Florida lawmakers' 'Memorial Park' plans could reshape downtown Tallahassee. What we know
Florida lawmakers want to build a park for state monuments as a gateway to downtown, across Monroe Street from the Historic Old Capitol and next to the Leon County Courthouse.
The House State Administration & Technology Committee Tuesday approved a committee bill to incorporate three additional buildings into the Capitol Complex, the Elliot, Holland and R. A. Gray buildings.
Currently, state statute defines the Capitol Complex as an eight-block area of state-owned buildings bounded by Monroe Street on the east, Jefferson Street on the north, and Duval and Gaines streets on the west and south.
The Capitol Police and Department of Management Services have jurisdiction over the buildings and adjacent state-owned land.
The proposal nearly doubles the size of the state Capitol campus, moving the boundaries east to Calhoun Street, to take in the Elliot, and west to Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd for the Gray Building.
The expansion also includes the Florida Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the east and the Florida Museum of History on the west and it increases the area where Capitol Police will patrol.
PCP SAT 23 -01, requires the Department of Management Services, as the state's property manager, to reserve a four-block area from the Holland to Elliot buildings along Monroe for five memorials authorized, but yet erected, and future monuments authorized by the Legislature.
The bill designates the four-block district to be named "Memorial Park."
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The plan dedicates $2 million to raze the Elliot Building and begin design of the park's first phase, where Memorial Park will share the intersection of U.S. 27 and 319 with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the Historic Old Capitol.
"With Memorial Park located along Monroe, the memorials will easily visible from the street rather than tucked away in the Courtyard between the Capitol and the Historic Capitol Building," said Rep. Demi Busatta Cabrera, R-Coral Gables, the committee chair.
A Capitol Police crackdown downtown?
The seemingly non-offensive proposal sparked a Twitter debate after a political consultant and publisher used it as a prompt to paint a dystopian picture of a Tallahassee downtown "littered with trash, human waste — and sometimes violent — crowd of panhandlers and homeless."
Peter Schorsch in his Sunburn newsletter to subscribers Monday said the city’s response to complaints about civil disorder had been lackluster and speculated the proposal would bring the Capitol Police in as reinforcement to restore order in the heart of the city.
The bill as written, and staff analysis makes no mention of law enforcement or the streets around the Capitol Complex being a dangerous neighborhood.
Various officials also quickly rebutted any suggestion the Florida Legislature was attempting a police takeover of a Tallahassee neighborhood.
A House analysis found no additional law enforcement costs in the proposal. The only fiscal impact, according to staff, is $2 million for the design and development of Memorial Park.
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Mayor John Dailey said his reading of the bill "codifies" what currently exists.
"They patrol the Capitol office buildings and the parking garages, and we do anything we can to help support them," said Dailey.
He described the relationship between the Tallahassee Police Department and Capitol Police as "seamless."
TPD Chief Lawrence Revell said the proposal simply recognizes "the existing footprint of the Capitol Complex.”
And progressive City Commissioner Jeremy Matlow said the only time downtown is dangerous are the 60 days when a Republican supermajority is in town.
Matlow said if the lobbying corps has an issue about police response to their concerns, "they can petition the mayor for a new city manager." Matlow has called for City Manager Reese Goad to be fired.
At a city commission meeting Wednesday, Dailey called Schorsch's take a "little bit sensationalized."
Commissioner Curtis Richardson, who said he was "incensed" by the coverage, went further.
"He lives in St. Petersburg. I’ve lived in this town 50 years and I’ve never seen the kind of waste and deplorable conditions that he described in that article,” Richardson said, adding the homeless problem here is "nothing like you would find in other cities, including St. Petersburg.”
“We’re proud of our downtown, its aesthetics, its safety, the businesses that we have downtown, the services that are provided to our residents and guests when they visit our downtown,” Richardson said.
The blowback on social media
Some residents also leaped into the fray on social media.
Tori Lynn Schneider, a former Tallahassee Democrat photojournalist, took to Twitter to declare Schorsch's depiction of downtown the “most inaccurate description of Tallahassee I’ve ever seen. "
Schneider and Schorsch then engaged in a back and forth with Schorsch posting a photo of purported human waste said to have been taken on College Avenue, not part of the current or proposed expanded Capitol Complex.
Schneider reposted photos of Schorsch delivering Girl Scout cookies in the heart of the district he disparaged.
The exchange drew in other residents – some who agreed Tallahassee has a homeless problem, but pointed to other parts of the city – like near the homeless shelter on West Pensacola Street, where residents have expressed concerns about safety.
Shifting monument site plans
No one at Tuesday's legislative committee hearing mentioned the homelessness, or violent panhandlers, or the need for more law enforcement around the state Capitol.
Lawmakers had two questions when Busatta Cabrera presented the Memorial Park Act.
Rep. Javonte Edmonds, D-Palm Beach, wanted verification that no new monuments have been authorized since 2018, and that any monument not yet erected would be designated for Memorial Park.
Busatta Cabrera answered yes, to both.
A Florida Slavery Memorial was approved that year and was to be placed on the Capitol's north courtyard along Pensacola Street. But efforts to reinforce an underground parking garage infrastructure have delayed its construction and also that of the Florida Holocaust Memorial, previously slated for the south courtyard.
Rep. Angela Nixon, D-Jacksonville, asked if Busatta Cabrera would meet to discuss an amendment to exempt the proposed Memorial Park from new rules governing protests at the Capitol Complex.
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" I just don't want to be impeding on people's First Amendment right. That's basically it," said Nixon. "I just want to make sure that we're keeping Florida free and let folks actually protest and exercise their First Amendment right."
Busatta Cabrera agreed to meet and discuss Nixon's concerns.
Here's what the bill actually does
Administrative committees rarely engage in controversy. They mostly deal with what amounts to legislative housekeeping measures.
This was evident Tuesday when all five bills the committee considered passed in less than 28 minutes of discussion on unanimous 14 - 0 votes.
PCP SAT 23 -01 by the State Administration & Technology Appropriations Subcommittee adds three buildings and adjacent parking garages and public streets to the downtown Capitol Complex. Buildings included in an expanded complext would include,
- The Capitol
- The Historic Capitol
- The Senate Office Building
- The House Office Building
- The Knott Building
- The Pepper Building, and new additions
- The Holland Building
- The Elliot Building
- The R. A. Gray Building
What memorials will Memorial Park include?
Florida lawmakers have authorized 13 monuments to be placed on the Capitol Complex grounds. Eight, such as the Florida Women Hall of Fame, and the Florida Medal of Honor Wall, have been completed.
The other five, including a Florida Holocaust Memorial, and a monument to the 241 U.S. Marines killed in a 1983 attack in Beirut have yet to be erected.
Monuments that could be among Memorial Parks first dedications
- Florida Veterans' Walk of Honor and Florida Veterans' Memorial Garden
- Florida Holocaust Memorial
- Florida Slavery Memorial
- Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys Memorial (Florida Capitol)
- Beirut Memorial
The State Administration & Technology Committee is a subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee. The proposal will be forwarded to Appropriations for consideration.
James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on him Twitter: @CallTallahasse