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CITY TALK: What will Husk's arrival mean for Savannah?

Mon, 04/25/2016 - 10:15pm

Just inside the front door of Husk in Charleston, you’ll find a chalkboard with a long list of the current sources for various foods on the menu.

Curiously, when I first had dinner at Husk in 2012, there wasn’t a single Georgia-based vendor on the list, but it definitely added to the overall dining experience to see so many regional vendors acknowledged.

Bon Appetit magazine selected Husk as the best new restaurant in America in 2011 and had high praise for chef Sean Brock.

“Brock isn’t reinventing Southern food or attempting to create some citified version of it,” wrote Bon Appetit. “He’s trying to re-create the food his grandma knew – albeit with the skill and resources of a modern chef. As a result, he (and Husk) has become a torchbearer for an honest style of home cooking that many of us never truly tasted until now.”

Today, you can also find Husk in Nashville, and last week Food and Wine magazine confirmed that Brock plans to open new Husk restaurants in Greenville, S.C., and here in Savannah.

It’s no secret that Brock had been considering an expansion to Savannah for a long time, but I’ve never heard the reason for the apparent delays.

Bizarrely, the Food and Wine piece says the Savannah location will be on “Fourth Avenue” (huh?), but the presumed location is 12 W. Oglethorpe Ave., a gracious century-old building that seems about the same scale as the original Husk.

You know the building. It sat empty for many years and then part of it burned. It was a depressing sight.

Or maybe you know the building because it has been touted as one of the most haunted places in the city.

Or maybe you actually remember its previous uses.

According to a 2014 staff report prepared for the Historic District Board of Review, the building dates to 1898. It was intended as a home for Bernie Gordon, Juliette Gordon Low’s brother, but he died before it was completed.

According to the history detailed on their website, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks bought the home in 2008. About 70 years later, the Elks sold the structure to a Montessori school.

So what does it mean for Savannah that Sean Brock and Husk are officially on their way?

Over the years, I’ve written often in this space about the rebirth of traditional cooking in the South and about the broader national trends toward fresher, locally sourced ingredients.

Brock has been a key figure in these movements, and his plans for a Husk in the heart of Savannah will no doubt be followed closely by chefs and restaurateurs around the country.

 

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiS
Topic: City Talk

New apartments bring essential downtown density

Sat, 04/23/2016 - 5:47pm
Earlier this month, the Metropolitan Planning Commission approved a 70-unit apartment complex for 1020 E. Broad St.  That huge empty lot at the northeast corner of East Broad Street and Park Avenue had been vacant for many years. At one point, city officials were even negotiating to buy the property for a new Central Precinct, but that deal fell through. Plans are also moving ahead for The Bowery, a 59-unit apartment complex at 515 Montgomery St., near the corner of Huntingdon Street. The Bowery is within the Landmark Historic District, so its design had to be approved by the Savannah Historic District Board of Review. The developers of the East Broad Street complex voluntarily conformed to design standards for the neighboring Victorian District. Despite those approvals, some neighbors of the complexes are unhappy with the designs. I have every reason to believe that those objections are sincere.  But it’s worth noting that large residential developments, especially multi-family apartments, are often flashpoints of controversy in Savannah. Heck, large apartment buildings often generate controversy in cities across American. Many residents just don’t want the added density with the potential for additional noise and traffic.  It’s also common to hear Americans speak derisively of “renters,” with the implication that those people won’t care about their neighborhoods.   But I hope it’s clear at this point that the downtown area needs increased residential density, and apartment buildings give us one path to that goal. I’ve written often about this subject over the years, so regular readers might want to skip the next few paragraphs detailing some of the reasons to promote greater density. If we are truly concerned about maintaining a degree of residential character in the face of increasing tourism, we simply have to get more residents into the greater downtown area. Even if these new apartments are relatively high priced, they will add supply to downtown’s rental market. As more units come online, we will almost certainly see lower prices for units that are somewhat older or in need of repairs.  Also, it’s easy to forget that the downtown area has some of the highest ground in the city. If or when Savannah is hit by a major hurricane, the civic recovery effort will be much easier if more people are living in units that haven’t flooded. Residents who both live and work in the downtown area have a variety of commuting options. They won’t necessarily contribute to street congestion by driving everywhere or occupy precious parking spaces in high demand areas.  In other words, we have ample reason to incentivize denser residential development on the large under utilized lots that dot the greater downtown area.  Yes, of course, we should continue to care about design details, and we need to reassure neighbors that new buildings won’t unnecessarily tax limited neighborhood resources. But, in recent decades, the threat to the residential character of downtown has been too few residents, not too many.  In the early 20th century, Savannah’s oldest neighborhoods had two to three times the number of residents that they have today. The core of the city has been far below its residential capacity for decades, and the 2010 Census showed continued erosion of the population in some historic neighborhoods.  In that context, these new apartments are good news.   Savannah employment boom continues According to data released last week by the Georgia Department of Labor, the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) added 7,100 payroll jobs between March 2015 and March 2016. That’s an impressive annual growth rate of 4.2 percent, which is much faster than the rate of population growth. Honestly, I keep expecting to see a lull in our year-over-year job gains, but the numbers continue to be upbeat month after month. Such growth rates cannot be sustained forever. According to the estimates, some of the biggest gains over the past year were in leisure and hospitality (7.7 percent), professional and business services (7.3 percent) and manufacturing (5.2 percent). However, we still have not seen any growth in payroll construction jobs, although it seems a fair bet that self-employed workers are much busier today than a few years ago.  Statewide, payroll employment showed an annual gain of 3.1 percent in March. Savannah outpaced most of Georgia’s metro areas.  We’ll have more data soon on the local unemployment rate in March.    City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA.  31401. By: Bill DawersSection: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: New craft beer market latest step in Bull Street resurgence

Mon, 04/18/2016 - 11:03pm

Last week, the Savannah City Council gave the thumbs up to Ale Yeah, a craft beer store that’s headed for 1207 Bull St., between Duffy and Henry streets. We’ll keep an eye out for an opening date.

That space, which is in the middle of a building that runs on the west side of Bull Street from Duffy Street to Duffy Lane, was formerly occupied by a variety shop.

The ground floor commercial units have been unoccupied for several months, but it seems inevitable that we’ll see other businesses like the beer market that will try to fit the general character of that active area at the south end of the park.

Nearby on Bull Street, you’ll find Local 11 Ten, American Legion Post 135 and Betty Bombers. Brighter Day Natural Foods is at the corner of Bull Street and Park Avenue. Around the corner on Park are the Sentient Bean and the wine store Le Chai.

On the first block of West Duffy Street, you’ll find Motorini, which specializes in Vespa and Piaggio scooters.

I’ve written often in recent years about the changing commercial and cultural landscape along the Bull Street corridor south of Forsyth Park, but it’s worth saying that there are some major obstacles and question marks ahead.

We’re seeing a resurgence in interest on Bull Street from Park Avenue to Victory Drive, but don’t expect a seamless, cohesive stretch of commercial establishments, residences and mixed-use development. At least not any time soon.

The old Sears building would no doubt sell if the current owner had a price that the market would bear, but for now we’ve got an entire city block between Duffy and Henry streets that is a drag on the neighborhood.

Just south of the old Sears structure, the BellSouth building also occupies a full block. There are a number of small businesses on the west side of Bull Street between Henry and Anderson streets, but the behemoth on the east side hurts the pedestrian experience.

South of Anderson Street is a stretch with lovely churches, which certainly add much to the neighborhood character. But you’ll also find large church parking lots taking up key stretches of Bull Street frontage. They are detrimental to the pedestrian experience and hurt neighborhood vibrancy.

A cluster of businesses have settled near the corner of Bull and 32nd streets, and from there to Victory Drive the historic character of the corridor is largely intact.

There are ways to bridge the gap between Duffy Lane and 32nd Street to make the corridor feel more cohesive, but none of the solutions will come easily or quickly.

 

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiS
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Finding the right balance in a vacation rental ordinance

Sat, 04/16/2016 - 11:01pm

A friend of mine from high school periodically drives through Georgia with her family, and they love stopping in Savannah for two or three nights.

A few years ago, my friend and her family found the perfect place to stay. It was a short-term vacation rental in a small apartment above a single-car garage near Victory Drive.

The convenient location, compact layout and low price were just right for two adults and two children. The unit even had off-street parking, and there was ample available on-street parking too.

On top of all that, the owners of the carriage house weren’t interested in having a year-round tenant. They liked having the apartment available for occasional guests and didn’t want to deal with people living permanently in their back yard.

So, win-win, right?

Carriage houses like that one are fairly common in various midtown neighborhoods and many seem perfect for short-term rentals.

But, a few years back, Savannah city officials, with the support of some neighborhood leaders, put the kibosh on many short-term rentals in midtown neighborhoods, including the example in this column.

Flash forward to 2016.

Savannah City Council recently delayed a decision on a straightforward zoning change that would have impacted a few midtown neighborhoods, primarily Thomas Square and Metropolitan.

The text amendment would have allowed midtown carriage houses and other accessory dwelling units to be used as short-term rentals as long as the property owner lives on the premises in the primary residence.

The property owner petitioning for the slight change to the allowed uses in the Mid-City Traditional Neighborhood-2 (TN-2) district was Kevin Klinkenberg, who is also head of the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority.

Granted, there could be some drawbacks for the neighborhood if the change is eventually approved. For example, if too many property owners converted year-round rentals to short-terms, we could see a general increase in rental costs and a decline in the number of affordable units.

But it seems likely that any downsides would be outweighed by the considerable upsides, including the simple fact that the change would increase the neighborhood’s average household income and property values.

Also, tourists spend more money per day than locals do, and we’d see a boost to some neighborhood businesses, especially restaurants.

The presence of more short-term retnals in midtown might also reduce demand for short-term rentals in the Historic District, where residents have become increasingly concerned about their proliferation.

For the record, I live in Thomas Square in the TN-2 zoning district, but my house has no accessory buildings, and I would never rent out a room as a vacation rental.

As a neighborhood resident, I’m generally in favor of expanded options for short-term rental uses on owner-occupied properties.

To their credit, members of City Council want to take a deeper look at the impacts of the current short-term rentals ordinance before considering any changes.

On the other hand, we need to be wary of unnecessary delay. We need to find the right balance between individual property rights and the desire to maintain the residential character of our neighborhoods. With its limitations on the number of short-term guests and its emphasis on the owner residing in the primary residence, the recently proposed text amendment seems to strike the appropriate balance.

It will be interesting to see how the issue plays out from here.

Sandfly BBQ mentioned in Food & Wine

Savannah lands on plenty of touristy lists these days — so many I could probably mention a new one in every City Talk column.

But now and then, a newly published list catches my attention, including a recent piece by Food & Wine magazine: “Go Here Now: 8 New Restaurants Our Editors Love.”

The editors’ picks include establishments in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Portland, San Antonio, Chicago, Boston, Nashville and Savannah.

Say what? The Savannah metro area has far fewer people than those other cities, and you’ll find few lists about food in the South that don’t have Charleston and New Orleans.

For this latest listicle, Food & Wine’s executive food editor Tina Ujlaki included Sandfly BBQ at the Streamliner, which opened in early 2015, among her picks.

“At this barbecue joint in a charming retro diner,” Ujlaki writes, “the big surprise was The Wally: a duck-fat-fried chicken finger sandwich with lashings of ranch dressing.”

For what it’s worth, I love The Wally, but I almost always order the smoked sausage plate.

I’ve written often through the years about the changing nature of Savannah’s restaurant landscape, and this detail from last week seems like another small step in the right direction.

 

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

 

 

By: Bill DawersSection: BiS
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Recent events highlight Savannah's public spaces

Mon, 04/11/2016 - 9:55pm

On Sunday afternoon, Forsyth Park was filled with activity, as it often is at this time of year.

At the south end of the park, people were playing organized games of basketball, tennis, Ultimate (often called “ultimate Frisbee”), volleyball and even kickball. Those folks were outnumbered by the many others walking, jogging, lounging and generally enjoying the lovely spring day.

The two playgrounds were packed, a young couple was playing the public xylophone and multiple musicians, including a young string trio, were performing on the wide path near the fountain.

Interestingly, although I saw a few bicycles parked in Forsyth, I didn’t see a single rider on my walk down the center path from Park Avenue to Gaston Street.

On days like Sunday, one is reminded of Savannah’s wise stewardship of public spaces like Forsyth Park.

I was bound for Lafayette Square — another tremendous public space — for the “homemade parade” and quirky street fair celebrating the belated birthday of author Flannery O’Connor, whose childhood home at 207 E. Charlton St. is a museum house. (I am a former board member.)

Sometimes we forget that Savannah’s squares were originally conceived as utilitarian public spaces, so it was great to see Lafayette Square used for such a local celebration. The southwest quadrant of the square was even taken over by local authors who were displaying and selling their books.

Like clockwork, tour buses rolled by the O’Connor celebration, and for a few moments the tourists weren’t seeing a pristine, serene square, but one filled with local life and flavor.

I was also fortunate to spend a few hours over the weekend in another public space — the North Garden at the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum.

The Savannah Music Festival made tremendous use of the North Garden over the last three weeks. On Friday, the festival sold more than 1,200 total tickets for the two riveting shows by roots musician Rhiannon Giddens and Zimbabwe-based Mokoomba.

The North Garden at Ships of the Sea also proved a tremendous venue for Savannah Stopover in March.

Hey, I’ve got nothing against weddings, and it’s a real boost for the local economy that Savannah has become such a prized wedding destination.

But wouldn’t it be great to find ways to encourage organizations to make greater use of our squares and other public spaces for events that both locals and visitors can enjoy?

Let’s hope some of those ideas rise to the top in the coming months and years.

 

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiS
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Broughton Street: What's changed? What hasn't?

Sat, 04/09/2016 - 10:45pm
I took a long, slow walk down Broughton Street one evening last week.    It’s easy in this job to get caught up in the recent changes to streetscapes and lose sight of the broader long-term trends on a corridor like Broughton. So I periodically try to look at the street with fresh eyes.   Many readers will remember how deserted Broughton used to be in the evenings, but one could never use the word “deserted” now.    There seems to be a perpetual line down the sidewalk in front of Leopold’s Ice Cream. The outdoor tables at several restaurants are busy on most evenings, and hotel guests and employees are almost always buzzing in front of the Marshall House.   Anecdotally, it also seems more of the retail stores are staying open into the evening.   We were already seeing this trend toward greater activity before developer Ben Carter and his team bought many of the buildings on Broughton Street. As I’ve said before here, some locals view Carter’s efforts as a clear break with the past, but I see those efforts more as an acceleration of existing trends.    For much of the 20th century, Broughton Street was dotted with national retailers, so it doesn’t seem all that strange that larger companies would return as the downtown economy grows.    Before talking about some of the new national retailers, I should first say there are still many locally owned businesses on Broughton. Most of the Broughton Street restaurants are unique to Savannah, and many of the retail stores are, too.    Certainly, the changes brought by Ben Carter Enterprises — you can see the company holdings at http://broughtonstreetcollection.com — have made the environment more difficult for small retailers, but many local business people are thriving on Broughton. I don’t see that changing any time soon.   Still, if you haven’t shopped on Broughton in a while, you are likely to be struck by the relatively recent arrival of national retailers such as Sperry at 3 E. Broughton, Michael Kors at 115 W. Broughton, Tommy Bahama at 108 W. Broughton, Club Monaco at 212 W. Broughton and Kendra Scott at 311 W. Broughton.   And you’ll be struck, too, by a couple of significant openings on the horizon.    Work seems to be moving fast on the Victoria’s Secret at 109 W. Broughton St., and the monumental new H&M appears likely to open in the summer.   The 32,000-square-foot H&M building at 240 W. Broughton looms taller than most of the buildings around. The height is especially noticeable from Congress Street, but I was most concerned about the width of the new structure.  Yes, that’s lots of new retailers, but there are still significant vacancies, including on corners.    Buildings on corners are more visible than those in mid-block. Those corner spaces influence the choices of drivers and pedestrians who travel along Broughton. In other words, the corners matter.    Among the significant corner vacancies are the former Marc Jacobs, which is listed by CBRE, at the corner of Montgomery Street. Other vacancies include the former home of Mason Inc. at the northwest corner of Jefferson Street and the former Locos space at the southwest corner of Jefferson Street.     Yes, that’s three large corner vacancies on one block. A cluster like that has a negative impact on the pedestrian experience.    There are also some significant vacancies in the middle of blocks.   Those vacancies include the former home of the Casbah, which merged with The Mirage a block away, at 118 E. Broughton St. Workers have done a tremendous job on the renovation of the exterior of the original Casbah location, but there’s no visible sign of what’s on the way.   The now infamous Temperance building at 220 W. Broughton St. is still up for grabs, too. The sign has been up for more than four years, but the project has stalled. The Good Times Jazz Bar and Restaurant at 107 W. Broughton St. also has a large sign, but there has been no obvious movement for many months.    And there are other vacancies too, although it’s worth adding that many of the empty storefronts have been spruced up in ways that avoid that desolate, empty look so common on Broughton Street when I first moved here 20 years ago.   City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401. By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiS
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Great early press for 2016 music festival

Mon, 04/04/2016 - 10:46pm

The Savannah Music Festival is heading into its final days, and it looks as if the 17-day event is having another impressive year.

The crowds have been generally strong, and the shows I’ve attended have featured stellar production values.

And the SMF’s national and international profile seems to be growing steadily although a couple of the most noteworthy early pieces about the 2016 festival have come from right here in the South.

Charleston’s The Post and Courier recently published “Road trip: Attending Savannah Music Festival on opening weekend.”

“Over the years, I couldn’t help taking note, with increasing wonderment, that the festival lineup was impressively diverse and appealing,” Adam Parker writes in the Charleston daily. “This year, Executive and Artistic Director Rob Gibson and his collaborators put together especially compelling programs of classical, jazz, Americana/folk, dance and world music. We got a taste of it all.”

The lengthy piece notes some of the differences between the SMF and Spoleto, Charleston’s 17-day arts festival that offers larger scale productions and more genres of the performing arts.

Regular readers know I annually take road trips to Spoleto, primarily for dance and other shows that we simply don’t get here. So I spend way more time than I should thinking about the relationship between Spoleto and the SMF.

In many ways, it’s unfair to compare the two festivals, despite the fact they’re the same length, employ a variety of existing venues and take place in stunningly beautiful historic cities in the South.

Charleston, after all, has a much larger metropolitan area population, and Spoleto has a markedly larger budget than the SMF.

Still, it seems pretty clear that a visitor weighing three days at the SMF versus three days at Spoleto might end up feeling torn. Not that many years ago, that assertion might have seemed slightly ridiculous.

The SMF also got a great shout out last week from Southern Living. The magazine included the festival’s Gibson and Ryan McMaken in their list of “Innovators Changing the South.”

Change? Do we want that?

I guess the SMF has changed Savannah, but that change has the aura of authenticity so important to both locals and tourists.

“What sets the Savannah Music Festival apart,” says Southern Living, “and what brings tourists to the city in droves, is the musical diversity of this cross-genre festival: Nowhere else can you see Punch Brothers bluegrass acoustic right after violin virtuoso Daniel Hope, then hear a band from Mali or an opera singer from Sweden. It’s dazzling, and we love it.”

 

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiS
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: The Vault now open at Bull and 38th

Sat, 04/02/2016 - 9:14pm
The Vault Kitchen & Market had a soft opening last Wednesday.   Or, as it turned out, not so soft.   The Vault, at the corner of Bull and 38th streets in a former Bank of America building, is the latest effort from the Savannah restaurant group Ele and the Chef.    Ele and Sean Tran’s restaurants have largely Asian menus, but each establishment feels unique and special. The couple certainly doesn’t shy away from a challenge, so maybe we should have expected The Vault to open suddenly, as it did Wednesday, in a move that surprised the neighborhood and maybe even some of the restaurant’s employees.    Since The Vault has been a closely watched project, word started spreading as soon as the doors opened in mid-afternoon even though the market isn’t open yet.   I wandered up Bull Street a little before 8 p.m. on opening night, and the restaurant was bustling with activity when I got there. All the seats at the small bar were occupied, and nearly half the tables were full. There were even a couple of parties of six, the types of tables that can really strain a new restaurant.   Aside from the presence of the vault itself, the interior has been dramatically changed from the building’s previous life as a bank. I think the restrooms now occupy the office where I paid off my mortgage.   Still, there are some nods to the structure’s previous use. The Vault’s kitchen is in the area once occupied by tellers, and you’ll see a Picasso-esque wall hanging made out of lock boxes.   But the bank’s windows have been expanded and the wood ceiling exposed. The seats are sleek but comfortable, and the tables have ample space between them.    In other words, The Vault has all the makings of a comfortable neighborhood restaurant for lunch and dinner.    And what about the food?   Patrons can choose a variety of ways to navigate The Vault’s menu. That flexibility is appealing to me as a diner, although the varied choices make the menu hard to characterize in a column like this.   Four kinds of Asian-influenced tacos top the menu, with orders of two tacos priced at $11.50 or less. There are five kinds of dumplings, with four per serving. Those are all $7.95 and under.   There are several salads ($8.95 to $12.95) plus a variety of other appetizers, including vegetarian spring rolls ($5.95) and grilled calamari ($7.95).   The main dishes, most of which are priced under $15, include chicken, pork, beef, seafood and vegetarian combinations prepared in various Asian styles.   The Vault also has a broad selection of sushi, including appetizers, nigiri, sashimi and rolls.    It’s really impossible to review a restaurant that has literally just opened, but I got excellent service on opening night even though some other tables apparently did not.    And I ordered way, way too much food just for myself. Fortunately, a friend joined me and picked up some of the slack.    I started with the roasted duck dumplings ($7.95), which were much thicker and richer than I anticipated. Paired with a salad, those could have been a meal for one.    My order of eel nigiri ($5.95) was excellent, but also larger than I expected. And the Wicked Tuna roll ($12.95) — which included battered tuna, cream cheese, asparagus and crab — was nearly a foot long.    On my next trip, I’ll keep in mind that the portions are so generous and adjust my ordering.    Fortunately, The Vault also has a liquor license, so patrons can order cocktails in addition to beer and wine.    Sadly, there was controversy about that license for spirits at a recent Savannah City Council meeting despite the fact The Vault’s zoning allows liquor by the glass.    Alcohol sales can be problematic for struggling neighborhoods, for sure, but the Bull Street corridor at this point will benefit from increased alcohol sales. Restaurateurs will invest more money in the area if they can offer liquor.  I live just six blocks away from The Vault, so I’m sure I’ll make numerous trips in the coming months. I will likely write another column about it once the market is open — and I’m sure by then the restaurant will have settled into a groove.    For now though, it’s obvious that the The Vault is a welcome addition to the neighborhood.   City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.     By Bill Dawers By: Bill DawersSection: BiS
  • Photo by Visit Savannah.
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Temporary 'better block' planned for Starland

Mon, 03/28/2016 - 9:44pm

The First Friday Art March on April 1 is notable for a number of reasons.

First off, it’s the 50th first Friday event sponsored by Art Rise Savannah. When the first Art March was held more than four years ago, few would have expected the event would take hold as it has.

Also, the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority has joined Art Rise and other civic partners for April 1 to present “Better Block in Starland,” which will temporarily transform Bull Street between 38th and 42nd streets.

Think of it as an exercise in imagination. Yes, we have four busy blocks, but they’re dotted with parking lots, challenges to pedestrian mobility and under utilized properties.

How can we reimagine the public spaces so that we could boost the already-growing area?

According to the event press release for April 1, we could see pop-up shops, live music, public art, and changes to street design.

You can read more about this initiative at the Better Block Savannah website (http://www.betterblocksavannah.com) and more about the larger vision at the site for the Better Block Foundation (http://betterblock.org), which received a $775,000 grant from the Knight Foundation earlier this year.

Better Block recommends participating organizations and cities think about several key categories as they reimagine specific blocks. For example, the organization encourages changes that impact real and perceived safety, as well as the degree of shared access, including amenities for pedestrians and bicycles.

The Better Block Foundation also encourages deeper thinking about a couple of other important issues, including what the organization calls “stay power.”

How do we get people to come to the area and then linger? Are there outdoor areas for eating, hanging out and neighborhood bonding?

Better Block also suggest an emphasis on changes that will invite visitors of all ages — from babies to the elderly. Dog owners too.

If you know Starland well, you have already realized the area has many elements that would make it fit the Better Block mold. You’ll find a few places to eat outdoors, a dog park, a variety of locally owned stores, a grocer, businesses that open early and ones that stay open late. There is even public art.

But it’s also easy to imagine how Starland could be improved and could become even more vibrant. I’m curious to see what Art Rise, SDRA and their partners come up with. You can check out the Better Block from 3-9 p.m. April 1 on Bull Street between 38th and 42nd streets.

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiS
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Savannah's employment boom continues

Sat, 03/26/2016 - 10:41pm

Last week, this column looked at the first two months of crime data for 2016. Those numbers don’t show any improvement over the same period a year ago, but many Savannahians seem willing to trust, at least for now, that new crime-fighting strategies will bear fruit.

We also have two months of employment data for 2016. Those numbers paint a pretty clear picture.

The Savannah area labor market is booming.

The Georgia Department of Labor recently estimated that the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Bryan and Effingham counties) had 174,700 payroll jobs in February, an increase of 7,100 positions over February 2015. That 4.2 percent annual increase is probably about three times faster than the rate of population growth.

Private sector employment increased by 4.6 percent, more than twice the rate of growth of public sector jobs.

The big year-over-year gains were recorded in manufacturing (up 5.3 percent from February 2015); retail trade (up 5.1 percent); transportation, warehousing and utilities (up 5.5 percent); financial activities (up 4.7 percent); professional and business services (up 9.6 percent); educational and health services (up 4.0 percent); and leisure and hospitality (up 5.4 percent).

Construction seems to have picked up over the past year, but that sector is still not adding payroll jobs. Construction employment in February remained flat compared to a year earlier.

Despite a couple of lagging sectors and the possibility of statistical noise, the numbers suggest the Savannah area still has a robust and diversified labor market.

The estimates cited so far in this column are from the ongoing survey of payroll establishments. The estimates for the unemployment rate and other characteristics of the labor force come from a separate survey of households.

And the latest data from the household survey also suggest continued growth in employment as well as a significant decline in the Savannah metro area’s unemployment rate.

Our unemployment rate in February 2015 was 6.0 percent, but the rate fell to 5.3 percent in February 2016. Since these figures are not adjusted for seasonality, we are better off looking at annual trends rather than monthly variations.

Savannah’s unemployment rate is lower than the rate for Georgia as a whole and exactly the same as the rate for Atlanta. Among the state’s metro areas, only Athens (5.1 percent) and Gainesville (4.6 percent) had lower unemployment rates in February.

The city of Savannah has a higher unemployment rate than the metro area, but we’ve seen considerable improvement in those numbers too. In February 2015, the unemployment rate in Savannah was 6.9 percent, but the rate fell to 5.9 percent in February 2016.

While we absorb all this good news, it’s obviously worth keeping in mind that, for many Savannahians, the 2007 recession never really ended. We need to keep exploring ways to get marginalized folks off the sidelines so they can take advantage of the job opportunities we’re seeing now.

 

Citizens must look proactively at negative effects of development

It’s been interesting to see continued debate about the area around Johnny Harris Restaurant, which appears doomed to demolition.

As I discussed in previous City Talk columns, the time to raise objections about the nature of future development in the area passed long ago.

If the general public wants to have more power in determining the fate of various pieces of property, citizens need to be more knowledgeable about existing zoning and do the necessary bureaucratic groundwork to guarantee that future uses are compatible with existing ones.

Which brings me around, again, to the zoning overhaul that Metropolitan Planning Commission staff began working on almost a decade ago.

The new zoning ordinances for the city of Savannah and Chatham County would dramatically reduce the number of zoning districts and would streamline administrative processes. In general, I think the new ordinances would make it easier for the general public to understand complex zoning questions.

City officials have had the latest draft of the proposed zoning ordinance since 2014, and we haven’t seen any movement on the document. It’s one of many items that have piled up on the city’s plate over the last few years.

The failure to move ahead with the zoning overhaul is symptomatic of a bureaucracy and a citizenry stuck in reaction mode.

As the regional economy grows, we are going to see additional neighborhoods threatened by development to which current stakeholders object. If citizens want to wield true influence, they need to educate themselves now rather than wait ubtil the deals are all but finalized.

 

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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CITY TALK: Touring musicians praise city's beauty, hospitality

Mon, 03/21/2016 - 10:12pm

At her Savannah Stopover performance in the North Garden at The Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum earlier this month, Canadian singer-songwriter Lucette rhapsodized about being in Savannah for the first time.

“It’s the most beautiful place I’ve seen in my life,” she said between numbers.

I saw several dozen acts at Stopover this year and have attended the three-day festival for six years, so I can say confidently that her feelings have been widely shared by other participating musicians.

Sure, touring musicians routinely praise their current city from the stage, but you won’t hear so many superlatives.

It’s not just about the exterior beauty of the city, either. Time and again, musicians such as Christopher Paul Stelling, who has performed at Stopover every year, heaped praise on the hospitality and kindness of festival organizers and fans alike.

And those feelings aren’t unique to Stopover. If you attend more than a couple of Savannah Music Festival shows, you’ll almost certainly hear similar over-the-top praise for Savannah.

If you’ve been caught up in the negative public discourse of the last couple of years, it might be worth taking the time to see what Savannah looks like from the eyes of musicians who see many dozens of cities per year.

 

Misinformation about new parking proposal

I have already written several columns about the city of Savannah’s proposed changes to downtown parking and mobility.

The social media response to the city’s proposals has been overwhelmingly negative. As I write this, almost 3,500 people have signed a Change.org petition against key proposals titled “Savannah raising price of parking meters and charging on weekends.”

Here’s the first sentence of that petition: “The Savannah City Council has recently proposed the idea of raising the price of parking meters located in downtown Savannah to $2.00 an hour and to start charging on weekends from the hours of 10am to 10pm.”

There are several problems with that sentence. The proposal was generated by city staff not by elected council members, the rates would only go to $2 per hour north of Broughton Street, there would be no enforcement on Sundays and there would be enforcement until 10 p.m. on weekdays.

How many of the 3,500 signees know that the first sentence of the petition has essentially four factual errors?

I’ll write about the parking proposals again as the situation warrants, but city officials clearly have a steep climb ahead if they want to win broad public support.

For the record, I think Saturday daytime enforcement of meters is justified, as is raising prices for on-street parking in the highest demand areas. But I do not think we have sufficient demand in most of downtown to extend meter enforcement past 5 p.m. on weekdays.

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.

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CITY TALK: Are new crime-fighting initiatives working?

Sat, 03/19/2016 - 9:40pm

Savannah’s newly elected city administration has made some important moves over the last couple of months.

But the public anger that resulted in the election of Mayor Eddie DeLoach and three new aldermen – Bill Durrence, Brian Foster and Julian Miller – was primarily the result of deteriorating public safety in 2015.

I don’t think anyone expects that new city policies or the strategic efforts coordinated by Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Chief Jack Lumpkin will have immediate effects. Still, it’s worth checking in occasionally through 2016 on current crime trends to see if we’re making any headway.

For this column, I’m looking at the SCMPD’s crime statistics for the week ending Feb. 27. That gives us about two months worth of data on Part 1 crimes, a broad category that includes violent crimes and property crimes.

You can play along at the SCMPD website. Just click on “Crime Trends” and then select “Weekly Crime Reports” from the dropdown menu.

Before we dig too deep into things, it’s worth remembering that crime surged in the second half of last year. I’ll be comparing the first two months of 2016 to the first two months of 2015 and 2014, but we’ll probably have to wait for a few more months to get a fuller picture of this year’s key trends.

In the first two months of 2016, there were six homicides in the SCMPD’s jurisdiction, up from four in the first two months of both 2015 and 2014. By itself, that figure is largely meaningless, but there is still an upward trend in violent crimes.

There were 56 reported street robberies in the first two months of 2016 compared to 47 in 2015. And aggravated assaults without guns jumped from 16 in 2015 to 42 in 2016.

All told, we had 172 violent crimes in the first two months of 2016 compared to 130 in the first two months of 2015. That may sound terrible, but the total is within the standard deviation of .6 of the mean.

And it’s hard to know how worried we should be about the spike in aggravated assaults without guns.

Significant disparities in reports of aggravated assaults relative to other violent crimes suggest inconsistent reporting and enforcement across the U.S. It’s possible that our spike in aggravated assaults without guns simply reflects more aggressive policing and prosecution.

The total number of property crimes (1,310) in the first two months of 2016 was higher than in 2015 (1,258) but not by a statistically significant amount. The number of property crimes was on par with the first two months of 2014.

I had hoped to see a decline in auto thefts in the data for 2016 so far, but we had 147 in January and February – about the same as the 152 in 2015. There were only 113 auto thefts in the first two months of 2014, and it seems like there must be specific causes for such a big jump.

So are new crime-fighting initiatives working? Are they going to work?

The data suggest it’s too soon to tell.

The SCMPD website also links to a site that does interactive crime mapping. You can select date ranges, select specific crimes and even create a heat map that shows crime density.

If you create a heat map for the first two months of 2016 that includes all those Part 1 crimes, you’ll see a big red dot in the northwest quadrant of the Historic District. Since that area has the entertainment zone, many retail businesses and high foot traffic, it’s not surprising that crime is high.

And of course there’s a big red oval bounded more or less by Anderson Street, Abercorn Street, Victory Drive and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. I live in the middle of that oval and feel like I live in a neighborhood that’s improving fast, but it sure doesn’t look inviting on this map.

If you narrow the search to violent crimes, the only standout area is a fairly small red circle along the MLK/Montgomery Street corridor from 35th Street to Victory Drive.

I used to live in St. Louis and in Philadelphia. Both cities had big stretches of blight, and St. Louis even had the bonus blight and crime of East St. Louis across the river. It’s easy to get discouraged by the sheer scale of the problems in some urban neighborhoods across the country.

Seen from above, Savannah’s worst pockets of crime look really small. And there seems little doubt that better policing, better governance and increased community engagement can improve those areas dramatically.

 

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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CITY TALK: St. Patrick's Day policies have hurt the holiday

Mon, 03/14/2016 - 10:34pm

On Monday morning, I checked out the website Kayak to see how many hotels have rooms available for St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah.

I began with a pretty aggressive search, with arrival on March 16 and departure on March 20.

The following downtown hotels had rooms available for those dates: Best Western Plus, Andaz, DoubleTree, Quality Inn, Andaz, Hilton Garden Inn, Hotel Indigo, Cotton Sail, The Bohemian, Hyatt Regency, River Street Inn, Holiday Inn Express, East Bay Inn, Hampton Inn, The Westin, The Brice, Homewood Suites, Marriott, Planters Inn, The Marshall House, SpringHill Suites, Hampton Inn & Suites, Embassy Suites, Courtyard by Marrriott, DeSoto Hilton and the Mansion on Forsyth Park.

Several bed and breakfasts also had rooms available for that hypothetical four-night stay during what many consider the busiest holiday in Savannah.

Of course, it’s possible that most of those hotels will eventually fill up for those nights, and they might be full as you read this.

But it’s not supposed to be like this, is it? Doesn’t everyone want to come to Savannah for St. Patrick’s Day? Won’t there be a million — literally, a million — people in town?

Don’t get me wrong, St. Patrick’s Day is a wonderful holiday in Savannah.

Like thousands of others, I’ll hit a couple of traditional parties before the day itself and will be in my usual spot for the parade. The weeks leading up to the holiday are filled with authentic celebrations of Savannah’s Irish Catholic heritage and Lowcountry culture more broadly.

Part of that celebration involves drinking, for sure, but we’ve taken conscious steps over many years to try to cash in on the downtown party. Those policy decisions have been problematic on many levels and have alienated many local residents.

Again this year, wristbands are being mandated for two days after the parade. I.e., after the traditional celebrations are completely finished.

I hardly know anyone who will buy a wristband to drink outside in the “control zone.” One downtown bar and restaurant has even been running ads touting that it’s just outside the wristband zone.

Sure, some of the bars will make bank this weekend, but many businesses will have lousy weekends, and thousands of local residents will enjoy the parade but then avoid downtown like the plague.

We can’t change the nature of our St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in one fell swoop, but we could make commonsense policy decisions that would emphasize the authentic and de-emphasize the inauthentic aspects of the holiday.

And there would still be plenty of green to go around.

 

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.

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CITY TALK: Removing time limits will boost demand for underutilized on-street parking

Sat, 03/12/2016 - 9:56pm

The two most recent City Talk columns have considered some of the issues raised by the recently released study that recommends broad changes to parking and mobility in the downtown area.

As I explained a week ago, I’m dubious of plans to extend meter enforcement until 10 p.m. With so many on-street spaces sitting empty on weeknights, it seems like the extra hours of enforcement would just further reduce demand and hurt businesses.

I’m even more concerned that evening enforcement will drive another wedge between locals and tourists. The additional hassle of paying for parking might be the tipping point that will prevent some Savannah area residents from shopping and dining in the Historic District after 5 p.m.

Meter enforcement does seem justified on Saturdays, however, and at this point it makes sense to have metered parking on Broughton Street. Why should the most desirable spots in the main shopping district be free, as they are now?

The study has also proposed the elimination of time limits on downtown meters. Given the current labyrinth of time and price combinations, it makes sense to get rid of all the limits.

And if mobile payment options are eventually available, drivers could just continue to feed the meters without ever having to go back to their cars.

But how will the elimination of time limits impact on-street parking in areas where spaces are relatively plentiful on weekdays?

As I’ve noted routinely over the years, there are often tons of on-street spaces downtown. They just aren’t where you want them.

If you’re headed to the City Market area, you’ll be lucky to find a metered spot during the day through much of the year, but that doesn’t mean there is “no parking downtown,” which is a refrain I hear all the time.

About noon last Wednesday, I turned off East Broad Street onto St. Julian Street and was immediately confronted with multiple empty spaces. There were plenty of spaces on Bryan Street too, all the way to Abercorn Street.

There were also ample free spaces on Congress Street between Habersham and Houston streets, plus more spaces on St. Julian.

Yes, it’s easy to find parking at meters in the northeast corner of downtown on many weekdays.

I then drove over to Barnard Street and turned south. There were available parking spaces appearing in bunches as I approached Liberty Street. The spaces in the Barnard Street corridor south of Liberty Street are poorly utilized on the average weekday.

Why don’t more people use those spaces?

There are a variety of probable answers, some of which might overlap.

Many Savannahians simply refuse to walk more than a couple of blocks to their destinations, despite the fact we have one of the most beautiful downtowns in America.

Or maybe we simply don’t have as much demand for spaces as we have convinced ourselves that we do.

But maybe the time limits simply present too large of a barrier. If you’re a SCAD student headed to a two-and-a-half-hour class, you might not want to risk parking in a two hour space.

If you’re a local or a visitor who wants to shop in the Downtown Design District and then have a leisurely lunch in the Bull Street corridor, the current two-hour limits might not be enough for you either.

The total elimination of time limits will increase demand for spaces in areas of downtown where parking is often plentiful, but by how much? Who, precisely, will end up using those currently underutilized spaces?

The elimination of time limits in those lower traffic areas will take some pressure off the areas with highest demand for on-street parking, especially the streets around Ellis Square and City Market. The elimination of limits could also result in more foot traffic and more economic activity in the southern and eastern portions of the Historic District.

At the same time, meters with no time limits could attract a variety of downtown workers who might be perfectly happy to pay one dollar per hour for long stretches of the day. That’s half the cost of hourly parking on weekdays at the Whitaker Street garage, although the monthly rates in the garages would still be far cheaper than on-street parking for those with regular jobs downtown.

Whatever the end results, it seems pretty clear that we could boost demand for spaces in some parts of downtown, and removing the time limits might be a good first step.

On the other hand, if we see a sudden surge in demand, downtown residents might be inconvenienced. And those folks face many inconveniences already.

 

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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More Information

You can read about the new strategic plan Parking Matters at http://www.savannahga.gov/parkingmatters.

CITY TALK: Mobility study proposes bicycle upgrades

Mon, 03/07/2016 - 10:06pm

In Sunday’s City Talk, I questioned whether weekday evening demand for on-street parking justifies the proposed extension of meter enforcement to 10 p.m.

It seems clear that evening enforcement will discourage Savannah area residents from going downtown in the evenings when parking is relatively easy to find.

Since writing that column, I’ve had some time to start digging into more of the draft recommendations that are part of the city’s broad Parking Matters initiative (http://www.savannahga.gov/parkingmatters). The strategic plan deals with other mobility beyond parking, including bicycling and pedestrians.

I was especially struck that the draft recommendations include the completion of a bicycle network through utilization of “low-stress on-street routes and protected lanes on less busy roads.”

One graphic suggests there should be bicycle routes on Drayton and Whitaker streets, and the study recommends protected bicycle lanes on Montgomery Street.

In numerous columns over the years, I have detailed the dimensions of some of Savannah’s unusually wide streets. According to one graphic in this new study, Montgomery Street is 52 feet wide, with two 15-foot travel lanes and two 11-foot parking lanes.

Those travel lanes are absurdly wide. Many highways have 12-foot wide lanes.

The plan presented last week would reduce the travel lanes to 12 feet, which I would argue is still too wide. The parking lanes would be reduced to a standard eight feet.

That would result in 12 feet of additional space on Montgomery Street, which would leave room for two bicycle lanes — one going north and one going south — with buffers between them. Those bicycle lanes would be on the same side of the road, and they would be between a parking lane and the sidewalk.

Those protected bicycle lanes would certainly be good for riders, and over the long term they’d be good for development in the Montgomery Street corridor.

Of course, for Montgomery Street to work optimally as a bicycling corridor, we would need two-way traffic between Broughton and Liberty streets. That’s a change that we’ve been advocating here at City Talk for many years.

And it’s worth emphasizing another issue. At the moment, there is more demand for a bicycle route in the Bull Street corridor than over on Montgomery Street.

These are obviously complex issues, and major modifications to city streets will probably meet with stiff resistance. Remember the Price Street conversion?

Still, it’s impressive that the Parking Matters study aims to make Savannah “America’s best bicycling city.”

That’s an ambitious goal that will require some bold moves.

 

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.

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CITY TALK: Does Savannah's parking demand justify enforcement in the evenings?

Sat, 03/05/2016 - 11:06pm

I live just south of Forsyth Park and typically ride a bike or walk when I’m headed downtown. Parking is such a hassle.

But bicycling, walking and transit really aren’t options for many area residents who want to enjoy the Historic District. With that in mind, I have over the years been a staunch advocate for maximizing on-street parking in the Historic District.

On-street parking has multiple positive effects.

Drivers typically slow down when there are parked cars alongside them. Parked cars can also be a buffer between pedestrians and traffic.

And the presence of parked cars reduces the area of active traffic that pedestrians have to avoid when crossing streets.

On-street parking also has substantial monetary value, and I’m not talking about the amount the city can make from meters and fines.

Nearby on-street parking can be extremely valuable to businesses, and it can add value to homes and other property.

Sure, there are times when it might make sense to eliminate on-street parking spaces, such as for safety and visibility. Sometimes an on-street space can be replaced with something else that has clear value, like bicycle parking, outdoor tables at a restaurant or a tree.

The city of Savannah has made some common-sense moves to add more on-street parking in the downtown area in recent years, like the major addition of parking on Price Street and the use of angled parking on Park Avenue, but I’ve always wanted to see a more concerted effort to maximize use of street parking.

All that said, there are times of the day, week and year when there is ample on-street parking in the Historic District, even if you won’t always find that perfect spot exactly where you want it.

After we got word last week about the proposed plan to double the hourly rates at meters north of Oglethorpe Avenue and to extend meter enforcement until 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, I decided to drive around and see just how much parking was available on a weekday evening at this time of year.

First, a few ground rules. I didn’t obsessively search for parking spaces, and I didn’t even look as far as Bay Street, East Broad Street or Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. I didn’t count handicapped spaces or non-metered spaces on the fringes of the Historic District.

At 7 p.m. last Tuesday evening, I started in Johnson Square and basically drove back and forth through downtown, working my way from north to south.

I found almost no available on-street parking spaces in the northwest portion of downtown. But there were many spaces in the blocks around Reynolds, Warren, Washington, Oglethorpe, Columbia and Greene squares.

All told, I easily found 64 open metered spaces north of Oglethorpe Avenue, and that doesn’t even include several small streets or the spaces on Oglethorpe itself. As I worked my way farther south, the number of available spaces increased dramatically, with fistfuls of open spots both east and west of the Bull Street corridor.

So what’s going to happen if drivers have to feed the meters until 10 p.m., even in those areas of downtown with limited evening demand through much of the week?

Many drivers, especially tourists, would simply pay the meters without thinking about it. We would also see increased turnover of spaces in the highest demand areas, and we would likely see more cars in city garages in the evening, assuming that the garages were sufficiently less expensive.

Those seem like positive developments.

But not all areas of downtown have public garages in the immediate neighborhood. Right now, if you’re driving down to, say, Pacci or B. Matthew’s Eatery for dinner — both are in the northeast quadrant of downtown — you can generally find on-street parking within a couple of blocks on many weeknights.

What happens to business at places like that when parking rates are $2 per hour?

There is also a broader risk to extending meter enforcement to 10 p.m.

There are many locals who feel like it is becoming more and more of a hassle to go downtown. The additional costs for parking will be just enough to lead some residents to spend even less time in the Historic District. That, in turn, will tilt the scales of the downtown economy even more toward tourism.

I like numerous things about the city’s plans for changes to downtown parking and mobility, and I’ll return to some of those issues soon, after I’ve had more time to look at the initiatives in detail.

 

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401. 

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CITY TALK: Which neighborhoods qualify as economically distressed?

Mon, 02/29/2016 - 10:26pm

So what are the best criteria to measure the severity of economic distress in various zip codes, cities, counties and states?

The Economic Innovation Group released a report last week that considered seven factors that are tracked by the U.S. Census: the number of adults without a high school degree, the poverty rate, the number of adults who are not working, the housing vacancy rate, the median income relative to the state average, the change in employment from 2010 to 2013 and the change in the number of businesses from 2010 to 2013.

We could quibble with the methodology, but those seven factors seem like generally sound measures of economic distress that can be used to identify areas that have never really recovered from the 2007 to 2009 recession.

First, the good news. Chatham County has a low score on EIG’s index of economic distress. Effingham and Bryan counties have even better scores.

The rest of this column will be bad news.

Chatham County might not qualify as economically distressed, but four zip codes within it do qualify: 31401, 31404, 31408 and 31415.

The 31401 zip code, which includes several of Savannah’s oldest neighborhoods, has a 43 percent poverty rate and a median income that is only 51 percent of the state average. The housing vacancy rate is 20 percent — one of every five units is empty.

The 31404 zip code, which includes much of Savannah’s east side, has a 27 percent poverty rate.

The 31415 zip code, which includes most of West Savannah, has a 37 percent poverty rate and other ugly numbers, but a dramatic increase in employment between 2010 and 2013 brightened the picture a little.

The 31408 zip code, which includes Garden City, has a 26 percent poverty rate, with 24 percent of adults lacking high school educations and 56 percent of adults not working.

Longtime readers of this column probably could predict some other areas of the state with high levels of economic distress, as measured by EIG.

Lightly populated counties in middle Georgia and down into southwest Georgia have terrifying numbers for some criteria. Many of those counties have been bleeding jobs since the recession.

In Telfair County, for example, 69 percent of adults are not working and the number of payroll jobs declined by 16.8 percent between 2010 and 2013.

I’ve speculated off and on for years about what could be done to turn around the economies in Georgia’s rural counties, but there seem to be few answers. There certainly aren’t any ideas coming out of Atlanta.

Locally, the high poverty rate turned into a campaign issue. Let’s hope that it remains an issue in the forefront of our minds.

 

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.

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CITY TALK: New arena site just might work for growth in our area

Sat, 02/27/2016 - 10:03pm
In my Tuesday City Talk column, I wrote about the proposed location for Savannah’s new arena.   As I noted there, the site is a little over half a mile on foot from the current arena and is within comfortable walking distance of a number of hotels, tourist destinations and SCAD dormitories.   In other words, the chosen site along the Springfield Canal seems to mesh with existing trends that are spurring investment in the area west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and south of Oglethorpe Avenue.   Concerns about crime have also been expressed since controversy over the site flared among City Council members, but I’m assuming that those worries will diminish as the mayor and aldermen scrutinize the issue. The selected site is a no man’s land right now, with effectively zero crime, and the struggling neighborhoods nearby don’t have any more crime than you’ll find in the Historic District.    But will a new arena with a vehicular entrance off Stiles Avenue lead to economic development in Carver Heights and other neighborhoods?   City officials used that argument repeatedly to sell the current Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax to voters, but I’m dubious.   Many of you have seen arenas and stadiums in other cities that have obviously not spurred economic development in the surrounding area. I can’t think of a single small business that opened downtown just to be close to our current arena at the Civic Center.   But many of you have also seen event facilities like arenas that have symbiotic relationships with the surrounding areas.   It’s risky to assume that an arena by itself will spur investment around it, but if the new facility is part of a broader, well-conceived development plan, many positive things could happen.   Consider the broad vision already articulated by city officials for the so-called Canal District. The arena would obviously be connected to downtown via existing roads, but we would also create a new network of paths and parks.   The increased connectivity would be good for Carver Heights for sure, since the neighborhood would suddenly have pedestrian and bicycle access to downtown.    And then there’s the gorgeous old waterworks, which dates to the late 19th century, at the corner of West Gwinnett Street and Stiles Avenue.    If you’ve never seen that building, you should do yourself a favor and drive over there. The city’s website has an interesting document (http://www.savannahga.gov/documentcenter/view/1377) that discusses the history of the waterworks and includes a few historical photos.    The eventual plan for the new arena site would almost certainly include renovation and reuse of that gorgeous brick waterworks, perhaps for offices. That historic building could then become a visual anchor and economic hub for the neighborhood in ways that the arena might not.   Do we have money to do all that, plus the needed streetscape improvements?    Yes, it appears we do. Before the most recent SPLOST vote, city officials made low estimates of likely revenue and seemingly realistic estimates about the costs of specific projects.    Should we be spending our money on other things? I know a lot of you are asking that.   That’s a broader question that I can’t really answer, except to say that the current arena is inadequate on many levels and that voters have twice approved SPLOST referendums promising a new arena at the selected west side site.   On the other hand, there must be other good sites for an arena, and there’s nothing wrong with the new team at City Hall scrutinizing major decisions like this.    And as we weigh the pros and cons of building a new arena and as we reconsider where to build one, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the project also presents an amazing opportunity for development in the Historic District.   The Civic Center sits on some of the most valuable property in the city. Moving the arena would open up a huge parcel for private development that could produce property tax revenues in perpetuity.   If we insisted that the new development be largely residential, we could boost downtown density and encourage the growth of neighborhood businesses. That would seem preferable to new hotels, but I’m sure hoteliers would pay a premium for the land if we decide to go that route.   City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401. By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiSLead photo: Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Revisiting the arena site plan

Mon, 02/22/2016 - 9:00pm

Over the last several years, many local residents have lost faith in the ability of Savannah city officials to make good decisions regarding land use, property purchases and major construction projects.

There are very good reasons for the steep drop in confidence, but I won’t try to rehash all those in this column.

Many supporters of Mayor Eddie DeLoach and the newly elected aldermen were among those who questioned the plans to build a new arena on a site just west of downtown, so it’s no surprise that the new City Council would want to reassess those longstanding plans.

I sure hope the mayor and aldermen apply the same scrutiny to other projects in the works, including the proposed Cultural Arts Center.

I feel confident, however, that dispassionate analysis will lead the new council members to the same conclusion that some of us drew many years ago. On the merits, the chosen site is a really good one.

The previous city council found the need to vote on the chosen site in 2013, but the city began acquiring the land east of Stiles Avenue way back when Mayor Floyd Adams and City Manager Michael Brown were in office.

The sheer length of the debate has been problematic, however, because only a small percentage of Savannah voters and taxpayers have been able to keep up with the relevant details.

In fact, many detractors of the west side site don’t seem to know what the city is even planning to build. The plan is for a new arena, and the assumption has been for years that the rest of the current Civic Center — the meeting rooms and the Johnny Mercer Theatre — will remain where they are.

Now, if I were running the show, I’d be looking at options to replace or dramatically modify the Mercer as part of this broader vision, but that’s not on the table right now.

Also, many Savannahians don’t seem to know where the site actually is.

Assuming that adequate pedestrian access is created as part of the arena project, the west side site would be a little over half a mile on foot from the existing arena. The site is a comfortable walk from two hotels, the primary visitors center and the Georgia State Railroad Museum.

Three other hotels, SCAD dorms and several residential developments are also within a 10- to 20-minute walk to the proposed location, depending on the final details of the larger site plan. The new arena would be fairly close to a handful of West Savannah neighborhoods as well.

Council members and taxpayers have all sorts of other questions too. I will touch upon some of those in an upcoming column.

 

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiSLead photo: Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Author shares warning about out-of-control tourism

Sat, 02/20/2016 - 10:11pm

Elizabeth Becker’s visit to Savannah last week provoked interesting conversations.

Becker is the author of “Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism.” The book is credited as being one of the first extended examinations of the worldwide tourism industry, but it’s worth noting that academics have been studying tourism for a long time and in great detail.

Becker made several public appearances while she was in town. I attended two of them.

Not long after her arrival, Becker spoke to a packed house at The Sentient Bean as part of Emergent Savannah’s Monday Means Community series. On Tuesday night, she was one of the panelists at Southbound Brewing Company discussing the relationship between tourism and history at the first Issues & Ale sponsored by Georgia Public Broadcasting.

Becker views tourism through a critical lens, and at both of those appearances she emphasized that some cities – New Orleans and Venice, for example – have failed to manage tourism appropriately.

If you watch online videos of Becker’s various presentations at promotional events, you can find further discussion of cities and countries that have successfully and unsuccessfully handled the explosion in tourism since the end of the Cold War.

For example, she gives fairly high marks to nations such as France and Costa Rica but repeatedly details the failures of Cambodia.

At both events that I attended, Becker praised Savannah’s handling of some aspects of tourism growth although she said we need to have a clearer vision of the city’s identity and future.

This is no knock against Becker, but her praise of Savannah was obviously based on limited experience. For example, she lauded Savannah’s policies for short-term rentals, such as Airbnb, but many residents who live near nuisance properties don’t share that feeling.

And there are homeowners who were operating unproblematic short-term rentals in neighborhoods where the practice was later banned. Some of the pressures of short-term rentals in the Historic District could be alleviated if homeowners in other neighborhoods had more flexibility.

I should also note that Becker was apparently given some of the revisionist history about Savannah’s decision to end discussion about building a terminal for cruise ships. Yes, a broad coalition of residents cogently argued against cruise ships over a period of years, but the death knell came only after a consultant’s study identified serious “issues and concerns” with three prospective terminal sites.

If that study had found a better site for a terminal, we might still be fighting over cruise ships.

In her talk at The Sentient Bean, Becker touched briefly on the question of “saturation,” and the term stuck in my mind.

I know some downtown residents feel like we are already at a point of tourism saturation, but we aren’t anywhere close.

We have ample sites in the downtown area that will attract hoteliers in the next decade or so. Just look at the large underutilized lots along Montgomery Street or along Henry and Anderson streets.

You might think the city is already full of visitors, but we have room for many, many more.

There is obviously no guarantee that Savannah will become a more popular destination than it is now, but the safe bet would be to assume dramatic growth in tourism in the coming decades.

I was also struck by the emphasis on the word “authenticity” during Tuesday night’s forum at Southbound Brewing, where Becker was joined by Daniel Carey of the Historic Savannah Foundation, Vaughnette Goode-Walker of the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum and Michael T. Owens of the Tourism Leadership Council.

It was good to hear all the panelists say they think Savannah’s tourists desire authentic experiences and accurate history.

“History is interesting, warts and all,” said Carey.

Goode-Walker said she encounters tourists every day who want to know the “real story” and are looking for “an authentic experience.”

Owens noted that the TLC opposed cruise ships, opposed double decker buses and has recently created a voluntary certification process for tour guides after a federal court challenge led the city of Savannah to eliminate a controversial history test.

Maybe tourism growth will seem more manageable if we can continue to emphasize authenticity. If tourists want to eat and shop at the same places that local residents do, that seems like a win. If tourists want to partake in festivals and traditions that local residents love, that seems like a win too.

But if tourists come to Savannah for manufactured events, food, activities and history that have little to do with authentic Lowcountry culture, then we will likely find ourselves, as Becker warned, overbooked and overrun.

 

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiSLead photo: Topic: City Talk