There is a lot to unpack in the first go-round of the City-UF commissioned downtown strategic master plan. Its recommendations about density, business development, affordable housing and so on provide much fodder for discussion.
But give the consulting firm MKSK credit for recognizing this reality: Downtown is not an island unto itself.
No, downtown is the epicenter of a collection of largely unconnected neighborhoods. And “connecting the dots” – bringing those neighborhoods into closer communion – is crucial to sustaining a successful downtown.
“Downtown’s major attractions and destinations are within a 6-minute walk of each other,” the preliminary report observes. “However they feel disconnected due to gaps in walkability.”
Hence the consultant’s recommendation to create a “greenway loop that connects neighborhoods, links to regional trail networks, and is within a six minute walk of downtown destinations.”
As it happens, for nearly two years, I, and a handful of other residents, have been advocating creation of just such a greenway loop. One that would connect Springhill, the Duck Pond, Grove Street, 5th Avenue, Porters and other central Gainesville destinations to downtown.
We have been calling it the Sweetwater Branch Greenway Loop. And if you want to know more, please follow our Facebook page of the same name.
Long story short. During the pandemic I did my personal “lock down” on a bicycle, roaming the city, avoiding contact with people, taking photographs and making observations about the physical and aesthetic state of my beloved city.
Which is how I became interested in the abysmal physical and aesthetic state of Sweetwater Branch Creek.
Listen, in 1883, a visitor to Gainesville was moved to write favorably about the “excellent brand of water known as Sweetwater Branch” that he discovered flowing through the middle of town.
If Carl Webber came back today, nearly 140 years later, he wouldn’t recognize it.
Since then, Sweetwater Branch has been buried, ditched, straightened, polluted and otherwise abused in the name of progress.
True, the section of the creek that runs through the Duck Pond remains a showcase…residents of one of Gainesville’s premier neighborhoods would expect nothing less.
But the rest of Sweetwater is little more than a weed-choked drainage ditch.
What we are proposing is a greenway that largely follows the course of the creek. It would connect Sweetwater Preserve, on Williston Road in the south, with Tom Petty Park in the north.
At that point a 6-mile loop could be created by connecting the Sweetwater Branch greenway with the nearby 6th Street rail-trail on NW 16th Ave.
Designed thoughtfully and creatively, the Sweetwater Branch Greenway Loop would simultaneously “connect the dots” between neighborhoods while at the same time restore, rehabilitate and “daylight” a long abused creek.
At what cost? We don’t know that yet. But virtually all of the right-of-way necessary to create the loop is already in public hands. Expensive land acquisition shouldn’t be an issue.
We also know that voters will be asked to reauthorize the Wild Spaces and Public Places tax initiative later this year. So if the City Commission wants to create the sort of greenway loop recommended by the downtown consultant there is potentially a source of funding for it.
Why a greenway loop? To “make downtown feel like a part of the surrounding neighborhoods, not foreign to it,” the consultants say.
Why the Sweetwater Branch Greenway Loop? Because it’s time to stop treating Gainesville’s original, and once vibrant creek like a convenient spillway into Paynes Prairie.
Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com. Email him at email@example.com