A walk along the Sweetwater

Sweetwater Branch Creek is Gainesville’s most disrespected waterway. Running through the heart of GNV, the creek has, over the years, been ditched, diverted, drained and buried to a nearly unrecognizable state.

What we’ve already done to it is one way to look at Sweetwater right now.

But a more constructive way is to look at its parts and wonder what we can do now and in the future to make the whole of Sweetwater once again a source of community pride rather than an embarrassment.

Indeed, if we dream big enough we can imagine a restored and reclaimed Sweetwater forming the backbone of a people-friendly greenway that would connect Tom Petty Park in the north to Depot Park in the south. That would tie together disparate neighborhoods like Springhill and the Duck Pond. That would serve as a people connection to such cultural treasures as the Cade, the Cotton Club, the Thomas Center, the Matheson Museum, downtown and its library the Thelma Bolton Center and more.

And if we dream big enough, perhaps we can even envision a way to connect this new Sweetwater Greenway to the 6th Street Rail-Trail, the Gainesville Hawthorne Trail and other outward bound trails in such a manner as to form a continuous urban multi-use loop throughout the entirety of Gainesville’s urban core and then beyond.

To envision the possibilities it is helpful to get out and walk what’s left of the segmented Sweetwater. Recently Gainesville City Commissioner Harvey Ward invited a group of interested residents to join him on a stroll from Tom Petty Park to Depot Park and back in order to better visualize what might be.

Walking the few residential blocks from Tom Petty Park to the Duck Pond neighborhood, we talked about the possibility of utilizing both sidewalks and “green” lanes to facilitate safe and easy access to Sweetwater for pedestrians and cyclists alike.

The five blocks of the Sweetwater that runs through the Duck Pond is a lovely, well maintained, even manicured stretch. It is, for all purposes, a city park although nobody actually calls it such.

Walking through the Duck Pond it is easy to envision a how a multi-use path might be laid down in order to make that city park easily accessible to all of Gainesville.

This segment of the Sweetwater is most adaptable for broader public enjoyment.

But, really, you cannot look at the Duckpond’s Sweetwater, lovely as it is, and not imagine how much more a Gainesville asset it could be.

Beyond the Duck Pond the Sweetwater becomes a narrow, weed-choked strip that would, once again, require some creative use of green lanes and/or sidewalks to maintain a people connection.

But once you arrive at the Thelma Bolton Center one can imagine how its property can be utilized to once again open up Sweetwater for public enjoyment.

Indeed, what if we could figure out ways to incorporate the spacious, fenced off, but little-used oak-strewn grounds of the school district’s headquarters, just across NE Blvd, into the greenway? Imagine taking down the fence so all of that unused green space could host picnics, festivals, art shows and more…all accessible from the nearby green banks of the Sweetwater.

And, seriously, what communal purpose does this ugly, overgrown ditch across from the school district HQ serve other than to breed mosquitos, accumulate trash and carry away urban runoff?

Finding a way to turn this hidden, woebegone ditch into an attractive creek-scape would go a long way toward beautifying a still neglected portion of downtown Gainesville.

Getting greenway users safely across University Avenue to the Matheson Museum and the Sweetwater Branch Park is a challenge, but a manageable one. Especially at a time when city commissioners have announced their intention to slow the cars in Gainesville for public safety’s sake.

And what about Sweetwater Branch Park? It is literally downtown Gainesville’s park. It is lovely in some places, ill-maintained in others and mostly ignored by the public.

The city, to its discredit, has historically marginalized the park, offering no programming and only minimal maintenance. People tend to avoid Sweetwater Branch Park because they consider it unsafe. They consider it unsafe precisely because it is underused and ill-maintained.

But what if it was to become the heart of the Sweetwater Greenway? What if that illegal dirt county parking lot behind the library were reclaimed and beautified so as to provide an easy access point from the greenway to downtown?

There is so much to work with on Sweetwater Branch. Room for an amphitheater. We could clear out the exotics and invasive and bring the creek back to sparkling life. Perhaps install pedestrian bridges and boardwalks here and there. Imagine hosting Shakespeare in the Sweetwater Park. The possibilities are endless.

The Sweetwater disappears underground again at SE 4th Avenue. It was long ago buried beneath the sprawling GRU works complex that separates Sweetwater Branch Park from its more-utilized neighbor, Depot Park.

The bad news is that “daylighting” a once-buried creek is no cheap undertaking. The good news is that there are plans to redevelop the old GRU complex into the “Power District.” And now is the time to insist that any such redevelopment include daylighting the long-buried Sweetwater so as to provide a “human connection” from Depot Park to Sweetwater Branch Park and on to the Duck Pond and Tom Petty Park.

Difficult? Of course? Freeing the Sweetwater would be the work of years rather then months.

But every worthy endeavor begins with a vision. And the vision of a restored Sweetwater people-connector ought to be irresistible. It would unite neighborhoods, connects parks and cultural centers and make it easier than ever to get people out of their cars to experience the best that the heart of Gainesville has to offer.

Let’s begin to tear down the barriers and let the Sweetwater once again run free through the heart of Gainesville.

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