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Johnny Vardeman: Parking around square has been an issue through history
Gainesville downtown spring.jpg

Parking has been a dilemma for most downtowns everywhere. It has been a contentious issue in Gainesville’s history from the time wagons loaded with farm products would take up every inch around the square, especially on Saturdays.

Johnny Vardeman
When automobiles began to proliferate, jockeying with mules and horses for spaces, parking became more precious. As downtown built up with businesses and became more prosperous, competition for parking became more intense. Parking meters didn’t solve the problem.

Lack of adequate parking was a factor in shopping centers developing outside downtown, some longtime businesses following. At times there were about as many vacant storefronts around the square as going businesses.

The Georgia Mountains Center, opening in 1980, was to be an impetus to make downtown Gainesville viable again as a regional shopping venue. It helped because a parking deck came with it, just off the main square.

The Mountains Center was to attract a variety of top entertainment, as well as conventions and small conferences, further increasing traffic.

As Hall County government expanded downtown, it built a parking deck, too, which not only accommodated its employees, but shoppers and downtown workers. Some of those county employees now work in offices away from Gainesville’s center.

Both city and county parking decks have helped immensely, and downtown in recent years has made yet another comeback, despite some still vacant storefronts and the loss of some longtime businesses.

Downtown business employees over the years have been encouraged to use off-the-square parking, such as the parking decks, leaving the parking spaces around the square and adjacent streets for customers. It’s obvious that doesn’t always happen.

It’s funny about us customers. We might walk half a mile from a parking spot at, say Mall of Georgia or Phipps Plaza, but expect to park right in front of the business in our hometown. That’s why you see so many cars circling the square to get a prime spot instead of walking a block from the parking decks.

Parking might be more of a problem in the coming weeks as projects in and around downtown reduce space, although temporarily. Brenau University now occupies the former Georgia Mountains Center, and its parking deck is being expanded from four to six decks, however, prempting its use during construction.

Multimillion-dollar multiuse projects a block from the square have removed parking spaces during construction. Downtown Gainesville will be an entirely different place when all this happens. But the square itself and its small park in the middle will remain pretty much as it was laid out when the city was born.

There have been controversies over the years concerning downtown, the square in particular. In 1901, a ruling by Judge Garland H. Prior stopped the proposed sale of the park. Some business people wanted to develop more businesses in the middle and get rid of what they termed the unsightly hitching of horses and mules around the park. Most residents, however, opposed the sale, saying the city needed “some breathing space.”

After discussion of erecting a statue of Lyman Hall, the county’s namesake, in the middle of the park, the United Daughters of Confederacy instead led a campaign to erect a statue in memory of Confederate soldiers. At one time, the names of all local Confederate veterans were proposed to be engraved on the monument.

But parking continued to be an issue, and the traffic flow and parking have changed over the years. In 1918, the city banned parking on Main Street from Spring to Broad and on Washington from Bradford to Green. The next year, the county prohibited parking on courthouse grounds, then located just south of the downtown square. The city added alleys to the “no parking” zones.

In 1921, a local newspaper writer called parking conditions on the square deplorable, saying Gainesville was “not a little crossroads country town anymore.” Cars at that time parked nilly-willy in the middle of the street or at street curbs with no designated spaces, and there was no orderly traffic flow for cars, wagons or buggies.

At least there is some direction today with traffic signals at all four corners. But parking, as it has been through history, remains a challenge despite the addition of parking decks within the view of “Old Joe,” the Confederate statue in the middle of a tree-shaded square that at one time might have been cleared for development.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326; e-mail.

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