Opinions mixed on Hemming Plaza changes

Many want card playing banned, benches removed; others don't want changes

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Members of the Hemming Plaza committee met Tuesday to draft an ordinance on the push to ban card playing and remove benches from the popular downtown park.

It would change the look of the plaza in front of City Hall for good and move the homeless to another location.

Though many want the homeless gone, some business owners are actually defending them.

"People always talk about the negative parts of it, but to me it's real life out there," business owner Rob Chamblin said.

Downtown bookstore and cafe owner Chamblin doesn't see this as a major problem that calls for a permanent fix in the form of a city law.

At the meeting, more than a dozen residents showed up to voice their concerns, arguing that the suggested restrictions are a violation of human rights.

Committee members disagree, but said they're open to other ideas.

"We have to put some restrictions in this public park so that the rest of the public can use it, not just the people that are hanging out here," City Councilman Don Redman said.

Committee members said they want card playing in Hemming Plaza banned. They also want to remove the benches, trim the trees and allocate money to repair the flower beds.

"If you take the tables out, the benches, it will make the park not a park," Chamblin said. "Not enjoyable by anybody. They should leave the ability to play games."

"I want to know where the litmus test is going to fall. Are we going to take a chart out here and gauge it by how many baths a week somebody takes, maybe the shade of their skin color?" said Robert Mann, who opposes changes to the park. "Who is acceptable and who isn't, who gets to decide?"

But not everyone agrees with Chamblin and Mann.

"They don't just show up and leave," resident Bob Pallais said. "They show up and stay, and that can be a problem."

Pallais sees the issue with the homeless just hanging out. He said some people don't feel safe bringing their families to the park.

"Honestly, what they've got to do is make the downtown area a more comfortable place to visit," Pallais said.

Committee members are hoping the City Council signs off on the law, but some locals say that won't happen without a fight.

"Taking away the chair and tables is totally stupid," resident John Fletcher said. "Homeless people exist. We should be doing something to fix the problem. Thank God we have a decent mayor now that's for the people."

The chair of the committee designed to re-energize Hemming Plaza didn't show up to the meeting. So after some discussion, members decided to schedule another meeting at a later date. It's unclear when that will be, but it will be open to the public.

Robert Mann, publisher of MetroJacksonville.com, said he is up in arms over the proposal.

"It's part of our city. It's part of our culture and heritage. I feel like its part of me," Mann said. "I can remember being here as a toddler and to tell me suddenly that you're going to exclude this group or you're going to exclude that group...is it shade of skin color, is it income, is it how many baths a week they take or maybe a month? And who gets the clip board to go around and check?"

Redman said most of the problem is perception.

"...most of them are probably harmless, not bothering anybody, but they get loud, they get vulgar and you know it's just not something that we can ever build up downtown," said Redman.

Ida Metzger opened an Anti-Stress shop a block from Hemming Plaza. She said people often wander into her business, and she's worried that could happen more often if the plaza is changed.

"If they take the tables away from them, that would leave them with nothing to do; they would kind of wander and not really have anything to do, but aimlessly go into vendors or kind of get in trouble. And it might be bad for them as well as for the city," said Metzger. 

Members of the special committee designed to re-energize Hemming Plaza did not make a decision on the proposal Tuesday afternoon. Another meeting is planned to continue the discussion into the proposal.


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