In a city of creeks, Sweetwater Branch is our most abused. We have ditched, diverted, buried and polluted it inch by inch. In the name of progress.
But what if we could not only return Sweetwater to some semblance of its former glory but, in the process, create a 4-mile bike-ped loop connecting most of our cultural and recreational assets in the very heart of Gainesville?
What if residents of the historic Springhill neighborhood could take a leisurely stroll and visit with their historic Duckpond neighbors?
What if we found a way for folks to journey from downtown to Pleasant Street, Grove Street, 5th Avenue, the Innovation District and Porters? All without having to get into an automobile?
What if we could turn seldom visited Sweetwater Branch Park into a people magnet by making it a connected greenway capable of accomplishing all of the above?
City commissioners have long planned for a public-private partnership to redevelop the cluster of old GRU workshops next to Depot Park. Among the aspirations often expressed in envisioning the so-called Power District is the notion of “daylighting” the long-buried portion of Sweetwater Branch that runs beneath the property.
“I want to see that creek” daylighted, Commissioner Harvey Ward said during a recent Power District discussion. Doing so is key, he noted, to connecting “a chain of parks essentially from Depot Park to Tom Petty Park as a linear facility that could join several neighborhoods together.
“That’s a big deal,” he added.
He’s right. And for months a handful of advocates – Matheson Museum board chair Greg Young, downtown resident John James, artist Eleanor Blair, former City Commissioner Warren Nielsen and others – have been leading walking tours of Sweetwater Branch to demonstrate its potential as a community builder.
For starts, just daylighting the creek on the old GRU property could immediately create a continuous greenway from Depot Park to the Matheson Museum, on University Avenue. From there it is just a few blocks to the Duck Pond creekway and the Thomas Center. From the Duckpond, Tom Petty Park is just two blocks north. And only a block and a half separates the end of the Duckpond to the 6th Street rail-trail – which loops back to Depot Park.
Creating bike-ped friendly ways to connect those close but disparate cultural and recreational assets would close the loop. One only has to observe the immense popularity of the 6th Street rail-trail since the city reengineered South Main Street and Depot Avenue to appreciate how a 4-mile loop through the heart of the city could enhance Gainesville’s quality of life, sense of place and, yes, general prosperity.
Ken Krasnow, consultant with Colliers International – the firm hired by the city to promote Power District redevelopment – told commissioners: “What we need to do is decide what those highest and best uses are. Affordable housing, mixed use, highly walkable…so our team can go out and find someone to make that vision come true.”
The Power District, if done correctly, will be a transformative project – a game-changer – along the same lines as Depot Park and the redesign of South Main. What advocates of the Sweetwater Branch Greenway want is for the city to look beyond the Power District and envision a transformational project that would unite half a dozen or more neighborhoods.
Oh, and also redeem a creek that we have shamefully abused for far too long.