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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Gainesville City Commission approves plan for City Hall Plaza Refresh Project, GRU Authority referendum draft

Wild Spaces & Public Places project would demolish plaza ponds, add green space

At its meeting Thursday, the Gainesville City Commission approved a plan for the reconstruction of the City Hall Plaza Ponds and revisited a proposed referendum regarding the GRU Authority Board.

Betsy Waite, the director of Wild Spaces & Public Places for Gainesville, said the City Hall Plaza Refresh Project  will remove city hall’s water features, create paved pedestrian areas and create landscaped green space.

The ponds surrounding city hall were built in the mid-1960s as a part of the plaza and surrounding buildings’ construction. The ponds were once decorated with natural rocks and contained live fish, Waite said. During the latest change in 2019, the ponds’ bottoms were painted to add public art to the plaza.

The plumbing keeping the water filtered began to fail a few years ago, Waite said. The high cost of repairs needed for the existing water features led to a broader discussion on how to create a more sustainable area, leading staff to develop a master plan.

In the existing layout, the main plaza area was disconnected from the surrounding buildings and streets, as well as the neighboring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Garden and Northeast Garden. This creates a “perception that the space is not safe,” Waite said.

“I think we all agree that the plaza is currently a space of transition, but it’s not a destination,” she said.

The proposed master plan would replace the raised pools with grade-level green areas and paving, while also connecting the surrounding gardens by stairs and seating terraces. 

The project will be done in phases. Phase one is “more of a basic approach,” Waite said. The first phase proposes the initial pond demolition and tree removal, trip hazard mitigation and new landscaping and sidewalks. It also includes minimal site furnishings, including eight bike rack rings, two tables with backed seating and two trash and recycling compactors.

Through a proposed and unfunded phase two, the neighboring gardens would be connected to the plaza by stairs and terraces. There would also be sidewalk improvements seen around the nearby clock tower.

Phase one would cost an estimated $150,000. Wild Spaces & Public Places “would take the bulk of the improvements,” with Tree Mitigation Funds contributing to landscaping and Parks, Recreation & Cultural Affairs staff providing all of the labor, Waite said.

Mayor Harvey Ward recognized the need to demolish the existing water features, though he’ll “miss the ponds,” he said.

“I have nostalgia for the ponds, but the ponds are not serving us and have not served us well for a very long time,” Ward said.

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Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut made the motion Thursday to approve the master plan, direct staff to proceed with the permitting and procurement process and evaluate the changes to the nearby gardens. The motion was passed unanimously.

Staff will work on permitting and procurement throughout spring and summer 2024. They aim to begin construction in January 2025.

GRU Authority referendum

The commission also revisited the proposed referendum about the GRU Authority at the meeting. The commission directed staff to draft an ordinance to create the ballot measure at its meeting March 21. 

If passed, the referendum would give Gainesville residents the opportunity to vote on whether they wish to maintain the GRU Authority Board or return control of the utility company to the city.

City Attorney Daniel Nee confirmed Thursday’s meeting was not the ordinance’s first reading, but an opportunity to better discuss its contents. Commissioners were to approve its language and timing, including indicating their preference to put the referendum on the ballot in the general election in November or the state primary election in August.

The draft clarified the ramifications of the referendum on the ballot. A yes vote would indicate a Gainesville resident is in favor of removing the amendment creating the GRU Authority Board and having future GRU governance appointed by the city.

Commissioner Ed Book emphasized the importance of the referendum’s language being easy for residents to understand.

“Simpler is better,” he said at the meeting. “It has to be as clear, as readable, as intuitive as possible.”

During public comment about the ordinance, Gainesville residents expressed their support for the referendum and the draft’s language. Many urged the commission to pass the ordinance as quickly as possible to aim to get it on the November ballot. The general election date would give residents time to discuss the issue, commenters argued.

The commissioners approved the draft and voted unanimously to bring the ordinance back at the regular commission meeting May 16 for its first reading. A special meeting will be held May 23 for its second reading.

The ordinance would require six out of seven commissioners to pass each reading.

The Gainesville City Commission will meet again May 2.

Contact Bailey Diem at Follow her on X @BaileyDiem.

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Bailey Diem

Bailey Diem is a first-year journalism major and a metro general assignment reporter for The Alligator. When not reporting, Bailey can be found playing guitar or getting lost in a book.

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