Remember that time the downtown library took a slice of paradise and put up a parking lot?
Richard Berry does.
Berry is a longtime Gainesville landscape architect who did the exterior designs for the new library headquarters in the early 1990s. He sketched out a park environment connecting the east side of the library and the Matheson Museum.
“This is not what we envisioned,” he now says, ruefully, of the dirt parking patch between the county library and the city-owned Sweetwater Branch Park.
For that matter, it’s hard to believe the lot is even up to code. Would the city permit a private business to store cars on eroded land along the very banks of Gainesville’s most abused creek?
On the other hand, the city isn’t exactly known for its stewardship of Sweetwater Branch either.
That park itself ought to be an environmental showcase and a people-magnet for a downtown that has otherwise been given over to asphalt and concrete. Instead, it’s been allowed to degenerate into a litter-strewn hangout for street people…a park in name only that most folks prefer to avoid.
Certainly Sweetwater Branch today is a far cry from the “botanical wonderland” that earned it front page billing in the Gainesville Sun in December, 2005:
“Gainesville’s newest downtown destination is a garden of botanical delights,” the report began. “A dozen years in the planning and four months in the planting, the garden…is a community effort to preserve and beautify a piece of ground that almost miraculously escaped development as the city sprang up around it over the last century and a half.”
As it happened, Berry was also commissioned to design the master plan for Sweetwater Branch. He envisioned the park as a “walk through time,” where significant moments in Gainesville history would be commemorated – the civil war battle waged on the creek, perhaps a likeness of namesake Edmund Gaines, a memorial to yellow fever victims, or a remembrance of civil rights victories hard won.
Heck, maybe even a nod to the Gainesville Eight defendants who beat the Nixon Administration’s conspiracy charges. In his research, Berry came across photos of the alleged co-conspirators playing frisbee near the creek during court recess. “Why not give them a plaque?”
His master plan also showcased the creek itself by cleaning up Sweetwater Branch, restoring native plants, grasses and water flow and adding boardwalks and bridges.
Unfortunately, “less than 10 percent of (the master plan) was ever built” by the city, Berry said. “It could be a city jewel.”
Berry’s plan was titled “Sweetwater Botanical Garden and Greenway.” And with the city’s announced intention to dismantle the huge GRU maintenance facility, just south of the park, and redevelop it into the “Power District,” that greenway might have eventually run all the way to Depot Park and the Gainesville-Hawthorne trail.
Unfortunately if you walk through the park today it’s hard to imagine what all the fuss was about in 2005 when the Sun hailed Gainesville’s “garden of botanical delights.” The hundreds of plants donated and the physical improvements made haven’t been taken care of. And the creek itself is so choked with invasives and debris as to be nearly invisible.
What would it take to get Gainesville to dust off Berry’s master plan and finally do right by downtown’s park? For starters, citizen champions who are willing to advocate for Sweetwater Branch and insist that the city’s long reign of neglect end.
Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.