A recent “what-if” idea session among Lakeland Downtown Development Authority board members led to a discussion about making Munn Park more conducive to public events by adding permanent restrooms. And that led to the airing of a concept to build a downtown welcome center in a corner of the park that would include offices and a place for what a former boss of mine called bio breaks.
By the end of Thursday morning’s meeting, the LDDA board members concluded that the way to sell the concept is showing people what it would look like. They agreed to ask an architect to create a rendering showing a two-story structure in the northeast corner of the park next to a city parking lot and across from Jimmy John’s.
LDDA Executive Director Julie Townsend confirmed Thursday afternoon that Jon Kirk with Straughn Trout Architects, a company on continuing contract with the city of Lakeland, has agreed to provide the rendering.
The issue came up after new board chair Michael Kincart, a lawyer with Peterson Myers, suggested the organization develop a list of priorities in order to maintain a leadership role in guiding downtown’s future.
The priority list will be a focus of an upcoming LDDA board retreat, whose dates have not been set yet. But a discussion of priorities dominated Thursday’s board meeting.
The discussion focused on Munn Park and restrooms after longtime board member Eric “Bro” Belvin, managing partner of Linksters Tap Room, noted that downtown walkability was a major goal of the organization and that water fountains and public restrooms enhance walkability, particularly in gathering places such as Munn Park.
The idea of public restrooms has met resistance in the past because of issues surrounding maintaining cleanliness and policing unwanted behaviors, Belvin noted, “but that’s the price of progress.”
Board members noted that many cities with thriving downtowns often provide restroom facilities in public gathering spots. And they also mentioned that other city parks — the Magnolia Building and Peggy Brown Building near Lake Mirror, Common Ground, Dobbins Park, city tennis courts, for example — maintain restroom facilities that are open for most of the day but locked after hours.
Downtown business owners say they already shoulder the burden from a lack of restroom facilities because they often have to clean messes left in alleys and even front entrances.
Belvin found support from other LDDA board members.
“When you bring that many people (downtown), and our goal is to have large events gather, then you have to provide the basic facilities,” Kincart said.
When restrooms are not provided for the majority who will not cause problems because of fears about problems caused by a small number of people, “you’re managing to the exception,” said board member Donna DeStefano, senior special projects manager at Summit Consulting. “Why be worried about the 20% when we’re missing the boat for the 80%?”
City Commissioner Mike Musick, who represents the commission on the LDDA board, said he was impressed by the cleanliness of public restrooms during a recent trip to Norway. That might not be the case here, but “it can be done is what I’m saying.”
Belvin anticipated that city officials would say money for restrooms in Munn Park hasn’t been budgeted. But when the commission decided it was time to move the Confederate monument from the center of the park in 2018, “we damn sure facilitated it real fast. It was viewed as a necessity at that point and I feel our other necessity” is restrooms, he said. (The City Commission allocated red-light camera proceeds to move the monument.)
Belvin wondered aloud whether the city owns a building on the periphery of Munn Park that could be used for public restrooms.
No, Townsend responded, and then she laid out her vision for a welcome center at the northeast corner of Munn Park.
It would be on a polygon currently occupied by grass and a magnolia tree. It is near the entrance to the city parking lot and across Kentucky Avenue from Jimmy John’s.
She envisions a two-story structure that would mimic Lakeland’s historic architecture. The bottom floor would contain restrooms and a welcome center that would be staffed during business hours. Offices upstairs would house local agencies, including the LDDA, who would pay rent. Perhaps some space could be reserved for agencies that work on homelessness issues, she suggested.
The second story could be built to hang over the first row of parking in the parking lot, creating more room for offices and cover for several cars, she said.
A recent study proposing future uses for Munn Park suggested placing small container buildings at the northern end of the park for food service and retail. Townsend suggested instead placing a building on the northwest corner on the other side of the fountain that would be similar in style to the welcome center; it could house small businesses, including some emerging from the Lakeland Economic Development Council’s Catapult Lakeland small business incubator.
The project could be a collaboration involving organizations such as the city of Lakeland and the LEDC. The LDDA has funding that could be contributed to the project, she said, adding that she anticipates more funding in coming years as more downtown property is added to the tax rolls.
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