The Stetson University College of Law wants to create a one-block “easement” on 61st Street between 13th and 15th Avenues South to create what officials say will be a safer, more pedestrian-friendly campus for students, faculty, employees and visitors, but judging from the reaction at a public meeting on Thursday, May 25, it may not be happening anytime soon.
Dozens of neighborhood residents showed up for the meeting, which took place in the law school’s Eleazer Courtroom and was facilitated by Gulfport Ward 3 City Councilmember Yolanda Roman.
Stetson College of Law dean Christopher Pietruszkiewicz presented artistic and architectural renderings of what the project, if it moves forward, would look like – but attendees were having none of it, with speakers calling it a “land grab” that contributes nothing to the surrounding neighborhood. Two Stetson students and a recent graduate of the school showed up near the end of the meeting to weigh in, with one student and the graduate opposed to the proposal and one student in favor.
Pietruszkiewic argued that the proposal for 61st Street will allow for the construction of elevated walkways that will make it easier for pedestrians to cross the street during times of heavy rain, when the street is prone to flooding. He also said it will beautify the school, which, according to his estimates, “provides economic development to the City of Gulfport of about $90 million per year.”
He also said the nature of the project has been misconstrued. “Councilmember Roman called it a closure but it’s really more of an easement.”
According to Brandy Palmer, assistant director of media relations at Stetson, “The whole idea is to create an elevated crosswalk without a ‘dam effect’ so water can flow underneath it. It will also have a ramp so emergency vehicles so can drive over it. The street tends to flood in the rainy season and this will allow students, staff and faculty to cross safely.”
Some residents attacked Stetson’s reasoning, saying the plans would hamper their ability to get from their homes to Gulfport Boulevard by car, as 61st Street is one of the few neighborhood thoroughfares that doesn’t flood completely during heavy summer storms. And they mocked the elevated walkways as nothing more than architectural eye candy designed to help students avoid getting their feet wet.
Roman said she had significant concerns about Stetson’s proposal but would keep an open mind about it. She also noted that it’s still a long way from going to Gulfport City Council for consideration. Still, the opposition to the plan, as expressed among residents at the May 25 meeting, was overwhelming.
“The ball is in Stetson’s court,” Roman told the Gabber in a follow-up interview. “They’ve opened the discussion and now we’ve had this town hall meeting. They are responsible for crafting and presenting a package for this proposal that will get buy-in from residents.”
Roman added that Stetson needs to be open to the fact that closing the street to vehicle traffic might be a non-starter.
“Several people at the meeting said, ‘You need to tell us what’s in it for us.’ Stetson’s response was safety issue, safety issue, safety issue … but the connotation of that was that it was just for students. If you’re saying it’s for safety, there are other things like speed bumps and flashing lights that we could do there” as opposed to closing off the street, she said.
“What we saw in that room will come up again,” Roman added. “Stetson has to reflect on the fact that this plan will be met with resistance. If it were to go forward, I plan to hold another town hall meeting prior to city review because I heard from a lot of folks who said they couldn’t make it because of the long holiday weekend.”
Roman said she can’t speak for her fellow city council members on the matter, but in her estimation, Stetson has its work cut out for it if it forges ahead with the proposal in its current form.
“I thought it was an open and honest dialogue,” she said. “However, we left the meeting with Stetson not putting a clear benefit to the community on the table. Stetson is part of the community, true, but a lot of other folks are, too.”