There’s nothing like a pandemic to make you appreciate a good park.
During the lockdown parks in Gainesville, and around the nation, were well used indeed.
“This is a critical time for public space, perhaps more than we’ve seen in past decades,” Bridget Marquis, of Civic Commons, tells City Lab regarding the surge in park use in this time of coronavirus.
Unfortunately, she adds, “We’re seeing the gaps and how we’ve let them erode in many places.”
She might well be talking about Sweetwater Branch Park.
Sweetwater Branch Park is a three block stretch of trees and creek that borders downtown on the west and the Bed and Breakfast District on the east. Its neighbors include the public library, the Matheson Museum and historic Matheson House and the Thelma Bolton Center.
One might consider this oasis of green amid so much asphalt and concrete an invaluable public asset. You might imagine Sweetwater Branch regularly playing host to, say, Shakespeare in the park, paint-outs to showcase local artists, ARTSPEAKS poetry readings, local history reenactments, used book sales to benefit the library…activities that would lure visitors to spend money downtown.
And there is this: Sweetwater Branch terminates at SE 4th Ave. The only thing between it and Depot Park is two blocks of GRU property that the city wants to redevelop into the Power District. Unearthing the long-buried stretch of creek on that property would make it possible to create a greenway extending from Depot Park to University Avenue and perhaps beyond.
But judging from its stewardship, here’s what the City of Gainesville seems to consider Sweetwater Branch Park’s “highest and best” use: Wasted space.
Much of Sweetwater Branch is hidden under a thick cloak of invasive vegetation. This makes convenient cover for enterprising, um, homesteaders who rig shelters along the creek.
Some nearby residents won’t use the park for fear of aggressive panhandling. The staff at the Matheson knows all about the squatters who sleep in nearby bushes and leave piles of garbage strewn in their wake.
It’s hard to believe that the same city that created Depot Park as an activity-intensive people magnet is content to allow Sweetwater Branch, downtown’s green heart, to languish in neglect and disuse.
This should be unacceptable to downtown business owners who are struggling to attract customers post-virus. To the B&B proprietors who want their guests to enjoy the grace and beauty of “old” Gainesville. To library patrons and museum visitors. To residents who wish to use their park for recreation and reflection without being harassed.
Let me be clear. It isn’t street people who are ruining the Sweetwater Branch experience. They have simply claimed a park that the city doesn’t seem to have much use for.
The responsibility must fall squarely on a bureaucracy that apparently can’t be bothered to properly maintain and program a park that lies just one block away from City Hall.
Cynthia A Bowen, president of the American Planning Association, writes that downtown parks “are the essential places for play in the live/work/play environment that cities across the country are striving to provide. As a result, people expect more from our parks. They must now be green and provide relaxation, as well as offer entertainment, social interaction, communication and unique experiences.”
A city that aspires to lure residents and businesses alike back to Gainesville’s historic center simply cannot allow its downtown park to fall so woefully short of expectations.
Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at floridavelocipede.com.