By: Ron Wayne
2016 will bring a new “front porch” to downtown Gainesville in the form of a more welcoming entrance to the revamped Bo Diddley Community Plaza.
Until now, the East University Avenue side of the plaza was like the back of a house, said Malcolm Kiner, who is managing the $1.8 million improvement project for the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency. Starting in March, the thousands of people who come to the plaza for concerts and other events will find a wall of gently trickling water with 250 programmable lights on the side of the main building facing University Avenue. An informational kiosk has been built on the northwest corner while a new café will open on the northeast corner. Trees and benches line curved brick sidewalks. The RTS bus stop will be moved farther east toward the Courthouse.
“Everyone wanted to figure out a way to make the plaza more inviting,” Kiner said. The design review process started a few years ago with input from downtown business owners and other stakeholders. The collective effort resulted in decisions about details as minor as the color of the bricks.
“Community input was reached in determining what the actual look and feel would be,” he said.
In the area facing the stage, concertgoers and patrons of other events will find more places for their chairs and blankets as the picnic tables have been removed. Performers and others who rent the stage now will have a “green room” and dressing rooms. No such space existed before, and Kiner expects this could allow more theatrical productions that need privacy for costume changes. In addition, the public restrooms have been renovated.
The Gainesville Department of Parks, Recreation & Cultural Affairs has improved the south side of the plaza, including acoustical improvements to the stage, LED stage lighting, brick repairs, enhanced turf, new light fixtures and a mural re-touch by the original artist.
“They’re giving it a little face-lift on that side as well,” Kiner said.
The Steamers restaurant will continue to operate in the historic Bethel Station in the southwest corner of the plaza.
While construction work continued, both the popular Free Fridays Concert Series and the Union Street Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays were displaced to the parking lot at Southwest 1st Avenue and Southwest 2nd Street. Both will return to the plaza this year.
Russell Etling, cultural affairs manager for the Parks, Recreation & Cultural Affairs Department, books the Friday night concert series, which will resume May 6. He said the renovation will be a plus for both the artists and the audience.
“The addition of dressing and green rooms will provide the performers with private space to prepare to go onstage,” Etling said. “Acoustic treatment to the canopy will enhance the onstage sound and new speakers will improve the audience experience as well. New LED stage lighting will take production values to the next level.”
The new restrooms and renovation of the entrance and audience seating area will add to the venue’s esthetics and comfort for all who attend the shows, he noted.
“It’s just a fresh start, a fresh beginning, a new opportunity to really program the plaza, bring more events, bring more community groups, bring our entire community back downtown and into the plaza,” Kiner said. The plaza has a capacity of up to 4,000 people, he added.
The city has created a streamlined process with one point of contact for those people interested in renting the stage for events. Interested groups should call 352-393-8200.
Kiner said the new plaza also will provide a convenient place for lunches or breaks for the many employees who work in the nearby county administration building, City Hall and other buildings.
The plaza will reopen in March, but the first public event will be a concert Feb. 25 held in conjunction with the annual frank conference sponsored by the University of Florida. A concert during last year’s conference was the last event before the plaza closed for construction. Gainesville native Charles Bradley, a funk-soul-R&B singer, will perform the free concert. The event from 6 to 10 p.m. will include live art, other band performances and food trucks.