Some east Gainesville neighbors are objecting to the possibility that a parking lot will be developed just a few feet from their homes.
Sam Johnson is one of many who are protesting the parking lot in the development plan for an expanded and renovated Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and Citizens Field Stadium.
About half of the 22-acre multipurpose field is planned to be turned into a parking lot of 1,000 parking spaces. The field is about a mile long. The parking lot will span north of the Citizens Field stadium, home to multiple high schools’ football and other sporting events.
The Gainesville City Commission voted unanimously, 7-0, in favor of moving forward with the expansion plan on Oct. 26.
Johnson said he supports the development of the city, but he disagrees with the removal of green space for a parking lot.
“I am pro-development. I understand the historic neglect of Gainesville’s eastside facilities. There’s a lot of room for positive development over here in the Citizens Field area,” Johnson said. “But what I’m not supportive of is the destruction of green space.”
Other residents disagree with Johnson, and they said they think the parking lot and renovations could be positive.
“I think in the long run and short run, it’ll be a good thing for the high school teams and everybody,” said Ronald Rollins, a landscaper and architect who lives in Gainesville. “It’s going to be a plus, especially in this section of town.”
Laura Thomley, a resident of Forest Ridge, said she is more hopeful about the commission’s plans for the field.
“You just got to hope that that development happens in a proper way,” Thomley said. “I’m a tree-hugger myself, and so, I’m not going to let the city willy-nilly cut down trees. But it looks like the plan that they have for Citizens Field is pretty well thought out.”
The plan for the Citizens Field renovation includes an expanded and renovated MLK Center, outdoor synthetic multipurpose fields (mainly for soccer), an upgraded Northeast pool and a renovation of the Citizens Field stadium. These renovations and expansions will bring basketball courts, multipurpose rooms, lightning, artificial turf and, obviously, a parking lot.
The Nextdoor post by Johnson sparked heated conversation online with over 50 comments from members of the community.
Residents who object to the parking lot shared sentiments against the Gainesville City Commission voting on the project to remove trees and grass for a concrete parking lot. Some residents on the post called it “gross,” “a shame” and “an unbelievably stupid plan.”
The concern: Gainesville is removing trees and grass for a parking lot despite being recognized this year again as a “Tree City USA.”
“Green space is traditionally something hard to get back,” Johnson said. “Once you destroy it, you don’t often see a parking lot turn into a park.”
“There’s going to be some trees that need to be removed for functionality,” Rollins said. “Maybe say 10 weekends that it’s going to be used and then the rest of the time it’s just going to lay open.”
The City Commission is also concerned about the functionality of the parking lot.
During the meeting, Commissioner Reina Saco said she could not imagine 1,000 cars in the parking lot, comparing it to the University of Florida’s O’Connell Center parking lot during events.
“The O’Connell Center on campus – that little free parking area — is not a pleasant place to be in whenever there is any event,” Saco said. “I just worry about that concentration and activity because the event is over two hours ago and we are still trying to get out.”
The Commission approved of going forward with the plan.
Johnson is also concerned about the functionality of the parking lot.
“How often are we going to need space for 1,000 cars?” Johnson said. “Maybe for a weekend or two or even if they need parking for 1,000 spaces for five weekends in a year. That’s 10 total days where you need 1,000 parking spaces, and there are 355 other days where that parking lot is going to be sitting there, like on a Tuesday afternoon in June. There’s going to be no cars and just a huge empty blacktop.”
Johnson said he thinks the city has to find better solutions.
He said the grass area is currently already being used as an informal parking lot during big events like football games, where people gather and “tailgate” by bringing grills to eat. The city paints mock parking lot spaces for these events, according to Johnson.
He suggested building up with parking garages instead of out, as they do in Chicago. Or improve the public transportation around Gainesville, so there’s no need for a parking lot.
“We got to build up, not out,” Johnson said. Thomley agreed.
“I’m a big proponent of build it high,” she said. “Your other option is building out, and that’s even worse than building high.”
Thomley suggested a parking garage or a shuttle to Citizens Field from existing parking garages, but ultimately, she said Gainesville could use better public transportation.
Other than residents, the recreational groups that use Citizens Field, including the Gainesville Ultimate League, a local ultimate frisbee league that’s been playing at Citizens Field for 40 years, were hesitant about the parking lot and expansion.
“I think if they were to put retail and parking and limit our ability to use and enjoy this space, it’d be a huge detriment to this community,” Jeffrey Rose, the commissioner of Gainesville Ultimate League.
One self-proclaimed veteran of Gainesville Ultimate League who has been playing for 13 years said he hopes the city will make necessary improvements, like lighting. But he said he is concerned that the parking lot will make the field unusable.
“If they’re going to put retail and parking lots and everything and make it unusable for us in the same space that it already is, then I’m not really for that,” William Byrd said.
The field has no lights, so users have to leave once the sun starts to set. For the Ultimate Frisbee league, Byrd said Citizens Field is the only place they can play. The league adopted parts of the field where the soccer field synthetic turf is going to be built. But the turf only lasts 10 years, according to C.H. Johnson Consulting’s Brandon Dawling who proposed the plan.
Byrd said he hopes the city improves the fields – the uneven ground and lack of lights that pose injury concerns – instead of building a parking lot.
But others are more hopeful about the city’s plans and do not mind the parking lot.
“I like to look on the positive side,” Thomley said. “Citizens Field needs something; it’s falling apart. But I don’t really have a problem with getting rid of some grass to build parking spaces.”
Rossana Passaniti, the city of Gainesville’s public information officer, said the multistep process project involving the redevelopment of these recreation facilities would benefit the city.
“A project of this scope would benefit, not just east Gainesville, but our entire community,” Passaniti said. “So, with the direction from the Gainesville City Commission to move forward, city staff will work to hire an architecture firm and look into sponsorship opportunities and funding sources for the project.”
For now, the funding is unclear for the proposed project, which is expected to cost almost $50 million with $15 million to renovate the field, including the parking lot.
During the meeting, Cynthia Curry, the Gainesville city manager, proposed seeking funding from the Gainesville Community Reinvestment Area, which invests money in underserved areas of Gainesville. Another option mentioned was to use the Wild Spaces & Public Places funding to proceed with the plan.
The unanimous vote approved moving forward to first find the funding and look into an architect consultant, as well as partnerships and sponsorships. Then, C.H. Johnson Consulting will bring the information back to the City Commission for further approval.
For now, Johnson said the City Commission’s decision is short-sighted, so he hopes they will carefully consider their decisions going forward.
“I think that there are so many solutions when it comes to parking and building a flat, 15-acre parking lot of 1,000 cars is extremely short-sighted,” he said. “It’s something I think they’d regret doing.”
C.H. Johnson Consulting will look for ways to fund the project until it meets with the City Commission again.