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CITY TALK: Where can you find downtown parking?

Mon, 06/27/2016 - 10:39pm

Before a big downtown gathering recently, would-be attendees peppered the Facebook event page with questions about where to find parking.

I’ve often said in this column that downtown parking is generally easy to find, although it may not be exactly where you want it.

Many of my readers apparently don’t trust my take on that.

I live a few blocks south of Forsyth Park, so I generally enter the Landmark Historic District on foot or via bicycle, but I still end up driving downtown pretty often and have been doing so for over 20 years.

Sure, I’ve been frustrated at times by not finding a space more quickly, but in almost all those cases it was my own fault. I got too greedy.

Last Friday night, I was headed downtown at 9 p.m. for a show at Ampersand, which is at the corner of Congress Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. I decided before I left the house that I would park on Montgomery Street just south of Oglethorpe Avenue.

Lo and behold, there were several spaces right there, so I was left with an easy five-minute walk.

This is not some weird magic. Depending on the time of day, week and year, it’s not hard to predict where on-street parking will be available.

What would have happened if I had gotten greedy on Friday night and driven north of Oglethorpe?

Probably nothing good. I might have spent 10 minutes or more mindlessly looping through the Historic District, often on streets with little or no on-street parking. I might have gotten stuck behind any number of slow-moving vehicles, and I likely would have wound up near Oglethorpe again.

Let me make a couple of simple suggestions to avoid that kind of frustration.

If you’re totally unfamiliar with the downtown parking landscape, if you’re bound for the northern portion of the Historic District and if you have the mobility to walk five to 10 minutes, you should probably be looking for parking along or south of Oglethorpe Avenue. If you go east of Lincoln Street, you will probably be able to get farther north than that.

Also, of course, it’s worth noting that we have some perfectly fine parking garages that generally have spaces.

Eventually, we will all likely be using apps to locate empty on-street spaces in real time, and the city might eventually have better signage that directs visitors both to garages and to blocks with available parking. We might also have better transit eventually, and we might even add on-street parking where we can.

Until those things happen, you’re probably better off parking a little farther south or a little farther west than you’d like. You might find that you enjoy the short walk.

 

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
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CITY TALK: Population boom fuels local employment growth

Sat, 06/25/2016 - 9:31pm

Six Georgia counties now account for about two-thirds of population growth in the state, according to research by University of Georgia demographer Matt Hauer that was reported in this newspaper last week.

Five of those six counties are in the Atlanta metro area. Chatham County is the other.

That’s an interesting and not especially surprising data point given the steady strength of the local job and real estate markets.

According to U.S. Census estimates, Chatham County’s population on July 1, 2010 was 265,896.

On July 1, 2015, Chatham had an estimated population of 286,956.

That’s an increase of about 8 percent in just five years, which is really fast.

In the past, I’ve been skeptical of some of the more extreme predictions for population growth along the coast. Unrealistic expectations of rapid in-migration certainly contributed to the depth of the local housing bust, and we might still be a generation away from developing all the areas where investors made big bets a decade ago.

But if current trends continue, I’ll eventually have to set aside my remaining skepticism.

Effingham and Bryan counties, which with Chatham comprise the Savannah Metropolitan Statistical Area, also experienced strong population growth between 2010 and 2015.

However, you don’t have to get far beyond the metro area to find counties with stagnant or declining populations. Demographer Hauer notes that half of Georgia’s counties are losing population, which should come as no surprise if you’ve read my occasional rants about declining employment and investment in rural areas.

Rapid population growth brings its own problems, of course, but that growth is likely both a cause and effect of the strong local job market.

According to the most recent estimates, the Savannah metro area had 177,800 nonfarm payroll jobs in May, which was an increase of 3.3 percent from May 2015. That’s considerably faster than the rate of year-over-year population growth. Such employment growth rates will eventually be unsustainable, but it seems we’re still reeling in some of the slack from the 2007-2009 recession and years of slow recovery.

The most significant increases in employment over the past year have come in two sectors: professional and business services, which includes a wide variety of white collar jobs, and leisure and hospitality, which consists largely of positions in restaurants and bars.

Several other sectors — including construction, manufacturing and trade — showed little or no growth between May 2015 and May 2016.

In a future column, I’ll compare the various employment sectors to the numbers from 2006, the year before the recession.

The positive news for payroll employment has been reinforced by other recent data released by the Georgia Department of Labor.

The number of initial applications for unemployment insurance in the Savannah metro area fell from 930 in May 2015 to 781 in May 2016, which suggests fewer layoffs. Statewide, the number of initial unemployment claims actually rose in May compared to a year earlier.

Also, the Savannah metro area unemployment rate fell from 5.8 percent in May 2015 to 4.5 percent in May 2016.

The underlying numbers are really strong. Over the year, the local labor force grew by about 1.6 percent, which is probably faster than the rate of population growth, while the number of persons employed increased an estimated 2.9 percent.

The Atlanta, Athens and Gainesville metro areas also saw significant year-over-year increases in the size of the labor force, but most other Georgia metros saw small increases or even declines.

In Hinesville, for example, there was a sharp decline in the unemployment rate compared to a year ago, but that was primarily because of a decline in the size of the labor force rather than an increase in employment.

Within the city of Savannah, the unemployment rate fell sharply from 6.5 percent in May 2015 to 4.9 percent in May 2016.

It’s interesting to note that these heartening gains in local employment have coincided with a virtually unprecedented increase in violent crime. The jurisdiction covered by the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department is on pace for about 60 murders in 2016, which would be an all-time high.

So far, at least, there’s no data suggesting that the spike in violence is tempering population growth, job growth or tourism.

 

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: New office to anchor south end of Forsyth

Mon, 06/20/2016 - 7:44pm

In 2013, I wrote about a planned development that would have transformed the south end of Forsyth Park.

At the time, the large lot at the southwest corner of Bull Street and Park Avenue was slated for a mix of residential and commercial uses. There would have been an apartment building right on the corner, with retail at street level and single-family homes facing Park and Bull.

That ambitious development was approved, but now a totally different plan is on tap.

The law firm Bouhan Falligant currently occupies the Armstrong House at 447 Bull St. at the north end of Forsyth Park, but they’ll be moving next year to a new building called One West Park Avenue.

With Brighter Day Natural Foods and the sprawling American Legion complex across Bull Street, the vacant site begs for an active use, and the new office building, which has room for a tenant on the first floor, should work out fine.

Dating back to the 19th century, the site has been home to a variety of residential and commercial buildings. The most recent use was a day care center.

The stately new three-story structure will be about 18,000 square feet and will be oriented toward Park Avenue (i.e., facing the park), but there will also be entrances on Bull Street, with some parking off Park Lane. A patio and landscaping will buffer the building from the nearest house on Park Avenue.

The brick and stone elements should lend gravity to the building, and the many windows should prevent it from feeling too forbidding.

It’s worth noting that Bouhan Falligant employees will spend a great deal of money at nearby businesses, even during the slower months. The lot is now used sporadically for parking, sometimes without the owner’s permission, but the new use will generate much more economic activity and property tax revenue.

The size of One West Park Avenue requires 39 off-street parking spaces, most of which will be remote. The law firm has a long-term agreement for 32 spots in the parking lot at Bull Street Baptist Church, which is a bit of a hike.

It will be interesting to see how many of those remote spaces are actually used. If I were an employee at Bouhan Falligant, I’d probably just snag one of the unmetered on-street spaces along Park Avenue or Bull Street.

The Armstrong House and its adjacent parking lot on Gaston Street appear likely to be developed into some sort of boutique inn or hotel. You’ll be reading more about that soon.

 

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 DawersSection: BiS
  • This rendering depicts a planned development that would transform the south end of Forsyth Park. (Courtesy Bouhan Falligant)
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Emergent Savannah panel emphasizes proactive planning

Sat, 06/18/2016 - 6:27pm
Emergent Savannah packed The Sentient Bean last week for the latest installment in its series Monday Means Community.   This month’s meeting, titled “The Politics of Place: People, Planning and Possibilities,” featured panelists Tom Thomson of the Metropolitan Planning Commission, Kevin Klinkenberg from the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority, SCAD professor Ryan Madson and attorney Harold Yellin, whom you’ve probably seen in action representing clients before various municipal bodies.    Savannah Morning News reporter Mary Landers moderated the conversation.   Much of the session was devoted to discussion of bureaucratic processes that underlie civic planning. Klinkenberg correctly noted that those processes often seem “opaque” and “exhausting,” even to citizens who try to engage.   Thomson emphasized the importance of citizens being involved earlier in the planning process. In general, Thomson and the other panelists seemed to be arguing for residents to be more proactive and less reactive.   For example, the MPC is currently preparing an update to the Comprehensive Plan, and officials distributed survey forms at last week’s Emergent meeting. You can take a look at the current plan at http://www.thempc.org/Dept/Comp and fill out a survey at http://bit.ly/1UXknHe.    That survey should yield some interesting data about residents’ visions for Savannah, but the document does not address specific neighborhoods. If you have concerns about the fate of specific properties, you should start digging into the details of the current zoning and proposed future uses.   Thomson also invoked a simile that I’m going to use again. He said that our current zoning ordinance is like the picture of Dorian Gray.   We have a vibrant city that’s full of life, but our zoning ordinance is aging terribly.   Longtime readers might remember that the MPC started working on an overhaul of the zoning in the city of Savannah and unincorporated Chatham County about a decade ago.    As a columnist and as a citizen, I was part of a technical committee that met almost 30 times between 2007 and 2010, so I can vouch firsthand for the diligence, concern and professionalism of the planners involved.   The MPC staffers certainly didn’t plan on the process taking so long, but there have been myriad delays caused by various governmental bodies.   Thomson did note, however, that the MPC and Savannah city officials are working on another revision of the current document. Perhaps we’ll see some movement before the end of 2016.   You can read more about the proposed New Zoning Ordinances at http://www.newzo.org.   Later in the discussion, Klinkenberg echoed the Dorian Gray reference when he noted that young entrepreneurs sometimes feel especially stifled by outdated zoning ordinances.   As Klinkenberg spoke, I was reminded of attorney Dana Braun’s 2013 Savannah Morning News op-ed about a young businesswoman who was moving away because we did not have an ordinance under which she could successfully operate a food truck.    And we still don’t have that ordinance.   Klinkenberg added affordability to the arguments for more streamlined bureaucratic process. If would-be entrepreneurs always have to lawyer up and weather lengthy waits, the costs of development increase and have to be passed on to tenants or buyers.    Yellen also made the case for zoning ordinance updates when he discussed the likelihood of booming investment on Indian Street after recent changes to parking requirements.   Madson’s vision for the city is outlined in tremendous detail in his essay “Projective Preservation: A Manifesto for Savannah,” which was published recently by Strelka Magazine (http://strelka.com/en/magazine/2016/04/19/projective-preservation-a-mani...).   I don’t have space here to do justice to Madson’s 6,000-word piece, but he does make some straightforward arguments for a greater emphasis on affordable residential development.   “Residents are more important than tourists,” Madson says in his manifesto. “They live here permanently and take care of the place. A strong counter-point to mass tourism is the presence of locals.”   “More (affordable) housing in the Landmark District is needed to provide a critical mass of residents and to ensure Savannah does not become a museum city,” Madson writes. “If Savannah’s leadership is comfortable building large hotels for tourists — which it is — it should also be fine with new multi-family housing.”   We have a lot of large underutilized lots in the greater downtown area, and we have some big decisions ahead regarding our vision for the current arena site, the proposed Canal District and other swaths of land in downtown expansion areas.   I think we will make better decisions about future land use if concerned citizens get in the game now.   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: Four questions about the proposed new arena

Mon, 06/13/2016 - 10:38pm

Whew. Glad that’s over.

Last week, Savannah City Council finally laid to rest the question of the location for a new arena to replace the aging one at the Civic Center.

As regular readers know, I’ve always been a fan of the site just west of downtown selected about 15 years ago when Floyd Adams was mayor. The recent study piloted by Barrett Sports Group confirmed that the site has great potential.

Perhaps more importantly, West Savannah residents turned out in large numbers for last week’s meeting, and alderman Van Johnson was able to push through a motion that reconfirmed the city’s commitment to the site north of West Gwinnett Street between Boundary Street and Stiles Avenue.

So now we can stop the bureaucratic and civic haggling over the location and move on to other important questions. I’ll suggest four questions here that might guide our thinking.

What can we do to limit new arena construction costs and maximize funding for related needs?

At last week’s meeting, at-large Alderman Brian Foster noted that the arena could potentially be built for much less than the consultants’ estimates. The study includes significant contingencies and soft cost allowances where we could potentially save millions from the final price tag.

It might sound ridiculous to think that a local government could work so frugally, but it’s certainly possible if the right people are in charge.

What steps can we take now to encourage economic investment in the Stiles Avenue corridor even though we are still years away from having a new arena?

I plan to take a closer look at some of the opportunities and challenges for a future column.

What about the costs and feasibilities of the proposed Canal District adjacent to the new arena?

At minimum, we need good pathways connecting the site to the core of downtown, but we don’t yet know the full costs to implement the broader vision for the area. The Barrett Sports Group has been contracted to examine the possibilities.

And what should we do with the current arena site?

I’ve written many columns over the years about potential uses for that large site, which could include not only the arena itself but also the adjacent parking lot and the trust lots on the west side of Orleans Square.

There seems to be an emerging consensus that we should reestablish the street grid as much as possible and get that land back into private hands, but we are still going to be faced with a lot of choices. I will certainly return to that issue in future columns.

 

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: Can we learn anything from Charleston's Gaillard Center?

Sat, 06/11/2016 - 11:01pm

Charleston’s Gaillard Center reopened last fall after a $142 million renovation. I recently visited the 1800-seat concert hall for a tremendous Spoleto Festival performance by the L.A. Dance Project.

Before I say a few things about the Holy City’s wonderful new space for the performing arts, I need to emphasize the distinction between an arena and a concert hall or theatre like our own Johnny Mercer. I continue to see lots of confused discussion about our aging Civic Center’s fate that conflates the two spaces.

The city of Charleston is home to the TD Arena at the College of Charleston, which seats about 5,000, but the major public arena is in the city of North Charleston.

The North Charleston Coliseum has a capacity of 13,000, which is considerably more than our existing or proposed arenas, while the North Charleston Performing Arts Center has a capacity of 2,300.

The North Charleston Coliseum was used for public events on 11 days in May, including four days for commencement ceremonies and six days for South Carolina Stingrays games.

In other words, the primary arena for the Charleston metro area isn’t wedged into the city’s famed historic district, and it seems odd to me that so many Savannahians object to the idea of building a new arena less than a mile away from our current one.

Anyway, back to the Gaillard Center.

Exactly half of the $142-million price tag was paid by tax dollars. The other half was privately raised. The new complex holds many city offices, so the final price includes much more than just the performance hall.

The new Gaillard Center seats 1,800, considerably fewer than the 2,700 accommodated by the old Municipal Auditorium. The new performance hall is horseshoe shaped, with three balconies and spectacular technical specifications.

Sure, the new space is experiencing some growing pains, as evidenced by the awkward barrier in front of the removable seating close to the stage and by fire alarms triggered by stage smoke during one of the L.A. Dance Project’s performances.

I also think the Gaillard interior has too much pastel color – it looks better in photos than in person – but the performance hall seems poised to serve the needs of Charlestonians (Chucktowners?) for several decades, at least.

The Johnny Mercer Theatre here in Savannah, which was built several years after the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, seats about 2,500. According to the team of consultants who studied the feasibility of a new Savannah arena, the Mercer needs about $20 million in investment to modernize it, including “Code, Life Safety, and ADA compliance.”

But the list of potential modifications doesn’t seem to address the Mercer’s notoriously inconsistent sound quality, nor would the changes bring the average seat closer to the stage.

In other words, $20 million seems like a lot to invest in the Mercer if we still won’t have a facility that compares favorably to newer performance halls around the country. On the other hand, we don’t have enough SPLOST money earmarked even to cover the full cost of a new arena, according to the consultants’ estimates, much less for a major overhaul of the Mercer.

Charleston has a considerably larger and wealthier metro area than Savannah has, which translates into more funding for major projects, but maybe there is still something we can learn from Charleston’s heavy reliance on private donations for the new Gaillard.

If Savannah wants to be a world-class city with modern performance spaces, we need to think more deeply and creatively about ways to reach our goals.

 

Savannah waits for food trucks

My trip to Charleston prevented me from attending Savannah’s recent Food Truck Festival, but I heard plenty about the big turnout, which spawned both excitement and frustration.

Some of the social media commentary about the event suggested changes for “next year,” but let’s be clear that a successful annual festival is not the goal of the impending food truck ordinance.

In fact, having seen the long lines for food trucks at several music festivals, it seems clear that the personal service provided at food trucks really isn’t compatible with extremely large crowds, unless you round up a whole mess of food trucks.

Sure, food trucks that sell items like hot dogs or hamburgers might have meat already on the grill, but that’s not the general routine.

If you’ve tried an excellent food truck, like the locally based Chazito’s Latin Cuisine, you know what I mean. It might take a few minutes to get your order, but it’s going to be fresh, hot and scrumptious.

As I’ve noted here often over the years, we’ve dithered on a food truck ordinance for far too long. So here’s hoping that we move ahead soon with an ordinance that gives some key protections to brick and mortar establishments but also gives food trucks an opportunity to succeed.

 

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

CITY TALK: Survey wants input on city manager search

Mon, 06/06/2016 - 8:04pm

Savannah residents have until June 17 to complete an online survey about the qualities they want in a new city manager. The survey is available at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/T5F27XL.

The search firm Colin Baenziger & Associates will apparently use the responses as they consider candidates for the position, but it’s hard to know how much weight they will, or even should, give to the results of a generic survey like this one.

One question asks about “issues that the City Manager should address” and another asks about “skills the next City Manager should have.” Each of those questions is followed by a long checklist.

I found the list of “issues” especially frustrating.

Crime and traffic are on that list, and I imagine both will rank high among problems that Savannahians want the new city manager to address.

The list also includes vital issues like economic development and affordable housing, but the word “poverty” is nowhere to be found.

The 2015 city elections made it clear that residents want to see a reduction in poverty. Sure, we can address poverty, at least to some degree, through conventional economic development programs and affordable housing initiatives, but residents expect more innovative and more aggressive approaches than have been tried in the past.

The list of issues for respondents to rank includes “preserving the city’s character” and “quality of life,” but no version of the words “tourism” or “history” appear anywhere in the survey.

And while traffic is among the list of issues, you won’t find the words “transportation” or “transit.”

The word “arts” is also absent.

The list of skills that residents are asked to rank suggests a distinction between hierarchical leadership and the ability to build consensus. Do we want a “consensus builder” with a “customer service orientation” who “works to achieve balance among all community interests”? Or do we want a “visionary” city manager with “strong leadership”?

Of course, we need both of those things, and there could be dangers in getting a city manager who leans too far toward either extreme.

I think we also need a new city manager with some sort of demonstrated ability to manage ambitious projects.

If we move ahead with the proposed arena site just west of downtown, we will need a city manager who can see the big picture while simultaneously handling thorny details.

If you agree with me that the survey’s lists are too restrictive, there’s a box for additional comments. So take a few minutes and fill it out.

 

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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Dramatic changes on West Oglethorpe

Sat, 06/04/2016 - 6:51pm
Some of Savannah’s lanes are grimy and forbidding. Some have a rustic charm. Some are primarily commercial while others are largely residential. Some are paved, some aren’t. Most are forgettable, and few are attractive, at least by conventional standards. And then there’s West Oglethorpe Lane between Bull and Whitaker streets, which has been transformed in some magnificent ways through the efforts of The Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah. Before I talk about the dramatic improvements, it’s worth noting that the first block of West Oglethorpe Lane already had a few characteristics that distinguished it from most lanes in the city.  Because the grand IPC building is set back from the street, that block of Oglethorpe Lane has always been especially visible to the thousands of people who walk up and down Bull each week. The lane is also plainly visible from the stairs of the Board of Education building. The first block of West Oglethorpe Lane is also busier than most other blocks of lanes. It provides access to IPC’s private parking lot, Veritas Academy and several residential properties that face Hull Street. Angel’s BBQ, which opened in 2005, is located at 21 W. Oglethorpe Lane.  That’s a broader mix of uses than you’ll find in most lanes, and the newly renovated block respects all the existing uses.  Features include new brickwork covering most of the street surface, but the bricks are broken up with stonework and minor grade changes that reinforce the geometry of the adjacent structures and public spaces. The various textures and markings will discourage drivers from going too fast.  The new stone sidewalks should weather beautifully.  You’ll also find a new curb extension near a side entrance to IPC, bicycle bollards just off Bull Street and lovely new lamp posts. Benches have been added to the streetscape, and the historic 1891 steeple bell has a new home along the lane. The redesigned block even has a handful of metered on-lane parking spaces.  I was most impressed, I think, by the corrals for some of the trash and recycling bins. If you look down many Savannah lanes, you’ll see an overwhelming number of trash bins. The yellow tops of the recycling bins are especially hard to ignore. But several of the bins on Oglethorpe Lane are now shielded by subtle fencing.  Of course, there’s new landscaping too. So has IPC set a precedent? Are there other public lanes that could benefit from privately funded enhancements like these? The successful West Oglethorpe Lane project might prompt a reassessment of the utility and attractiveness of some lanes, and there are various elements — like the fencing around the waste bins — that might work in many places.  However, most of our lanes probably don’t have the width, visibility or intensity of use to warrant major upgrades like these.  Still, if you’re interested in Savannah’s urban fabric, you should take a fresh look at West Oglethorpe Lane between Bull and Whitaker streets. If you can’t get downtown anytime soon, check out the drone video on IPC’s Facebook page.    New bike map  now available I dropped by the Savannah Bicycle Campaign office last week to pick up a copy of the new BikeSAV map and guide. It’s an impressive product that includes tips and information for safe, enjoyable cycling in Savannah. On one side, there’s a detailed map of the area bounded by the Savannah River, East Broad Street, Henry Street and Fahm Street. Each street is color coded — red for “not recommended,” yellow for “use caution” and green for “go ahead” — and various biking amenities and visitor destinations have been clearly marked. I’ve been biking for almost 20 years in the downtown area, and I appreciate the thoughtfulness behind the street-by-street recommendations. The other side has a map that covers a much larger area and shows longer routes. That map also clearly indicates where cycling is banned and where it is not advised.  The guide was made possible through the work of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign with support from the city of Savannah, the Downtown Neighborhood Association and Georgia Bikes!   Copies of the free map can be picked up at the Savannah Bicycle Campaign office at 1301 A Lincoln St., at the corner of Henry Street. Some area businesses will also be distributing the map, and digital copies can be downloaded at http://bicyclecampaign.org/resources-2/bikesav-map-and-guide.    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: Savannah Morning NewsSection: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Housing costs strain Savannah's low-wage workers

Mon, 05/30/2016 - 9:10pm

According to a study released last week by the National Low Income Housing Coalition and Georgia ACT, a renter with a full-time job needs to earn $17.25 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent in the Savannah area.

Fair market rent, which is tracked by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is “typically the 40th percentile of gross rents for standard rental units,” according to the study.

The fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) is $897 per month. To keep housing costs below the generally accepted benchmark of 30 percent of income, a renter of one of these apartments would need an annual income of $35,880.

The median household income in the area is $63,500, which is high enough to afford an apartment that rents for $1,588.

Of course, as we all know, there are many workers in Savannah that are making far less. A household with two full-time workers earning minimum wage would barely earn more than $30,000 per year.

A household making about 30 percent of the annual median income earns only $19,050 per year. At that income level, an affordable rent for a two-bedroom would be $476. Good luck finding apartments at that price.

The report, “Out of Reach 2016,” paints a grim picture of housing affordability across the country, so Savannah is certainly not alone.

I was struck, however, by the gaps between the fair market rent in Savannah and other cities across Georgia.

The fair market rent for a two-bedroom in the Atlanta area is $949, but Savannah is second in the state at $897.

The fair market rent for a two-bedroom is $759 in the Athens area, $735 in Augusta, $705 in Macon and $700 in Valdosta. The median income in the Savannah area is higher than in all those cities, but the median doesn’t help you if you’re working at minimum wage or only slightly more.

“One of the toughest requests we’re faced with at Step Up is from families looking for housing,” said Suzanne Donovan, director of the anti-poverty initiative Step Up Savannah, in a press release. “We’ve got thousands on long wait lists for public housing neighborhoods and housing vouchers in our community, and an aging housing stock that lacks proper weatherization, just to name a few problems.”

“We regularly talk with mothers and fathers on the verge of eviction, already paying up to 50 percent of their income on housing,” Donovan said. She also noted that Savannah has an affordable housing fund, but it lacks a dedicated funding stream.

The problems are stark, but they can be addressed. I’ll follow up soon.

 

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: More calls for redesign of Drayton, Whitaker streets

Sat, 05/28/2016 - 9:47pm

Alderman Bill Durrence is just the latest voice calling for the redesign of Drayton and Whitaker streets so that we can calm traffic and improve safety.

“I would love for us to try something, anything. Let’s try something and see,” Durrence recently told WTOC.

I appreciate the flexibility of Durrence’s position. I certainly haven’t decided what the best redesign would be, but it’s long past time to do something.

Many downtown stakeholders would love to see Drayton and Whitaker redesigned like Price Street, with a travel lane for cars, a bike lane and on-street parking.

Many others, including many commuters, hate that idea.

Of course, the traffic counts on Price Street didn’t justify two one-way lanes. I still hear lots of grumblings about Price, but I travel it occasionally both by car and bike, and things seem to have worked out pretty well. Traffic has slowed, and we’ve seen some major investment that probably wouldn’t have happened if Price were still a freeway. By the way, I favored a different redesign of Price Street. I wanted to see two-way traffic there again, as there was historically.

In recent weeks, we’ve chanced upon another way to slow the traffic on Drayton Street. All you have to do is create a big snarl by forcing everyone to merge just before a light that hasn’t been retimed.

There is a darn impressive hole in the ground right now just north of Drayton Tower. Construction of underground parking for a new hotel has closed one lane of Drayton north of Liberty Street for the foreseeable future.

At least for now, the merge point is south of Liberty.

I’ve heard multiple complaints about the backups, so I hung out on the street corner for a while last Wednesday and watched what was happening.

After I got settled, the light at Liberty Street turned green and northbound traffic on Drayton began tentatively moving, only to be interrupted by an emergency vehicle. Only three cars made it through the light.

When the light turned green a few moments later, a bus that was turning west onto Liberty had to wait for folks who were using the crosswalk, with a walk signal. After the bus was able to turn, only two other cars managed to get through the light.

By this time, there were about 30 vehicles backed up on Drayton.

I was a little surprised that more cars weren’t peeling off onto other streets and then heading north on Bull, Abercorn or even other streets. Our street grid provides lots of options in that part of downtown.

Shortly before all this, I had bicycled north on Barnard Street from 32nd Street to Broughton Street. I am an unhurried cyclist, and I was only passed by six cars, one other bicycle and a slow-moving mower. Not much traffic over there at all.

But we are creatures of habit. Drivers accustomed to the speed and efficiency of Drayton Street aren’t going to change their routes overnight, even if better options exist.

Anyway, back to the corner of Drayton and Liberty. After only six vehicles made it through two full cycles of the streetlight, the pace picked up.

Nine or 10 vehicles made it through each of the subsequent five green lights, with only four drivers blatantly running red lights, and the backlog was dramatically reduced.

Some might cite the current mess on Drayton as proof that the street could never be reduced to one travel lane, but that argument makes too many assumptions. For example, the green phase of the light could be slightly longer, and a turn lane could be included in the redesign. Straightforward modifications like those could virtually eliminate congestion like we’re seeing right now.

A little later, I saw a woman and three very young children poised on the edge of Forsyth Park as they waited for a break in the high-speed traffic so they could walk across Whitaker Street. The nearest signalized crosswalk was about a quarter mile away.

I don’t know what the best options are for Drayton and Whitaker streets, but it’s obvious that we need to do something in the most obvious trouble spots.

For starters, we desperately need to improve pedestrian safety and access around Forsyth Park and through the Downtown Design District.

Also, we almost certainly don’t need two wide travel lanes for cars turning onto Drayton off Victory Drive. Curb extensions, widened sidewalks and on-street parking might all make sense for a number of blocks there.

Other stretches might need different remedies – or no remedies at all.

I’m sure I’ll hear from readers arguing that drivers just need to slow down and that the police need to enforce the speed limit on Drayton and Whitaker streets.

But the problem is one of design, not behavior. The bizarrely wide travels lanes and lack of on-street parking simply encourage speeding, which in turn creates safety hazards and reduces property values.

We need to begin trying some things to change the existing dynamic.

 

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: Will national attention spark more work on crime?

Mon, 05/23/2016 - 10:04pm

 

Last week, CNN covered violent crime in Savannah. The piece was widely shared around town and drew coverage from this newspaper.

As a resident, I’m glad to see continued outrage about violence in the city. It’s absurd that we’ve put up with high crime rates for so long, and it’s even more absurd that for decades we’ve accepted blatantly obvious street crime as the norm in some neighborhoods.

As a numbers guy, however, I would urge a comprehensive look at the crime data before drawing too many conclusions.

As of May 14, there had been 23 homicides in the total jurisdiction of the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department. That’s a dramatic increase from the 13 homicides at the same point in 2015.

So has the murder rate almost doubled in 2016 compared to 2015? That’s not how I would characterize it.

For unclear reasons, violent crime increased dramatically in the second half of 2015. In May 2015, we were on pace for 35 murders for the year, but we ended up with 53.

We’re on pace for about 60 murders in 2016.

That’s a terrible number, and I’m not suggesting we should accept it.

But we aren’t on pace for 60 murders because of some random spike in violence. The truth is more mundane and even scarier. We’re simply seeing the continuation of a trend that started about a year ago.

The SCMPD and city leaders have taken some aggressive steps in recent months to address crime, but those efforts aren’t going to be successful overnight.

Will national media attention spur even more action? I don’t know whether it will, or even should, but the continued spotlight could help focus our attention.

 

A first trip to the Tybee Post Theater

How about some good news?

I’m a little late to the game, but I finally made it out to the Tybee Post Theater last week for a magnificent performance by Walter Parks. It was my first trip to the lovely new venue, which opened last fall.

The former movie theater was constructed in 1930 and primarily served the soldiers at Fort Screven. After some Herculean preservation efforts, the theater is now a versatile performance and event venue with excellent sound and lighting. Nine public events are scheduled for June.

Last week’s trip prompted me to remember a fundraiser at the old theater in 2001. It was one of the first big public events that I attended after 9/11, and the theater was little more than a shell. The project seemed daunting.

Well, sometimes patience and perseverance pay off. I’m certainly looking forward to more trips to the Tybee Post Theater.

 

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 TalkSection: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: One final trip to Johnny Harris

Sat, 05/21/2016 - 7:10pm
I had not eaten at Johnny Harris Restaurant for a couple of years, so I dropped by for a late lunch last Wednesday.   Barring some unforeseen development, the iconic Victory Drive restaurant will close for good on May 28. In the coming months, the Johnny Harris building, the nearby stables at Wicklow Farms and a variety of other structures will be razed for a large retail development.   The owners of Johnny Harris have every right to bring the restaurant to an end, but this is still a sad moment for the city.   I sat in one of the comfortably narrow booths in the kitchen, which is where I’ve eaten on most of my Johnny Harris trips over the last two decades. The gorgeous main room is the restaurant’s signature space, but I’ve always loved the fact that patrons could enjoy the unique dining experiences in the kitchen and the bar.    The restaurant was temporarily out of the barbecue lamb sandwich, so I ordered fried chicken with a side salad and potato salad.   I’m pretty sure I ordered unsweetened tea, but I ended up with sweet tea. Call it serendipity. I didn’t send it back.    Everything was fantastic.    A young mother who had obviously eaten at Johnny Harris many times was there with her two young children who likely won’t have any memories of the place.   At another nearby booth, an older patron, who could possibly have eaten at Johnny Harris back in the 1920s, enjoyed conversation with her family.    As I worked my way through my meal — yes, I even ate all the buttered white toast  I wondered again why Johnny Harris never seemed to capitalize on the booming tourism of the last 20 years. Maybe the problem was simply the location.   Sure, lots of tourists and other visitors found their way to the Victory Drive mainstay, but the restaurant maintained its distinctly local character and clientele.    As I noted in a previous column, we have many other locally owned restaurants that have already become part of the cultural fabric of Savannah. I’m sure some of those spots would love to have the support of Johnny Harris regulars.   Strong employment gains in April in Savannah metro area More good news for the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) in the latest estimates from the Georgia Department of Labor.    In April, the number of initial claims for unemployment declined slightly compared to April 2015, while payroll employment grew 4 percent year over year.   This is probably a tired refrain for regular readers of this column, but that pace of job growth is far faster than population growth and can’t be sustained indefinitely.    Over the past year, we’ve posted especially strong gains in professional and business services and in leisure and hospitality.   With an estimated 27,300 payroll jobs, the leisure and hospitality sector accounts for approximately 15 percent of local employment. That number includes some jobs that aren’t directly related to tourism, by the way, but the vast majority are in accommodation and food services.    I continue to hear regularly from local residents who are concerned about the growth in tourism, in part because of low wages for some positions. Those complaints prompted me to look at leisure and hospitality employment statewide.    Across Georgia, there are an estimated 463,000 jobs in leisure and hospitality. That’s about 10.6 percent of payroll jobs in the state.    You could look at the numbers in a couple of different ways. On the one hand, you could say that leisure and hospitality employment is more than 40 percent higher in Savannah than in the rest of Georgia. On the other hand, you could dismiss the difference. It’s just a few percentage points, after all.   Fifteen percent might not sound like all that much, but leisure and hospitality employment outpaces employment in education and health services, government, professional and business services and retail trade. And some of those retail jobs are supported by tourism, as are some of the government jobs.   The tourism boom shows no sign of slowing, and the attendant controversies will likely keep growing, too. I’ll devote a few upcoming columns to some of the key issues. In the meantime, I should emphasize that we are seeing broad-based employment gains in the Savannah area. Nearly every sector is adding jobs.    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: Arena study answers questions, raises some new ones

Mon, 05/16/2016 - 10:48pm

In Sunday’s City Talk, I shared a few preliminary thoughts on the feasibility study for the city of Savannah’s proposed new arena.

Since my deadline for that column, I’ve had time to read and begin to digest the voluminous report prepared by Barrett Sports Group LLC, Gensler, JE Dunn Construction, and Thomas and Hutton.

The report is impressive and detailed. You can check it out for yourself at http://www.savannahga.gov/arenastudy.

I’ll try to resist the temptation to write column after column about issues raised in the study and the other issues raised during the protracted public debates over the project.

Regular readers already know that I’m a fan of the proposed arena site just west of downtown. After examining this new feasibility study, I’m even more upbeat about the selected site.

The city began acquiring the property for the arena when Michael Brown was city manager and Floyd Adams was mayor. In the past decade, voters have twice approved Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) that included arena funding. Informed voters knew of the chosen site before both of those referenda.

However, with the change in administrations, it’s only natural that newly elected leaders would want to reconsider the project’s concepts and costs.

Last week, Mayor Eddie DeLoach suggested that we could build the new arena on the site of the existing one. His main concern has to do with all the ancillary costs related to the proposed site, including development of pathways in the planned Canal District, upgrades to key streets and development of parking facilities.

These are all legitimate concerns, and we obviously should know the cost estimates for all the necessary components.

But DeLoach’s suggestion ignores the simple fact that the current arena and the adjacent parking lot occupy some of the most valuable land in the region.

In their portion of the arena study, Thomas & Hutton recommends “re-establishment of the full street grid for the area,” which will allow for the “absorption of this property back into the downtown fabric.”

Simply put, we can sell the land for private sector development, which will increase economic activity and will generate property tax revenue in perpetuity. If we run all those numbers, the apparent cost savings of rebuilding in place might completely evaporate.

No matter how things play out, we’re looking at a lengthy process.

Still, the timing seems just right since we’re hiring a new city manager in the coming months. We can look for someone with demonstrated experience handling big projects and finding creative funding solutions.

 

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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Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Jane Jacobs and the search for connectivity

Sat, 05/14/2016 - 10:07pm

Urban theorist Jane Jacobs would have been 100 years old on May 4, and the occasion spawned some interesting celebrations, reflections and media coverage.

Jacobs died in 2006 at age 89, so she hasn’t been gone all that long, and her core ideas still have great relevance for us here in Savannah.

When I started writing this column once a week back in 2000, I didn’t know anything about Jacobs’s work., but I learned fast.

As I wrote in more detail about Savannah’s mixed-use urban fabric, readers routinely began bringing up Jacobs’s ideas, especially those articulated in her influential 1961 book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”

Primarily through observation, Jacobs identified four key elements of urban vibrancy.

According to Jacobs, thriving urban areas need adequate population density to support neighborhood commerce, a mix of uses, short blocks with frequent streets and buildings of varying age and condition.

After Jacobs’s death in 2006, I asked readers for their thoughts on which Savannah square best exemplified her ideas. Madison Square won that contest, although it seems clear that none of our squares have adequate population density.

As investment accelerates in neighborhoods adjacent to the Landmark Historic District, I’m concerned that we’ll see development that runs counter to the basic principles that Jacobs articulated.

The new police precinct planned for Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard has already disrupted the urban fabric by reducing population density and shutting down a city street. The well-intentioned median on MLK has reduced neighborhood connectivity.

Large underutilized properties in the Montgomery Street corridor seem perfect for mixed-use residential development, but we might see hotel development that does little for the neighborhood economy.

And, more generally, a focus on “upscale” and “luxury” development could force even more lower income residents to move farther from the city’s core.

If you haven’t read Jane Jacobs, I recommend it highly. And then, after reading, wander through our historic neighborhoods and see for yourself how important her ideas remain.

 

Connectivity: key for unlocking new arena’s potential

I haven’t yet had the chance to read the study by Barrett Sports Group about the proposed new arena just west of downtown, but I’ll be scouring the document soon.

For those of you who remain concerned about the proposed location, I’d suggest that you look closely at maps of the location. Many Savannahians still seem to think the chosen site is somewhere way west of downtown, but it’s slightly less than a mile from Forsyth Park.

Assuming we create the necessary pathways, the planned arena near the intersection of West Gwinnett Street and Stiles Avenue would be a 15 to 20 minute walk from the current arena at the intersection of Liberty and Montgomery streets.

And this is where some readers will object to the very idea of walking anywhere west of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. Who would walk over there?

If you’re asking that question, you obviously haven’t been paying attention to the pace of development west of MLK.

A large apartment building is now under construction near Savannah Station. The massive Embassy Suites at 605 West Oglethorpe Ave., which is home to 39 Rue de Jean, is just one of several hotels in the vicinity. SCAD students walk up and down Turner Boulevard hundreds or even thousands of times a day.

But the arena site is farther west than that, right?

Yes, but the land, which the city has owned for years, is perfectly placed to serve an expanding downtown.

The key will be connectivity, which was discussed by city manager Stephanie Cutter and a number of aldermen at last week’s City Council workshop session. Right now, we lack safe pedestrian and bicycle routes from downtown to the area around the proposed arena.

And, even more importantly, neighborhood residents near the site currently lack adequate pathways to the Historic District.

Last week’s discussion among council members was something of a mixed bag.

It seemed like most council members are ready to forge ahead with the chosen site, but Mayor Eddie DeLoach raised concerns about costs and proposed building the new arena on the site of the current arena parking lot. He proposed developing the Canal District separately.

Of course, if we move the arena west of MLK, we can sell the valuable land occupied by the current arena for mixed-use development and reopen several streets in the process. That could be a huge boon for the downtown economy.

Stay tuned.

 

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: Bay Street plan make make things worse

Mon, 05/09/2016 - 7:59pm

Maybe we should just change the name of Bay Street to Bay Road and call it a day.

Intentionally or not, the city of Savannah has taken steps over the years to reduce Bay Street’s friendliness to pedestrians and to small businesses. Now, led by Mayor Eddie DeLoach, Savannah officials are reconsidering the unpleasantness we’ve created.

The mayor and aldermen want to take another look at ways to reduce the negative impacts of heavy truck traffic on Bay Street. There are about 3,000 trucks per day on Bay Street, according to the presentation by head traffic engineer Mike Weiner at a recent council workshop session.

Weiner also noted that there are more than 200 sideswipe accidents per year on Bay Street.

The discussion at the workshop session turned to the elimination of on-street parking on Bay Street as a way to reduce congestion.

How will that impact the pedestrian experience?

Well, in 2007, the city removed 33 on-street parking spaces between Bull and Whitaker streets. As was noted in this newspaper after the elimination of those spaces, we ended up with traffic right up against sidewalks.

As congestion eases in the evening, travel speeds and noise increase, as you’ve no doubt noticed if you’ve ever been to the beer garden at Moon River Brewing Co. at the corner of Bay and Whitaker streets.

Aldermen Bill Durrence and Tony Thomas were among those who expressed serious concerns about the removal of parking, but the idea remained on the table as the session ended.

If on-street parking is removed, drivers will go faster because of the lack of visual friction, pedestrians will have to walk farther to get across the street, traffic will be whizzing even closer to sidewalks and small businesses will suffer.

So what can we do to reduce truck traffic on Bay Street? That’s a complex, long-term issue with no easy answer. I’ll revisit that problem soon.

But what can we do now to reduce speeds on Bay Street and make the street friendlier for pedestrians?

This is not rocket science. As Weiner and Durrence noted at the recent workshop session, curb extensions (i.e., bump outs) and other changes to the street design can calm traffic and make streets safer for pedestrians.

We can also increase the number of traffic signals and increase the length of the walk cycles. We could even consider eliminating turn lanes or travel lanes.

Yes, those moves will create additional vehicular congestion, but at the end of the day we have to decide if we want Bay to be a busy city street or a forbidding regional roadway.

 

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 DawersSection: BiSLead photo: 
  • Trucks travel on East Bay Street earlier this month. (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News)
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Have we recovered from the housing bust?

Sat, 05/07/2016 - 7:27pm
Remember the housing boom and subsequent bust?   That’s a rhetorical question. Of course you remember it. But are you still living with the effects of the bursting of the housing bubble?   That’s a more complex question, and the answer largely depends on where you live and when you purchased your home.     Those of you who have bought houses in the last several years might also be feeling the lingering impacts of the housing crisis, even if you don’t realize it. If you bought in a neighborhood that has not fully recovered, you might have enjoyed a low purchase price, but you might be facing a long period of home value stagnation.   The Washington Post recently published an interesting piece of data journalism — “America’s great housing divide: Are you a winner or loser?” — that allows readers to look at average home values by zip code for 2004 and 2015.   Around 2004, according to the article, “values escalated rapidly in the bubble, fueled by financial speculation, subprime lending and an abiding faith in homeownership as a sure-fire source of wealth.”   That “abiding faith” turned into outright hubris here in Savannah. We lagged the national trends, but the accumulating data made it glaringly obvious that home prices were going to collapse here as they were in other cities. Still, some investors and lenders continued to speculate into 2008.   So what has the recovery looked like for zip codes in Chatham County?   As I go through some numbers, you should obviously keep in mind that average home values might not reflect trends for different price points and that individual zip codes can cover many different neighborhoods.   In the 31401 zip code that includes downtown Savannah, the average home value increased from about $211,000 in 2004 to about $287,000 in 2015. That 36 percent jump might sound good, but it’s only slightly better than the inflation rate.   And the 36 percent increase in the 31401 zip code is better than every other zip code in the county for the 2004 to 2015 period.   For example, the 31415 zip code, which includes West Savannah, has only seen a 12 percent increase in home values. The average home value in 2015 was $113,277.   In a follow up to their original story, the Post explored the weak recovery in home values in predominantly black neighborhoods in the Atlanta metro area. In Savannah, we’ve seen weak recoveries in some areas that are mostly black and some that are mostly white, so the racial questions are especially difficult.   The 31408 zip code, which includes much of Garden City, has seen a 20 percent increase in home values between 2004 and 2015. The adjacent 31407 zip code has seen just a 6 percent increase.   Home values in the 31322 zip code, which includes Pooler, have also underperformed the inflation rate, with an increase of 11 percent. The 31302 zip code, which includes Bloomingdale, has experienced a 14 percent increase in values.   And the 31419 zip code, which includes some of Savannah’s Southside, has only seen an 8 percent increase in home values between 2004 and 2015.   Several zip codes have done moderately better. The 31405 zip code, which includes Ardsley Park and neighborhoods to the south and west, has seen a 27 percent increase. If we were able to break the numbers down further, we’d likely see wide variation within that zip code.   The recovery has been solid for most of the east side and the islands. Home values are up 30 percent in the 31404 zip code, 28 percent in the 31406 zip code, 23 percent in the 31410 zip code and 21 percent in the 31411 zip code.   Tybee Island saw a big jump in home values early in the 20th century, but in 2015 the average home value of $397,153 was just 8 percent higher than in 2008.   In sum, it seems that Savannah area home values have recovered pretty well compared to many other parts of Georgia and compared to other areas along the southeast coast.   But where do we go from here?   Will the downtown area and the islands continue to outpace the rest of the metro area? Will we eventually see a sharper increase in values in West Savannah and other largely black neighborhoods? What will happen to values in West Chatham as development accelerates?   Stay tuned.   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: BiS
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Plant Riverside redevelopment still an exciting prospect

Mon, 05/02/2016 - 10:29pm

Last week’s debate over the city of Savannah’s bond issuance to fund the construction of a parking garage for the massive Plant Riverside hotel development raised many difficult questions about the limits of public/private collaboration.

If all goes according to plan, local taxpayers will come out ahead. Developer Richard Kessler and his team will pay off the bond debt, and we’ll end up with approximately 240 parking spaces for public use in the new garage.

Still, the bond deal raises thorny questions — some of which were posed in an editorial in this newspaper — about the role of city government in picking “winners” in the local economy.

As we continue to debate this agreement and others like it in the future, we should also remember the unique nature of the Plant Riverside project.

If you’ve been to River Street in the last 20 years, you’ve probably seen the decommissioned power plant and the vast swath of land that it occupies.

From the beginning, the redevelopment project has relied on public support.

For example, we are extending our famed Riverwalk several blocks westward. Right now, the path along the river comes to an abrupt and ugly end just west of the downtown Hyatt.

I’ve written occasionally over the years about the difficult business climate on West River Street, and the extension of the Riverwalk seems a logical and necessary step to unlock the economic potential of that extreme northwest corner of the Landmark Historic District.

We will also be improving pedestrian pathways from Bay Street to River Street, most notably with a staircase in the Montgomery Street corridor. Right now, you’ll just find a well-worn dirt path.

Remember how people immediately started using the new Ellis Square when it was unveiled in 2010? We’ll see the same kind of immediate use when these new connections are finished. Folks will suddenly be walking the full length of River Street and will have an easier route to get to the City Market area.

These improvements will eventually necessitate other investments in public spaces.

For example, as we see more foot traffic on the northern blocks of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, we will need, for safety’s sake, significant upgrades to the pedestrian crossings at Bay Street and Broughton Street. We will probably need new crosswalks at other intersections too, possibly Congress Street.

Yes, these are big investments, but they’ll almost certainly pay off in increased economic activity, new options for visitors and quality of life for residents.

 

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

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CITY TALK: Labor force rising, but poverty a real concern

Sat, 04/30/2016 - 11:23pm
For the most part, when I write about employment data here at City Talk, I’m detailing the estimates for payroll employment from the ongoing survey of establishments.    However, the unemployment rate and other characteristics of the labor force are determined by the household survey, not the establishment survey. The household estimates can be noisy from month to month, and sometimes they are out of step with the payroll estimates. Eventually, though, the two surveys align.   I wrote recently about the strength of the latest payroll estimates, and last week the Georgia Department of Labor released similarly upbeat data regarding the March unemployment rate for the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties).    The metro area unemployment rate in March fell to 5.1 percent from 5.6 percent in March 2015, but that’s not the most impressive data point.   In March 2015, there were about 175,000 people in the Savannah area civilian labor force, but that number leaped to more than 180,000 in March 2016.    Sure, the area population is growing, but that growth is probably close to 1 percent per year. The year-over-year increase in the size of the labor force was just over 3 percent. Looked at another way, in the past year about 3,000 more people have joined the labor force than would have been suggested by population growth alone.   At the same time, the ranks of the unemployed fell significantly.    Some of us data wonks had been expecting — or at least hoping — that the labor force participation rate would increase as the local labor market improved, and the current data suggest that is happening.   Of course, all this just brings us to one of the great Savannah paradoxes. Even at a time of booming job growth and increased employment opportunities, many residents are locked in cycles of inter-generational poverty.   The low prevailing wages in certain industries are certainly a factor here, but much of the employment boom has been in sectors that pay quite well. Too many Savannahians simply seem stuck on the sidelines, unable to take part in our robust jobs recovery.   Poverty was a big issue in last fall’s Savannah elections, and it seems like poverty reduction will continue to be an important issue for the current city administration. During the campaign, I wrote a detailed column about the local poverty rate, and I’ll be following those numbers closely for the next few years to see if we are making significant headway.      Checking out the ‘kitchen swap’ at The Grey Last Wednesday evening, a friend and I reserved two spots at the bar in the dining room of The Grey, but, for a change, we weren’t there to eat Chef Mashama Bailey’s food.    The menu for the night was conceived by Ned Baldwin, the chef at Houseman in Hudson Square in New York City.    This was the second half of an unusual and inspiring “kitchen swap.” A week earlier, Bailey had taken over Baldwin’s kitchen at Houseman for one night.   The swap attracted excellent coverage in the New York Times.    In “Two Rising Chefs Enjoy a Busy Reunion at Houseman,” Jeff Gordinier, who has previously covered The Grey for the NYT, noted that Bailey and Baldwin “worked shoulder-to-shoulder in the chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s intimate and influential restaurant, Prune, in the East Village, where the work space feels roughly the size of a ticket booth.”   “Both chefs have achieved independent success in their 40s,” Gordinier wrote, “and their culinary approach reflects a mature, no-frills philosophy that they couldn’t help but internalize during their time at Prune.”   Houseman’s menu was being served at a fixed price of $80, which felt like a bargain when we realized that we could order as many dishes as we wanted. So the two of us ended up with three starters, two middles, two vegetables, two mains and two desserts. (Including wine, but before tip, we each paid about $110.)   The boldness and inventiveness of Houseman’s dishes seemed a natural fit for The Grey. I was especially impressed by the radishes with goat cheese and bottarga (a kind of caviar), the lamb sausage, the roasted leeks with currants and pistachios, the signature Houseman burger and the peanut tart, which seemed a perfect wedding of peanut brittle and pie.   I’d love to see some other Savannah chefs work out a similar initiative with former colleagues in other cities.    I’m sure that arranging this recent swap between Houseman and The Grey took some serious time, but the good press and the customers’ raves will continue to pay dividends for both establishments.   And the collaboration was yet another boost for Savannah’s booming restaurant scene.    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: 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