development discussion, providing short-term solutions for the board within the next two months, introducing an internship position, giving the board access to the state’s master file of historic sites and updating board member requirements.

Johnson then made a motion to develop a formal process for interviewing board members and expanding the applicant pool by removing criteria that might deter potential ones. It failed 4-3. Those who opposed the motions – Simmons, Saco and Commissioners Harvey Ward and Adrian Hayes-Santos – did not respond to requests for comment.

The other five items Johnson proposed all passed unanimously.

Cumella said afterward he was encouraged by the discussions during the meeting.

“My leaving was a wake-up call for many that the city needs to put more value on its preservation program, if it is to be successful,” he said.

After his resignation, Cumella offered recommendations to the city’s sustainable development department and said he would continue to support the preservation board members.

He said he hopes the board and commission will find a qualified staff, better organize their records system, adjust their budget for preservation purposes and change the general mindset of preservation from development impediment to economic engine.

“All in all,” Cumella said, “I believe the joint meeting was very successful – and hope to see at least one or two of these joint meetings happen yearly.”

About Taylor Martin

Taylor is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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