Growing up in Dundee, Matt Dwyer’s front yard along Happy Hollow Boulevard extended across the street, to a giant median.
For him and loads of neighborhood kids, the grassy three-block triangle of city right-of-way was their unofficial front yard, their wonderland, their playground, their escape.
Called “The Sunks,” this three-block, spacious triangle of grass was a magnet for Matt and other neighborhood kids who flocked there for pick-up football. The Sunks was big enough to run your sled down a hill and sunken enough to steal a kiss or grab a teenaged, clandestine smoke. The Sunks was the extension of everyone’s front yard along Happy Hollow, and Matt could run out his front door and into the paradise of his own making.
Then Matt grew up. He became a property developer, a homeowner and a father and started looking at his old childhood playground in a whole new way. Which is to say, in a whole old way, because 40-year-old Matt dreams of returning The Sunks, short for sunken gardens, to its original use. He is proposing a $2 million private redevelopment that would put in a $1 million formal garden, with stone walls, a covered deck and a pergola into this unofficial park. The other $1 million would go in an endowment to pay for maintenance.
The city has given an informal blessing, and Matt has enlisted help: A friend who lives in Dundee, Adam Gouttierre; and the retired leader of Omaha By Design and Memorial Park-area resident, Connie Spellman. Matt and Adam have raised about $25,000 for initial fees, retained a landscape architect, gotten support from City Councilman Pete Festersen and are making their pitch to Dundee-Memorial Park residents, who so far have embraced the idea — on one condition.
Put in that beautiful garden, neighbors say. But keep a grassy space the kids can still tear up.
This was a no-brainer to Matt and Adam who, as Dundee-area residents and fathers of young children, want to see their beloved playground retain its Sunks-ness.
The median runs from Underwood Avenue to Cuming Street. Matt and Adam refer to the southern third — Underwood to Webster — as the spot where the grassy field will remain. It’s so lumpy, they say, that they propose regrading the informal football field. The temporary ice rink that gets put up every winter and filled by the city could still work there, too.
Then the middle third — Webster to Burt, roughly — would be reserved for a rather grand-looking formal garden. The final third, Burt to Cuming, would be cleaned up with some trees removed to give more room for sledding. An initial design, by landscape firm Big Muddy Workshop Inc., shows an oval shaped walking path with a pergola on the north end and a canopied patio on the south. Stone walls would also be installed. When Matt says he could see weddings at The Sunks, it’s hard to disagree. When Adam says he’d love to hear an outdoor concert here, he’s singing my song.
What the two are proposing will undoubtedly bring more users to The Sunks. Currently, The Sunks offers some nice green space, with its hills and haphazardly planted trees. As-is, The Sunks isn’t very walkable.
Their beautification effort hearkens back to over a century ago, when city leaders brought in a renowned landscape architect, H.W.S. Cleveland, to protect green space from “suburban” sprawl. Cleveland designed a park-and-boulevard system for Omaha that is now on the National Register of Historic Places. The system was built between 1889 and 1918 and served as a model for a pair of local real estate developers and brothers, C.C. and J.E. George, who later developed Dundee, Fairacres and Happy Hollow, where Matt’s childhood home at 722 N. Happy Hollow Boulevard stood. A 1921 World-Herald story on George credited him with creating what was described as “tiered sunken gardens” along Happy Hollow Boulevard.
Back in the day, the sunken gardens had fewer trees and more shrubs and a plethora of yucca plants. At some point after the Great Depression, the garden gave way to the green space that The Sunks is today.
City Parks Director Brook Bench said he didn’t know when the sunken gardens became The Sunks. But he said that gardens are time-consuming and difficult to maintain and that once overrun, neighbors usually ask for the tangle to be removed. Grass is easier to keep up.
Bench said he supports what Matt and Adam want to do as long as it’s sustainable. He said you can’t build a garden like the one they’re proposing and give it an hour a week.
“Nobody wants to have it look great for a year,” Bench said, “and then it turns into a jungle.”
But Matt and Adam said they are modeling their plan somewhat after the Lincoln Parks Foundation, which led a $1.7 million renovation of its 1.5-acre sunken gardens over a decade ago and established a fund to help pay for its upkeep.
Volunteers help with planting in spring and cleanup in fall and come twice a week to tend to the many plants. But paid city workers do much of the maintenance.
Adam Langdon, president of the Dundee-Memorial Park Neighborhood Association, said residents are enthusiastic about the project — especially since Matt and Adam plan to establish an endowment fund to pay for upkeep. He said the association could offer “moral support.”
The two Omahans plan to raise private dollars for their Dundee project and channel them through the City of Omaha’s existing nonprofit parks foundation. Already, two neighborhood donors have pledged $250,000.
Matt has experience remaking the old. As co-owner of Greenslate Development, he has helped lead the recent revival of the Blackstone District, a mix of businesses, townhomes and apartments that runs along Farnam Street from about 36th to 42nd.
Adam works in business development for the Lincoln-based sports tech firm, Hudl.
They love this part of town and live within walking distance from The Sunks. They still want it to be an escape — just one grown-ups can use, too.