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Gainesville southside upgrade effort may get fresh start
Commissioner seeks park, sidewalk improvements in underserved area
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New progress is being made to develop park, improve roads and sidewalks, and redevelop some dilapidated housing in Morningside Heights after being pushed off for years. Now restarting the project begins with developing land the county owns behind the Hall County Health Department and the Butler Center property off Athens Street. - photo by Scott Rogers

The logistics of developing a park and community center on Gainesville’s southside have proven nightmarish for civic and local government leaders over the years.

Millions of dollars in land deals have fallen through, funding has come up short, and plans have been scuttled and then redrawn.

Now Hall County Commissioner Jeff Stowe said he is pushing forward with a proposal to piece together vacant property with existing infrastructure to finally bring the idea to life.

“We’re trying to figure out how to proceed,” he said

Jeff Stowe 2013
Jeff Stowe

Residents have beaten the drum for a park in Morningside Heights since at least 2004.

The neighborhood spans approximately 9 square miles east of EE Butler Parkway with Athens Street serving as its main thoroughfare. Interstate 985 splits the community.

Members of the Concerned Citizens of Gainesville-Hall County, a grass-roots organization, have worked to revitalize the area that is home to more than 3,000 people residing in either public housing or single-family homes.

There are no city or county schools, parks or recreational facilities located within the community.

While South Hall, East Hall and North Hall each have community centers, no such comprehensive development exists in minority and immigrant neighborhoods in the Gainesville city limits.

DeSota Park in the Newtown neighborhood, however, shows what benefits even a small park can bring to a community. The park includes basketball and tennis courts, as well as a pavilion for dining and community events. It’s been the scene of fundraisers and celebrations, serving as an anchor in a historic African-American neighborhood.

Gainesville architect Garland Reynolds once designed a park in Morningside Heights for the Concerned Citizens group that included walking trails, basketball courts, group shelters, a fishing pond and a pavilion.

And as recently as last fall, plans were in order to develop a parcel adjacent to the Harrison Square public housing complex with these amenities in mind.

But an environmental assessment revealed potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in added costs just to get the property ready for construction.

Now, restarting the project begins with developing land the county owns behind the Hall County Health Department property off Athens Street. Stowe envisions basketball courts, a pavilion, a water feature and a playground at the site.

Expanding parking at the health department location and, advocates suggest, incorporating the old Butler Gym could be included in the project.

But the proposal could hinge on whether a broader redevelopment plan Stowe has in mind comes to fruition.

For example, Stowe wants to package the deal with projects that include sidewalk and intersection improvements around the Harrison Square apartments, as well as affordable housing renovations.

The county commission is pursuing state grant funding for these projects, Stowe added.

“At least it gets us started,” he said.

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