Downtown’s neglected gem

Downtown Strategic Plan

Idea 3: Create a downtown jewel

A new strategic study recommends that Sweetwater Park be turned into a “downtown gem.”

Many of the recommendations advanced in the preliminary downtown strategic plan report will necessitate the work of years and considerable investment: Improving streets and sidewalks, increasing affordable housing and density and so on.

But there is one of the consultant’s idea that the City of Gainesville can begin to implement right now: “Reimagine Sweetwater Park as a signature public green space in the urban core of Gainesville.”

In my last column I wrote about the plan’s more ambitious proposal to create a recreational greenway loop to link Depot Park, Sweetwater Park, the Thomas Center and other downtown-area destinations.

Greenway aside, making downtown’s Sweetwater Park shine like a green jewel is a separate idea with much merit of its own.

We’re talking about an existing three-block long stretch of magnificent trees, lush greenspace and, yes, creek strategically located between downtown and the B&B District. A park already lined with apartments and houses, and joined at the hip with the Matheson Museum and the main library.

Sweetwater park is underused, ill-maintained and has a feeling of being unsafe.

Listen, many of us thought we were getting a “jewel” of a park back in 2005, when it was announced with great fanfare that Sweetwater Park would be a “botanical wonderland.”

Didn’t happen. The City didn’t follow through.

In fact, throughout the years, City Hall – just across the street – studiously ignored most of the recommendations made in a long forgotten Sweetwater Park master plan.

Which is why the park today hosts few or no activities, is largely unused, perceived as unsafe and frequently ill-maintained.

So here are a few suggestions to help Gainesville jump-start the jewel-polishing process.

Stop hiding the creek:

For the length of the park much of the creek that gives it its name is invisible under a thick growth of invasives.

This park offers the longest accessible stretch of the very creek that gives it its name. But good luck enjoying it…or even seeing it.

Sweetwater Branch lies beneath a jungle-like strip of invasive vegetation. That camouflage is great for the occasional creek homesteader who likes to pitch a tent next to running water, but it ill-serves the rest of us.

Clean up the creek. Get rid of the invasives. Show Sweetwater Branch off.

Start hosting actual events at the park:

The city needs to sponsor events at the park if it wants to attract more visitors.

Say, there’s a great portable stage at Depot Park, just a few blocks away. How about borrowing it for the occasional concert on Sweetwater Green? Collaborate with local community theaters for performances in the park. Host a “Celebrate Sweetwater Festival.” Hold food truck rallies. Give people reasons to want to be there.

Renew the partnership with the Matheson Museum.

The idea of turning the park into a botanical garden started with the Matheson, but the City didn’t keep up its end of the bargain. The Matheson could yet help turn Sweetwater into a walk through Gainesville’s history, with regular outdoor exhibits and special events.

Stop treating Sweetwater Park like an unwanted stepchild:

A private business couldn’t get away with having a dirt parking lot on the banks of the creek. So why does the library district get a pass?

Tell me again why the library has a dirt parking lot on the banks of the creek. Why did it take bad publicity and residents stepping in to do the scut work themselves to shame the City into simply picking up the litter and sprucing up the park?

The decades long neglect of Sweetwater Park is, in a very real sense, a reflection of the City’s larger failure to exercise responsible stewardship.

If we really aspire to a prosperous downtown – and especially if we want to encourage more people to live there – shining up our tarnished jewel of a park is essential.

Because a great downtown deserves a great downtown park.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at Email him at

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