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Updated: 6 hours 48 min ago

CITY TALK: What will replace two of Savannah's 'bathroom tile' buildings?

Mon, 12/05/2016 - 10:34pm
As Jan Skutch reported last week in this newspaper, the U.S. Congress has approved nearly $100 million for final repairs to the grand Tomochichi Federal Building and Courthouse on Wright Square and for construction of a new annex on the east side of Telfair Square.   Two of the three infamous office buildings that are part of the Juliette Gordon Low Federal Office Complex will be biting the dust.   Our “bathroom tile” buildings have been controversial for over 30 years. An article distributed by United Press International in Sept. 1985 was even headlined “Savannah aghast over tiles on new federal complex.” You won’t see “aghast” in many newspaper headlines.   “This coastal city, with hundreds of painstakingly preserved historic buildings,” begins the UPI’s 1985 coverage, “is embroiled in a fight with the federal government over the exterior of a new office building that an aide to the mayor says look like ‘an institutional bathroom wall.’”   “We’re convinced that the tile that was used was not the one approved,” Mayor John Rousakis told the UPI reporter. “We were not told about the change. It was completely irresponsible considering where the building was going.”   The article concludes with a suggestion from Rousakis aide Mike Baquer: “I guess we could plant kudzu.” No kudzu was ever planted, and now three decades later we have a chance to build something better. But will we get something better? We haven’t yet seen plans for the new 46,000-square foot annex, but I presume it will have a similar footprint to the courthouse. In other words, a short block of President Street is likely to disappear.   Sure, access to that short block has been restricted for a long time. Sure, it’s just one short block. But General Oglethorpe’s city plan has proved amazingly durable. Buildings come and go, but once a street is removed, it might be gone forever.   There are ways that the new structure’s design could reference the grid even if the street disappears, but that probably won’t satisfy the staunchest defenders of the Oglethorpe plan. As these plans move ahead, I also hope that the federal General Services Administration will revisit the restrictions on parking around the federal buildings.   Dozens of on-street spaces were removed after 9/11 because of fear of terrorism, and the elimination of so much parking in the heart of the city cost area businesses many millions of dollars in sales. Are those buildings really safer without a buffer of parked cars around them?   Despite the uncertainties ahead, I doubt too many Savannahians will mourn the loss of the two buildings slated for demolition.     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: Broughton Street gets good start on holiday season

Sat, 12/03/2016 - 10:46pm

On a recent Friday evening, a huge crowd gathered at the intersection of Broughton and Bull streets for the lighting of the huge Christmas tree that has been installed as part of the inaugural Holidays on Broughton.

For years, we had a public Christmas tree in Forsyth Park, but the location was problematic, especially since the tree wasn’t visible from most nearby streets and since many folks don’t make a habit of wandering Forsyth after dark. Also, the tree often seemed to lean one way or another, or have odd strings of lights that ran vertically, so the tradition never felt especially satisfying.

By contrast, the intersection of Bull and Broughton streets seems like a great location for a public Christmas tree, but I’ve still heard a fair bit of grumbling about the location.

For the record, the tree blocks Bull Street between Broughton Street and Congress Lane, but Broughton Street itself remains open to cars. Sure, the tree makes it harder to drive up and down the Bull Street axis, but Bull doesn’t really function as a good street for commuters anyway. Drayton and Whitaker streets can easily accommodate the through traffic.

Those who park in the garage next to SunTrust Bank might be mildly inconvenienced by the tree’s location, but the ramps in and out of the garage can still be accessed from the north.

I’ve wandered past the large Christmas tree several times since its installation, and I like the scale of it, although I’d personally appreciate something more colorful than the simple white lights.

Of course, I want to see Broughton lined with eye-catching neon signs like it once was, so my esthetic might be a little out of step with mainstream.

It’s worth noting, however, that the large temporary signs marking the closure of Bull Street are unsightly, especially during the day. In future years, we certainly need to find a more attractive but equally effective way to tell drivers that the block is closed to vehicular traffic.

Some of the grumbling I’ve heard about the tree really isn’t about the tree at all but about the role of developer Ben Carter in the creation of the new annual event and, more generally, in the transformation of Broughton Street.

As I’ve said here often enough, I see Carter’s efforts to attract national and international retailers as an acceleration of existing trends. In other words, we’d likely be seeing more and more large chains on Broughton Street even if Carter had never invested so heavily in Savannah.

Carter’s efforts and the investments by many other entrepreneurs are certainly paying off in terms of foot traffic.

There were lots of folks out wandering Broughton Street on a recent weekday evening about 6 p.m., and a number of restaurants and coffee shops on the strip were busy. The Christmas tree and the strings of lights over the street looked beautiful.

A significant percentage of retail stores were already closed, however. Yes, many business owners are stretched pretty thin and have few employees, but even some of the more prominent stores on Broughton were already closed and dark by 6 p.m.

Eventually, we’ll likely see Broughton Street lined with retailers who see the value of staying open into the early evening, at least during the holiday shopping season. The extended hours would especially appeal to local shoppers who have regular day jobs. Broughton Street won’t realize its potential as a holiday shopping destination until it’s more easily accessible to area residents.

Wright Square celebrates

I’ve been writing a lot lately about the need to support locally owned small businesses, many of which were especially impacted by Hurricane Matthew. Even if they didn’t sustain physical damage, many businesses lost a week’s worth of sales.

Fortunately, the holiday season presents many opportunities to return to stores we already love and to discover new shops, services and restaurants.

Last week, retailers in the Downtown Design District held their annual Holiday Walk, more than a dozen businesses teamed up for the Liberty Street Line Up and City Market hosted its annual Holiday Open House. On Dec. 9 from 5 to 9 p.m., merchants around Wright Square will hold their 15th annual Holiday Open House.

I’ve both covered and attended the Wright Square holiday event many times over the years. The participating businesses change from year to year, but the event has always showcased stores that bring something unique to the commercial landscape of the Historic District.

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
  • People gather on Broughton Street on a recent Friday evening for the Christmas tree lighting event. (Josh Galemore/Savannah Morning News)
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Muse Arts Warehouse closing in Feb. 2017

Mon, 11/28/2016 - 9:30pm

An apartment building is planned for 703 Louisville Road, just west of Boundary Street.

The site, which lies in the midst of Savannah College of Art &Design residence halls, seems perfect for apartment geared toward college students.

The added density should be a boon to businesses in the western portion of downtown, and new investment in the area could accelerate efforts to build the new arena and the proposed Canal District. Those two projects, if done well, should dramatically improve connectivity between the History District and West Savannah.

These are positive developments, but they come at a steep price.

Muse Arts Warehouse, which has occupied the western portion of the lovely old railway freight terminal for the last seven years, will be shutting its doors at the end of February 2017.

Muse was founded by JinHi Soucy Rand, a dedicated member of Savannah’s arts community who recognized that the city needed a flexible, accessible, affordable space for performances.

Many of us knew that the closing of Muse was on the horizon, but Rand made it official a few days ago with a typically optimistic post on Facebook.

Rand noted that in its relatively short life, Muse has “facilitated well over 1,500 presentations and performances shared by local artists and local community organizations.”

“There are at least 10 different organizations with whom we have collaborated on a regular basis,” Rand added, “and I am particularly proud that we are at a time and place in Savannah where those organizations and others like them are able to find a number of venues in town to either utilize part time, or to claim as their permanent home.”

Rand plans to remain active within the Savannah arts community, and she noted that she is looking forward to focusing more on her husband Mark, her home and her health.

I love Rand’s optimism, but the loss of Muse Arts Warehouse will certainly present some challenges, especially for the theatre companies that have used the space routinely.

The plans for the new apartment building also raise some other thorny questions.

Are we doing enough to protect and preserve historic commercial buildings outside the core of the Historic District?

Shouldn’t we have a clearer plan for affordable housing in the downtown area before we see a flood of developments like this one?

There will be a farewell party for Muse Arts Warehouse on Feb. 11, 2017, but I’m sure that JinHi Soucy Rand – herself a muse to many artists – will continue her admirable work one way or another.

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: Atlantic is welcome addition to food scene

Sat, 11/26/2016 - 8:14pm
Atlantic opened recently at the northeast corner of Victory Drive and Drayton Street. The new restaurant is another exciting entry in Savannah’s increasingly ambitious food scene. Many readers of this column have probably already eaten at Atlantic. The restaurant held an extended soft opening – probably a great way to work out some kinks – and has been doing strong business since opening to the general public.   I made my first trip to Atlantic on the Monday of Thanksgiving week. I thought the restaurant might be a little slow on that night and hoped to find a seat at the bar. I thought wrong. Atlantic was bustling, and there was even one large party next to a heater on the gracious patio. I was lucky to be offered a two-top that had just become available, and I settled in to study the menu.   Of course I’d already studied the menu from home – you can find a copy on Atlantic’s Facebook page – so I had a pretty good idea what I wanted to try, but then owner and general manager Jason Restivo dropped by the table and made a few recommendations.   Many readers will remember Restivo from his time with Garibaldi and The Olde Pink House, and many of you will also know the work of chef Lauren Teague, who was at 22 Square inside the Andaz Savannah.   I’m genuinely excited about Atlantic’s current menu, and I’m even more excited to see how Teague’s dishes and choices evolve.   The menu is divided into four broad categories: tastes, breads, bowls and plates. Every item is priced under $20, and many are priced under $10.   The prices suggest that the Atlantic team is serious when they call the restaurant “a neighborhood eatery.”   I decided to indulge and ordered far more food than necessary. From the “tastes” I ordered both the kielbasa ($7) and the zucchini and green bean fritters ($6).   The kielbasa is made in-house, has a rich smoky flavor and isn’t greasy at all. With some small roasted potatoes and a horseradish cream sauce, the kielbasa certainly made a filling first course. The fritters are cooked with whole green beans that retained just the right amount of crispiness.   Next I tried the Brussels sprouts bowl ($13), a hearty combination of halved and roasted sprouts, braised pork belly, grapefruit and Service Brewing’s Teufel Hunden. That’s a lot of strong flavors, but I found the balance just about perfect.   If you’re looking for more traditional entrees, Atlantic has options like meat loaf ($14) and duck breast ($18).   I’m especially anxious to try a few of the sandwiches, including the muffaletta ($10), the house cured and smoked pastrami ($9) and the hot brown ($11), a variation on a traditional dish that I’ve eaten many times back in Kentucky.   Atlantic occupies a former dentistry office that was originally built as a gas station before World War II. It’s a lovely space, although the interior is a little loud right now. I also had two excellent drinks from Atlantic’s selection of specialty cocktails. The Century ($11) is a bourbon drink with a hint of fig, lemon and mint, and the Valley Forge ($12) is a combination of rye, Amara Luna, sherry and orange bitters. The latter was excellent with the Brussels sprouts bowl.   That’s a lot of food and drink, but my bill was only $53. You can eat and drink very well at Atlantic for less than half that much.   Restivo is an experienced sommelier, so it’s no surprise that Atlantic has a large and varied wine list.   Atlantic is open from 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 5 to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. As I write this, the restaurant’s website is still under construction, but you can find more info on Atlantic’s Facebook page or by calling 912-417-8887.   Atlantic is within walking distance of many midtown-area residents, but I don’t see many other people on foot after dark. So if you’re driving, you can find parking along 41st and 42nd streets between Drayton and Abercorn.   We’ve seen some impressive new restaurants over the past couple of years, and there is clear precedent for successful, reasonably priced restaurants within a few blocks of Atlantic. The Vault on Bull Street and Green Truck Pub on Habersham Street have developed loyal followings, and Atlantic will surely find many regular customers before the year is done.   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: Local jobs report shows longer term gain

Mon, 11/21/2016 - 2:06pm

According to the latest estimates from the Georgia Department of Labor, the Savannah area labor market headed into the holiday season in healthy shape.

The Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) had 179,000 nonfarm payroll jobs in October. That was 4,600 more jobs than we had in October 2015. That’s an increase of 2.6 percent in the last 12 months, which is probably about twice the rate of population growth.

In October 2014, we had an estimated 167,900 payroll jobs. We had just 161,800 in October 2013.

The number of payroll positions has increased by more than 10 percent in the last three years. That’s an impressive number.

Employers in leisure and hospitality have been aggressively adding positions in the Savannah metro area, but it’s not the only sector that’s performing well.

For example, the broad category of professional and business services has been growing rapidly. The sector includes jobs in a variety of professional and technical services, management and support.

We had an estimated 21,200 payroll jobs in professional and business services in October, up 1,900 (9.8 percent) from October 2015.

The latest estimates indicate that the employment boom continues in Atlanta and a few other Georgia metro areas, but some metros have seen little or no job growth over the past year. Both Dalton and Hinesville had year-over-year declines in payroll jobs in October.

Of course, it’s no surprise when we see the employment base stagnate or even decline in some less populous areas of Georgia.

Many small counties and rural areas never really recovered from the 2007 to 2009 recession, and, as was noted in this paper earlier this year, more than half of Georgia’s counties lost population between 2010 and 2015. The problems in some parts of the state have been compounded by bank failures and the closure of rural hospitals.

Increasingly, we have two economies in the state – a few metro areas (especially Atlanta) with thriving job markets and less populated areas that are struggling against economic stagnation or even decline. We need sharper efforts to bridge this growing division.

It’s worth noting that the Savannah metro area saw a spike in initial claims for unemployment insurance in October, but I’d like to see more data before worrying about that. The Brunswick metro area also saw a sharp increase in claims, so it’s possible that the increase was partially due to Hurricane Matthew-related layoffs.

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: Small Business Saturday encourages 'shopping small'

Thu, 11/17/2016 - 8:57am

Thanksgiving week is upon us, and I hope that all the readers of this column have reasons to be thankful. It’s been a rough year for many of us, and the Thanksgiving holiday might provide the chance to put 2016 in perspective.

Of course, many Americans will only have half of Thanksgiving day for reflection. They’ll be bargain hunting by nightfall.

For better or for worse, Black Friday has become the single most important day for American retailers. According to analytics firm ShopperTrak, Americans spent $10.2 billion on the Friday after Thanksgiving in 2015.

National retailers attract a huge chunk of the sales on Black Friday and the rest of the Thanksgiving weekend, and a major online retailers have increasingly benefited from so-called Cyber Monday.

In 2010, the dominance of the national chains prompted American Express and various partners to create Small Business Saturday, an effort that encourages Americans to “shop small” and use the Saturday after Thanksgiving to support their local economies.

I hear routinely from readers who dislike the arrival of so many big chains on Broughton Street, but it seems clear that those major retailers have brought lots of new shoppers to downtown.

And those new shoppers aren’t just seeing the big national chains. Broughton Street is still dotted with locally owned small businesses – far more than I can list here.

Sure, the efforts of developer Ben Carter and the arrival of more national retailers have changed the dynamic on Broughton Street, but it turns out that many small businesses are still thriving on the traditional commercial strip.

And you’ll find many locally owned small businesses in key shopping areas throughout the downtown area, including but not limited to the intersection of Liberty and Bull streets, City Market, Wright Square, the Downtown Design District along Whitaker Street and the Starland neighborhood.

Sulfur Studios in Starland has even scheduled the Shop Small Saturday Market for Nov. 26 from noon to 6 p.m.

This column generally covers the downtown area, but there are obviously locally owned small businesses across the region. They aren’t hard to find.

It’s also worth noting that many so-called chains are actually franchises, which are locally owned and operated

As I noted in a column in October, many of our locally owned businesses took an especially hard hit from Hurricane Matthew. Even if the shops and restaurants avoided actual storm damage, their owners and employees had to deal with up to a week – or even more – in lost sales, wages and tips.

So the upcoming Christmas shopping season looms especially large this year for many of our neighbors.

If you value the small businesses and ambitious local entrepreneurs who contribute so much to the local character, you might want to think about shopping small.

Will recent decline in violent crime last?

The Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department publishes weekly crime reports on their website. It’s really easy to follow the data and see what the numbers are telling us about trends for this year compared to last year.

The crime report for the week ending Nov. 5 was notable. The department’s jurisdiction had zero homicides in that week, and there had not been any for the an entire 28-day period.

The spell was broken with a homicide a few days later, and we’re still headed for around 50 murders this year, which is about the same number we had in 2015.

Still, a full month with no murders is certainly good news. Let’s just hope that the decline is indicative of a trend.

Most of you probably already know this, but Savannah has had high per capita rates of violent crime for many years, and 2015 and 2016 have been among the bloodiest years in the city’s history.

While the numbers for 2016 will look similar to 2015, it’s worth pointing out that the number of homicides in the Central Precinct spiked this year. As of Nov. 5, there had been 23 murders in that precinct in 2015, up dramatically from the year-to-date total of 14 in 2015 and 12 in 2014.

Ten of those 23 homicides have been within a single beat in an area where petty street crimes like drug sales and prostitution flourish.

The SCMPD and city officials are still rolling out new initiatives for fighting crime, and it remains to be seen if they have the answers the city needs.

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
  • Bridget Lidy with the City of Savannah instructs 50 student volunteers from SCAD SERVE on how to decorate the lamp posts along Broughton Street. (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News)
  • Kristen Anthony, a freshman at the Savannah College of Art and Design, wires a bow on the lamp post on Broughton Street. She and her classmates are decorating the light poles on Broughton Street between Montgomery and Lincoln streets. (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News)
  • Broughton Street between Jefferson and Barnard streets. Savannah Morning News file photo
  • Broughton and Drayton streets. Savannah Morning News file photo
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Vote in Savannah metro area reveals deepening divide

Mon, 11/14/2016 - 9:48pm
When I’m looking at economic and demographic data in this column, I often consider the Savannah metropolitan statistical area, which includes Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties.    Many residents of Bryan and Effingham counties work in Chatham County, and many do a great deal of shopping in Chatham County, too. But Effingham and Bryan counties are nevertheless much smaller than Chatham County, and last week’s election results pointed to a deepening political divide in the metro area. Let’s look at some numbers.   In 2012, Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in Chatham County by 55.5 percent to 43.5 percent — about 13,000 votes. Last week, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in Chatham County by over 16,000 votes, 55.8 percent to 41 percent.   Clinton may have bettered Obama’s 2012 numbers in Chatham, but it was a different story beyond Chatham’s borders.   Last Tuesday, voters in Effingham County gave 76.4 percent of the vote to Trump and only 20.8 percent to Clinton. Trump rolled up a margin of 13,000 votes — almost enough to offset Clinton’s win in much larger Chatham County. Romney won big in Effingham County too, with 75 percent of the vote to Obama’s 23.8 percent. But Romney’s margin was only 10,600, considerably less than Trump’s.   In Bryan County, Trump beat Clinton 69.8 percent to 26.6 percent, which is close to the 2012 vote, when Romney took 71.1 percent to Obama’s 27.6 percent. But in terms of the raw vote total, Romney won the county by 5,800 votes while Trump won Bryan by 6,400 votes.   We saw even starker patterns across the state. Clinton generally matched or improved upon Obama’s performance in Georgia’s larger counties, but Trump typically did better than Romney in less populated areas.   For example, in 2012 Obama lost both Cobb and Gwinnett counties in the Atlanta metro area, but Clinton took both of them last week even as turnout surged for Trump in smaller counties across the state. Yes, we have long had deep cultural and economic divides between Americans who live in cities and those who live in rural areas, but those divides have gotten deeper.   All three counties in the Savannah metro area might be booming in terms of both job growth and population growth, but a study earlier this year found that half the state’s counties lost population between 2010 and 2015.   Yes, there has always been a divide between the experiences of people who live in cities and in less populated areas, but the fissures have been growing. We might consider a variety of policies to address the yawning chasm, but first we have to understand it better.     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: A broader look at boom south of Forsyth Park

Sat, 11/12/2016 - 10:02pm
The Starland neighborhood has attracted considerable attention in recent years – from commercial investors, from prospective home buyers, from the local and even national press. I’ve written about the area numerous times in recent years, but ongoing developments dictate another broad look at the rapid changes.   The neighborhood’s catchy moniker comes from the old – and not yet renovated – Starland Dairy, but the name wasn’t commonly used until 15 years ago or so, after developers John Deaderick and Greg Jacobs conceived of the area as an arts district.   There is little consensus about Starland’s borders, but I define it relatively narrowly and only include blocks extremely close to the old dairy itself. Starland is within the larger Thomas Square Streetcar Historic District, which is bounded more or less by East Broad Street, Victory Drive, Montgomery Street and Anderson Lane.   It’s worth noting, however, that the city-recognized Metropolitan neighborhood takes up about half of the Thomas Square Historic District.   Newer investors seem to prefer a broader definition of Starland, but whatever you want to call it, the neighborhood south of Forsyth Park is booming.   Early in this century, some neglected parts of Thomas Square attracted interest from investors, but the real estate bust, the deep recession and the cautious recovery decimated many business plans. One was left to wonder how long the neighborhood would stagnate, especially since some corridors continue to be plagued by blatant street crime.   But those concerns seem almost quaint at this point, as investment surges along the Bull Street corridor.   There has been a flurry of activity near my house on 32nd Street, with two significant buildings on Bull Street being readied for new occupants.   We will soon see a new flagship store for Woof Gang Bakery in the large retail space once occupied by Gottlieb’s Bakery, on the west side of Bull between 32nd and 33rd streets.  The east side of Bull between 32nd and 33rd streets is also getting a makeover, and the Zoning Board of Appeals recently approved liquor by the drink for a small restaurant that will take one of the retail spaces. (For what it’s worth, I don’t know the restaurateur at all, but as a neighbor I wrote an email in support of the license since the plans are in keeping with the Thomas Square zoning.)   As this column has evolved over the years, I’ve devoted more space to broader trends and less space to profiles of individual businesses, but you’ll find Bull Street now dotted with newish businesses that I’ve never covered.   I haven’t had a chance to check out the new restaurant Atlantic yet, but it’s now open at the corner of Victory Drive and Drayton Street. More on that soon.    The new energy in the neighborhood was on display at Graveface Records & Curiosities’ recent block party celebrating five years in business. The event coincided with November’s First Friday Art March, which also brought visitors to the area for an especially busy, vibrant evening.   The self-effacing Ryan Graveface is obviously one of the busiest and savviest businesspeople in the Starland area, and I’ll confess to being in awe that he is so capably balancing the concerns of his own record store at 5 W. 40th St., the Graveface record label, his own bands and his sometimes-macabre interests.   The Graveface block party featured two stages, excellent bands, a variety of vendors and delicious food from the BowTie Barbecue Co. All that was set up along De Soto Avenue, but there was also plenty of activity at the record store, other nearby retailers and The Wormhole.   All that said, there are some big questions remaining for the Thomas Square neighborhood generally and the Bull Street corridor specifically.   How will the area be impacted when SCAD begins active use of the old school building on West 38th Street between Jefferson and Montgomery streets?   Will we ever make significant headway in reducing street level drug sales and prostitution at known hotspots?   What will happen to the old Sears building on Henry Street?   And what will be the fate of the former Notre Dame school at 1709 Bull St., the original home of B.C.?   And what about New Covenant Church at 2201 Bull St., which has previously been listed for sale?   Large properties like those will inevitably impact the neighborhood’s character, but the current momentum is likely to continue even if some questions remain unanswered for years.   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: Marathon concert makes optimal use of Forsyth stage

Mon, 11/07/2016 - 10:31pm
Something amazing happened at the Savannah Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon’s concert in Forsyth Park headlined by Old Crow Medicine Show.   Fans got close to the stage.   I’ve written off and on in recent years about the poor design of our so-called “band shell.” There were simply too many competing interests during the planning and design phases, which resulted in a stage that was a few feet too low for and a horribly conceived fountain that functioned as a moat.   The city removed the original fountain many months ago and replaced it with a play fountain that has been well-used — at least when it’s turned on.   Even though the decorative fountain has been removed for a long time, productions in Forsyth Park have still generally used temporary security fences to keep the crowd on the edges of the sunken concrete area.   As a result, no fans could get really close to performers on stage, and the standing audience members at the fence blocked the view of anyone seated behind them.   For the marathon performances, fans who wanted to get close to the stage could simply walk down front to a standing area.   The placement of speakers prevented the fans up front from standing right against the entire width of the stage, but the layout dramatically enhanced the audience experience.   With the new arrangement, musicians can also feed much more off the energy of the crowd.   In a more perfect world, the play fountain would be on other side of the park, away from the stage.   As things stand now, any production on the stage – even one in the heat of summer – will require turning off that attraction for kids.   Still, maybe we finally have a precedent for using the space in ways that better meet the needs of both the performers and the audiences.   More generally, there was a predictably huge crowd in Forsyth for Saturday’s festivities, and the park proved once again how versatile it is. What a tremendous public space.   It’s worth noting, however, that multiple law enforcement vehicles were parked on tree roots in several spots. Sure, it was hot, and it’s natural to want to park in the shade, but driving or parking next to trees can damage the root systems.   Cars were also parked on tree roots most of the day at a nonprofit event a couple months ago.   I would hope that Hurricane Matthew’s visit last month has given us a new appreciation of our magnificent tree canopy.   There is simply no reason to risk that canopy carelessly.   Forsyth Park is a spectacular and resilient space, but there’s only so much abuse it can take.       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
  • A family listens to the Old Crow Medicine Show perform in Forsyth towards the end of the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon Saturday afternoon. (Josh Galemore/Savannah Morning News)
  • Ketch Secor plays the harmonica on the Forsyth Park stage as Old Crow Medicine Show performs Saturday during Rock 'n' Roll Marathon. (Josh Galemore/Savannah Morning News)
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Zoning overhaul still waiting in the wings

Sat, 11/05/2016 - 10:10pm
The Savannah City Council recently decided not to pursue a moratorium on new hotels. That was probably the right move given the legal complications that such a restrictive ordinance might have spawned.   Now the mayor, aldermen and city staff are considering other options, including changes to the zoning code that would regulate the size, location and general disruption of hotels to the quality of life for residents.   In a perfect world, city officials would be looking to amend a much more coherent zoning ordinance than the one we have now. About a decade ago, professionals at the Metropolitan Planning Commission began revising the zoning ordinances for the city of Savannah and Chatham County. From 2007 to 2010, I even served on a technical committee reviewing early drafts of the document.   My own neighborhood of Thomas Square has benefited dramatically from a zoning overhaul that was adopted in 2005, so I know firsthand that it’s possible to decrease the bureaucracy surrounding development while safeguarding both residential and commercial interests.   The so-called NewZO (http://www.newzo.org) for the city of Savannah has been largely ignored by city officials for the last few years. The lack of action on the much-needed ordinance was one of the reasons some policy wonks like me grew so frustrated with the administration of mayor Edna Jackson and city manager Stephanie Cutter.   Eddie DeLoach has now been mayor for about 10 months, but our new city manager Rob Hernandez has only been on the job since October, which makes it unlikely that we’ll see fast progress on the proposed New Zoning Ordinance.   But we can’t keep spinning our wheels on important issues like zoning. As I’ve noted here over the last few years, it’s just a matter of time before we see hotel developers expand their reach into neglected neighborhoods south of Forsyth Park – areas that seem like perfect candidates for substantial residential investment, including the focused development of affordable workforce housing.   I’m generally encouraged that city council is headed in the right direction, but let’s hope for real action in the early part of 2017.    Has the local unemployment rate leveled off?   According to estimates from the Georgia Department of Labor, the unemployment rate in the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) was 5.0 percent in September. The rate was 5.2 percent in September 2015.   The local unemployment rate reported by state officials will bounce around from month to month since the numbers are not adjusted for seasonal trends. Some months are simply better for employment than others, and those predictable seasonal differences are generally used to adjust workforce estimates at the state and federal level.   Despite the expected variations and despite the likelihood of statistical noise, it’s interesting to note that the metro area unemployment rate has stayed within a relatively narrow range over the last 13 months, from a low of 4.5 percent to a high of 5.3 percent.   I’ve been writing for many months about the booming job market in the Savannah area, but perhaps we’ve now reached a point from which the unemployment rate is unlikely to decline substantially.   The leveling of the unemployment rate isn’t by itself terrible news, especially since the raw data reveal continued expansion of the area workforce and of the number of persons employed. The estimates of payroll employment, which come from a different dataset, also show a steadily expanding job market.   Great press for new B’s Cracklin’ BBQ in Atlanta I read a lot of mentions of Savannah in regional, national and international press outlets, but one recent article really stood out.   B’s Cracklin’ BBQ recently opened a restaurant in Atlanta that drew glowing praise from Creative Loafing in a feature that quotes owner Bryan Furman extensively.   “As B’s settles in, look for a cracklin-studded version of their cornbread, like they do in Savannah, fried pickles and okra, as well as beer and liquor once the license comes through,” says Creative Loafing. “An instantly destination-worthy barbecue joint, B’s warrants a trip to Riverside no matter what part of town you’re starting off in. You’re simply not going to find another barbecue joint like it in Atlanta.”   I’ve been stopping occasionally at B’s Cracklin’ BBQ and love everything I’ve tried. The casual restaurant is right off the Truman Parkway so it’s easily accessible for a broad swath of the city. It’s always good to see locally owned businesses broaden their reach.   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: It's good to learn from Savannah's newcomers

Mon, 10/31/2016 - 10:02pm
After wolfing down my blintzes at Sunday’s Shalom Y’all Jewish Food Festival in Forsyth Park, I decided to sit down for a spell before tackling my pastrami sandwich.   Despite the bustle down the park’s main path, I found a quiet bench a short distance away.  But, as so often happens in Savannah, I got pleasantly sidetracked by three short conversations.   First up was a youngish couple visiting from California.   They had stayed at the Bohemian Hotel on Saturday night, and they had wandered up Bull Street through the morning.   They were taking a short break before heading back north, and they were excited about walking through the squares on Abercorn Street and admiring more of the architecture of the Historic District.     I mentioned to them that the city’s layout encourages wandering north-south but that they should wander some of the east-west streets — like Jones — if they wanted a more complete picture of the city.    Clearly, they were loving their time in Savannah.    Then a former student of mine from 20 years ago and her husband wandered by. They had lived in Atlanta with good jobs after graduating from college, but they moved to Savannah a couple years ago.   They found excellent jobs, bought a house on the islands and seem thrilled by the choices they’ve made.   And then I was joined by a middle-aged couple who had just moved to Savannah because of a business relocation.   The wife told me that they had most recently lived in Hawaii and had considered an eventual retirement in Florida. But they already love Savannah so much that their retirement plans might change.    I mentioned that Savannah certainly has its share of problems, and the woman responded that every place has its problems.   These conversations struck me as especially interesting since we’re just three weeks out from a glancing but hard blow from Hurricane Matthew.   I cover negative developments in this column routinely, but it should be clear to regular readers that I see all sorts of positive trends, including the steady growth of the local job market and the surge in investment in older neighborhoods like the Bull Street corridor south of Forsyth Park.   Despite its many problems, Savannah continues to enchant visitors and prospective residents, and I think one of our jobs as citizens is to avoid screwing that up. Ideally, of course, we’d be optimizing and expanding the qualities that lure folks here, which would dovetail with initiatives to improve quality of life for longtime residents.    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: Should parking meter hours be extended?

Sat, 10/29/2016 - 9:39pm
For many weeks now, I have been geeking out – I think that’s the technical term – about the voluminous data generated by the city of Savannah’s Parking Matters study.   The results of that study are being used to support a variety of proposed changes to parking policy and regulation in the downtown area.   Some of the changes touted by city officials seem quite sensible, given the information that we have.   I know that many readers don’t like the idea of paying more per hour for on-street parking in the high-demand areas of the Historic District, but those higher rates will encourage greater turnover. Parking demand is heavy on Broughton Street, for example, but right now we don’t charge at all for those spaces.   Higher rates in certain areas could also encourage greater use of garages, assuming we price those spaces appropriately.   And I know that many of you don’t want to feed the meters on Saturdays, but there’s high demand for on-street parking on weekends.   Yes, the increased hourly rates and the extension of enforcement to the weekends would discourage some local residents from driving into the Historic District and nearby neighborhoods, but another policy proposal – the elimination of time limits – would likely encourage some folks to drive downtown more often.   Right now, we have a confusing mess of parking zones – from well under an hour to many hours – and it’s often impossible to identify a zone without getting out of the car.   Some portions of the downtown area have 2-hour meter limits, which has the effect of leaving many spaces empty throughout the day. Two hours simply isn’t enough time to get very much done.   Of course, it’s worth noting that the current time limits make it easier for downtown residents with passes to find parking close to their homes. The elimination of the time limits might hurt quality of life on certain blocks, and city officials will need to be sympathetic to any problems that the new rules create.   I’ve hit upon some of these issues before, and I’m sure there will be plenty of civic debate about time limits and weekend enforcement before any of the current proposals find their way into an ordinance.   While I think there are clear rationales for many of the proposed new parking policies, I remain troubled by the proposed extension of meter enforcement to 8 p.m. on weekdays.   If you buy into the Savannah myth that there’s never any parking available downtown, then you might like the idea of extended hours for enforcement. There is absolutely no doubt that charging for on-street parking from 5 to 8 p.m. will discourage local residents from going downtown during those hours.   If you’re a regular reader of this column, you know that I’ve been arguing for years, often to incredulous readers, that there is generally ample on-street parking available downtown, assuming that you’re willing and able to walk a few blocks to your final destination.   What does the data show? You can find some detailed information at http://www.savannahga.gov/DocumentCenter/View/8775 that can help answer that question.   Consider the map of on-street parking utilization for Thursday at 7 p.m. – a map that closely reflects my own experiences with parking on weekday evenings.   On Thursdays at 7 p.m., we’re seeing heavy utilization – rates of 80 percent and higher – on many blocks on many streets, including Bay, Bryan, Congress and Broughton streets. There are also high rates of parking utilization in other active areas of downtown, such as the blocks immediately adjacent to the intersection of Bull and Liberty streets.   Extending meter enforcement until 8 p.m. will certainly create more turnover in busy locations like those, which in theory could boost business.   But consider the parking utilization rates on Oglethorpe Avenue – just a square south of Broughton Street and a square north of Liberty Street.   On much of Oglethorpe Avenue, the on-street parking utilization rate for Thursday at 7 p.m. is 60 percent or less, including on blocks both of east and west of the Bull Street axis. In other words, the data confirm that on-street parking is really quite easy to find on Oglethorpe Avenue – and on many other blocks in the Historic District – on a typical weekday evening. In fact, on a Thursday at 7 p.m., there is higher demand for on-street parking on Duffy Street than on Oglethorpe Avenue.   So, if we extend meter enforcement into weekday evenings and discourage local residents from going downtown, we will see even lower rates of parking utilization. There is no doubt that some small businesses would be hurt by that change.   The extended hours would also have a disproportionate impact on service industry workers who rely on cars. Right now, a cook who works the dinner shift is able to park for free after 5 p.m. Under the proposed rules, workers could easily wind up spending an additional $3 per shift – that’s about $750 per year for a full-time, low-wage service industry employee.   Not surprisingly, the data show much heavier on-street parking utilization on a Saturday at 7 p.m. than on a Thursday at the same time, and there’s an argument to be made for extended meter enforcement on weekend evenings.   But it’s hard to see any logical argument for meter enforcement on weekday evenings unless we want to hurt small businesses, give local residents fewer reasons to go downtown and put additional stress on service industry workers.   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: Longtime Charleston mayor shares lessons for Savannah

Mon, 10/24/2016 - 8:59pm

Former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley had the audience in the palm of his hand throughout his wise, fast-paced, even funny lecture at the Savannah Theatre last week, which was part of The Savannah Urbanism Series.

Riley’s talk was titled “Building Beauty in the Urban Environment,” but the presentation was also a primer in how to make practical decisions that serve residents in a historic city dealing with issues such as poverty and tourism.

Savannah Mayor Eddie DeLoach and several aldermen were among the large, appreciative crowd, so I’m hopeful that Riley’s remarks will resonate for a long time.

Riley served 40 years as Charleston’s mayor, and his talk was peppered with success stories both large and small.

The Charleston of today is far different from 1975, when Riley was first elected. Riley joked that, in those days, if you went to Market Street with 50 cents, you could get a tattoo, a bowl of chili or a communicable disease.

Riley emphasized the importance of not making mistakes. Often, that meant finding ways to save buildings that many Charlestonians had given up on. It’s safe to say we wouldn’t have torn down two blocks of historic homes in Meldrim Row if Riley had been here in Savannah.

Riley drew applause when he said that there is “never a reason to build something that doesn’t add to the beauty of a city.”

Riley believed and obviously still believes that the public realm is a “democratic space” where all residents should feel welcome.

“A city should be a place where every citizen’s heart can sing,” Riley said.

Early on, the young mayor emphasized the rebirth of King Street into a shopping destination, and throughout his tenure he prioritized the pedestrian experience.

He said that he routinely asked one question: “If a mother is walking her child down the street, does she feel safe?” He wasn’t referring to crime so much in that part of the talk, but to the safety of the sidewalk and the proximity of traffic.

Bay Street, anyone?

Under Riley’s leadership, Charleston embraced attractive scattered site public housing, which allows for poor and marginalized people to be integrated more easily into a community.

Riley also noted that he oversaw implementation of a tourism management plan, and he emphasized that residents can decide how they want visitors to experience a city.

Riley did not discuss ongoing tensions in Charleston regarding cruise ships and the proliferation of hotels, but that seemed like a small omission in an otherwise excellent presentation.

If you didn’t see it, the lecture should appear soon on the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority’s website.

 

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: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Jalapenos expands to Broughton

Sat, 10/22/2016 - 8:54pm

The new Jalapenos Mexican Grill at 7 E. Broughton St. is as comfortable and inexpensive as one would expect.

With a half dozen locations in the Savannah area, Jalapenos has established a strong brand and great name recognition, and it’s good to see their concept come to Broughton.

The building was formerly home to the restaurant Dept. 7 East, and Jalapenos has kept the existing configuration of the dining areas. As patrons enter, they’ll find a comfortable bar to their left and seating to their right. Farther back, the eastern wall is lined with a comfortable banquette and a series of two-tops. There’s a larger dining area toward the back of the restaurant as well.

Jalapenos is both spacious and quiet, and on a recent weeknight the staff had no trouble seating and accommodating a large party that might not have had many similarly priced options in the Historic District.

You can find Jalapenos menu on their website (http://jalapenosinc.com). There’s a huge variety of options, but I found myself on familiar territory and ordered a chicken chimichanga dinner. The dinner plus a soda, which was refilled again and again, cost me just $16, including tax and a fairly generous tip.

Jalapenos seems likely to pick up clientele who formerly patronized restaurants like Juarez on Broughton Street and Cilantro’s on Bay Street, both of which are now closed.

Despite those closures, there seems to be plenty of demand for Mexican cuisine downtown, as evidenced by the ongoing success of Carlito’s Mexican Bar & Grill on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Tequila’s Town Mexican Restaurant on Whitaker Street.

With such a comfortable dining area, reasonable price point and strong reputation, Jalapenos will likely have strong local support even though the new location is in the midst of our increasingly tourist-oriented downtown. On my first trip, I ran into several local folks whom I know.

It will also be interesting to see how many tourists find their way to Jalapenos. Many of our visitors have kids, and many are not looking for expensive meals.

At the same time, some restaurants on Broughton Street have struggled to maintain steady business over the years. A number of our existing restaurants took over from other establishments that didn’t survive, and there are several former restaurant spaces that have become other uses.

I suspect we’d see more stability and more inexpensive options among downtown restaurants if we simply had more people living downtown.

 

Savannah job market’s hot streak continues

Well, we won’t have any data until next month or later about the impacts of Hurricane Matthew on local employment trends, but we did get some numbers last week for September. And it sure looks like the local job market continues humming right along.

In September, there were 682 initial claims for unemployment in the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties), which was a steep decline from the 860 claims in September 2015.

According to the preliminary estimate released last week by the Georgia Department of Labor, the Savannah metro area had 179,700 payroll jobs in September, an increase of 3.9 percent from September 2015.

For many months I’ve been saying that we will see employment gains moderate at some point. The regional population is almost certainly growing at less than 2 percent per year, so it just isn’t reasonable to expect continued annual gains of 4 percent for employment.

Compared to a year earlier, the largest employment gains in September came in the broad category of professional and business services, which includes various jobs in management, administration and support services.

Payroll employment in professional and business services grew by 11.7 percent between September 2015 and September 2016. The leisure and hospitality sector also saw strong growth of 4.7 percent over the year, but that’s hardly the only game in town.

I’m hopeful that Hurricane Matthew didn’t upend any of these positive trends, and it’s possible that the storm recovery might have prompted a net gain in payroll employment for October.

 

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: Lost wages, sales from storm will have lasting impacts

Mon, 10/17/2016 - 11:42pm

We’re well into the second week of recovery from Hurricane Matthew, and we’re hearing more and more stories of loss.

Some folks obviously lost more than others, but for this column I’m focusing on lost wages. You won’t see photos of money that someone didn’t earn, but the cumulative effect of lost wages will have ongoing impacts on people’s lives and the region’s economy.

As regular readers of this newspaper surely know already, Savannah has a relatively large service sector. Employment in leisure and hospitality is far higher than the state average. And many workers in leisure and hospitality lost a week’s worth of income – or more. Many of those people are breadwinners in low-income households with little or no savings.

I heard a number of Savannahians bemoan the quick return of tourists after the hurricane, but I’m sure many business owners and their employees were thrilled to have the visitors back.

If Chatham County officials had stuck to their plan to extend the curfew until Oct. 15, we could have lost millions more in tourist spending – from destination weddings to day-trippers.

Of course, even among service industry businesses, the losses varied dramatically. A handful — like The Sentient Bean and Peking House — never lost power and were open during the day on Oct. 8. But many establishments didn’t open until days later, and we’ll likely see some business owners decide not to reopen at all.

The losses weren’t only felt by brick and mortar businesses, of course. I talked to a vendor at the most recent Forsyth Farmers’ Market who had lost about $10,000 in sales because of the impact on markets all along the coast.

Some businesses that are already back up to speed will nevertheless face rough times in the weeks and months ahead. They’ll have less cash on hand because of the lost sales. I’ve been writing this column for a long time, and I’ve seen many under-capitalized small businesses close up shop, sometimes long after the problems arose.

As we approach the holidays — yes, the holidays are right around the corner — I’d urge Savannah consumers to make a special effort to support the businesses that they value the most.

In my limited world, I’m most anxious to support the bars and restaurants where I spend much of my time. The employees at those establishments have greatly enriched my life and the broader culture of the city. I’m also deeply indebted to the area’s many fine musicians, many of whom also took a huge financial hit.

In short, I hope local consumers will consider the impacts of the storm beyond the immediate aftermath.

 

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: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: What should be priorities of new Savannah city manager?

Sat, 10/15/2016 - 9:17pm

Rob Hernandez, Savannah’s new city manager, started work Oct. 10.

I suspect that he will long remember his first week on the job.

We’ve seen new city managers take the helm only twice since I started writing this column 16 years ago. Like most in the community, I didn’t immediately begin to criticize the work of Rochelle Small-Toney and Stephanie Cutter when they took over the city’s top spot.

It seems appropriate to give new city managers some time and space to get their bearings.

But it’s clear that Hernandez is going to face considerable scrutiny within the first few months. A backlog of issues and problems has mounted under recent city administrations. While we’ve made some headway here and there, the citizens of Savannah have grown impatient, and they’re going to want to see results in a wide variety of areas.

So, as a longtime observer of city policies – the good, the bad, the ugly – I’m going to suggest a few areas that Hernandez should prioritize, while he simultaneously assesses the quality of his key staff.

You might have different priorities. Tell your alderman what those priorities are. Send your thoughts directly to city officials, including Hernandez. Write a letter to the editor of this newspaper.

Savannah is not an especially large city, and it’s just not that hard to make your voice heard.

Obviously, the first task for Hernandez is to guarantee that we recover from the damage caused by Hurricane Matthew as quickly as possible. That means coordinating with county and state agencies and with various contractors and corporations.

And, of course, crime.

Hernandez will need to work with Chief Jack Lumpkin and others to get up to speed on current law enforcement strategies, but I hope the new city manager will do some exploring on his own in a nondescript vehicle. He needs to drive through areas, such as the Metropolitan Neighborhood, where street drug sales and prostitution are common. He needs to see all this firsthand.

As I’ve said many times in this space, I’m cynical about our chances of ever substantively reducing violent crime in the community when we allow blatant street crime to flourish unchecked.

Hernandez comes to Savannah by way of Fort Lauderdale and Atlanta, and he already seems to have some good ideas about anti-poverty initiatives. I’d love to see him set the tone early that his administration will stay focused on poverty reduction.

Hernandez also needs to listen to residents about quality of life issues beyond crime.

There is growing tension about the proliferation of downtown hotels and their impact on the residential and economic character of the Historic District. We desperately need to update Savannah’s antiquated zoning ordinance, and we need to find a way to incentivize less expensive housing in the city’s core.

The quality of life concerns extend to concerns about high-speed traffic.

For now at least, we once again have on-street parking and slower traffic on Bay Street, but there will no doubt be pressure from key city staffers to recreate the freeway conditions with which we experimented last month. If that happens, Hernandez will immediately lose the confidence of many people who are working hard to make Savannah a better place to live rather than simply drive through.

In his first months on the job, I’d also suggest that Hernandez launch some sort of educational effort that could teach government officials, community leaders and private citizens about the hurricane risks that we face here on the Georgia coast.

In theory, this effort should be coordinated with Chatham County officials, but Hernandez should be prepared to do something no matter what.

As I said in my City Talk column on Tuesday, many local leaders seem to have a very poor understanding of the storm surge and flooding risks from hurricanes.

The Chatham Emergency Management Agency has storm surge warning maps ready, and it’s quite easy for individual property owners to determine their own elevation and risk level.

We just have to find the right ways to get quality information into the hands of citizens so that they can make responsible, rational decisions regarding their own safety and investments.

Whether Hernandez prioritizes these issues or not, I’ll likely be revisiting all of them in future columns.

 

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: It's gut check time for council on development

Mon, 10/03/2016 - 10:27pm

If you’re interested in issues related to downtown development and tourism, you need to watch the discussions about zoning at the Sept. 29 Savannah City Council meeting. You can find the video at https://savannahgovtv.viebit.com.

As Alderman Bill Durrence said on his official Facebook page, “The Savannah City Council took bold and welcome steps this week to slow down hotel development in the downtown historic district, in the face of growing public concerns about the city’s future.”

At issue were two proposed hotels. Developers at a hotel at Tattnall and Liberty streets want to serve alcohol without food, and developers of a Drayton Street hotel want a so-called “bonus story” for including ground floor retail.

We can debate the various merits of these proposals — I certainly hope that any hotel on the Drayton Street property will have ground floor retail — and it’s worth remembering that both sites are currently zoned to allow hotel construction.

But the battle that emerged last week is much larger than the details about these proposed hotels.

Gary Arthur, a downtown resident and president of the Beehive Foundation, channeled the mood of many downtown residents in his statement before council.

“A lot of us who live here in Savannah have watched with some dismay and sadness over the last few years as the emphasis on quality of living issues for residents has taken a backseat to what more can we do for the tourists,” Arthur said.

“We are worried really to distraction about this trend to spot rezone parcels all around the Historic District to benefit hotel developers at the expense of citizens,” Arthur added. “We feel we’ve long past the time when we needed another hotel.”

“What is authentic about our wonderful town plan is being dumbed down,” Arthur argued. “We feel we’re being hemmed in really by these chain hotels, which tend to be massive and have few if any redeeming architectural distinctions.”

Aldermen Van Johnson and Tony Thomas addressed the issue of authenticity and the potential damage that more hotels could do to the character of downtown.

They even proposed a hotel moratorium, which city attorney Brooks Stillwell will study before making a recommendation to council.

A couple months ago, I argued that this is gut check time for those who oppose further hotel development in the Landmark Historic District.

Development is coming, but many folks in the downtown community have staunchly opposed increased residential density.

As Durrence detailed in an impassioned comment during the meeting, we currently “incentivize hotels with bonus floors and a lower level of parking requirements than we do for residential development.”

“What we really need here is workforce housing,” Durrence said. “We need residential development, not more hotels.”

There’s a fairly clear roadmap for getting from here to there. I’ve covered some of that ground in previous columns, but I’ll follow up again soon in a more detailed way.

 

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: Bay St. changes make it even harder for locals to get downtown

Sat, 10/01/2016 - 10:32pm

Savannah area residents are increasingly concerned about the degree to which tourism is dominating the downtown economy, but city officials have both short- and long-term plans to make it harder for locals to enjoy the Historic District.

First, let’s talk again about Bay Street.

According to Eric Curl’s latest detailed coverage for this newspaper, average vehicle speeds on Bay Street have increased since we launched the month-long experiment to remove over 100 on-street parking spaces and widen the travel lanes.

That’s no surprise. When lanes are widened and on-street parking is removed, drivers tend to go faster.

City officials seem to be downplaying the 2 to 5 mph increase in average speeds, but we’re talking about increases of 10 percent to 20 percent in some places.

For now, Bay Street is dotted with orange barrels and posts — elements that typically tell drivers to slow down — and the lanes are dimly marked. If we make this change permanent, we’d have clearer lanes and no orange markers. Would speeds go up another 10 percent or 20 percent? It seems likely.

Also, we currently have a big mess at the east end of Bay Street, with all traffic diverted to East Broad Street. Will we see another increase in speed on East Bay when the bottleneck at East Broad is removed? Almost certainly yes.

So would it matter if traffic on some parts of Bay Street were flowing at 35 mph rather than 25 mph? Or 40 mph rather than 30 mph?

According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, less than 5 percent of pedestrians die when they are struck by cars going 15 mph or less. However, the foundation notes that “as speeds increase beyond this range, small changes in speed yield relatively large increases in risk.”

Twenty percent of pedestrians who are struck at a speed of 30 mph will die. If a car strikes a pedestrian at 45 mph, the likelihood of death is 45 percent.

As I’ve noted here before, the new traffic configuration has dramatically increased the chance that we’ll eventually have a catastrophic crash that kills a pedestrian — possibly even one who is on the sidewalk.

Safety is a legitimate concern, and it’s irresponsible of city officials to downplay even modest increases in speeds when so many pedestrians might be at risk.

For what it’s worth, I’ve spent some time in recent weeks on Bay Street, especially in the evening, and I’ve seen a significant number of cars going faster than the speeds cited by city officials so far.

I’ve also spent some time wandering River Street in recent weeks, especially on weekday evenings when things are slow.

Yes, there are times when business is pretty slow down on River Street. For example, there were only about a dozen people hanging out in Rousakis Plaza around 8:30 p.m. last Wednesday.

It was a perfectly nice night, but there were just a few clusters of tourists here and there, including a trio of spry elderly tourists who were enthusiastically opening their purses to find money for a panhandler.

Nearly all the restaurants had ample tables available. Joe’s Crab Shack, which is open till midnight, was largely deserted by 9 p.m.

It was already difficult enough for many local folks to patronize businesses on River Street, but the loss of parking on Bay Street will make it even harder.

So if folks aren’t parking on Bay, where are they parking?

We know that few drivers are using the city’s ill-considered alternatives on Liberty Street or East Broad Street, but some are certainly parking on streets in more residential portions of the Historic District, generally east of Abercorn Street.

For some local residents, the loss of parking on Bay Street might be a minimal disruption, but others will be less likely to patronize businesses on River and Bay streets because of the inhospitable sidewalk and the lack of parking.

Not surprisingly, while city officials are monitoring vehicle speeds, they aren’t similarly monitoring pedestrian activity. Keep in mind that the pedestrians are the ones spending money downtown.

The Savannah Bicycle Campaign is picking up some of the slack by conducting a study of pedestrian and bicycle use of Bay Street. You can read more about the volunteer effort at http://bicyclecampaign.org/bay-street-pedestrian-and-bicyclist-documenta....

Looking ahead, it’s worth keeping in mind that city officials want to start enforcing parking meters until 8 p.m., which would be another deterrent for locals who want to go downtown and would be a financial blow to many service industry workers.

I’ll be back with more on that soon.

 

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: Can we dent violent crime if we allow blatant street crime

Mon, 09/26/2016 - 9:00pm

On Sept. 24, the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department released an impassioned plea for an end to violent crime.

In apparent response to criticism of the police and elected officials for responding more vigorously to the murder of a white resident than to murders of black residents, the SCMPD statement detailed numerous efforts made in recent months to combat violence.

Here’s one key paragraph: “While it is true that a vast majority of our overall shootings are the result of risky behavior; certainly this is not true for all shootings victims. Chief Lumpkin has said that publicly numerous times. He has also said that a family member who is group or gang involved may raise the risk to other family members by 900%! But the SCMPD does not blame victims!”

I applaud the efforts made under Chief Jack Lumpkin, who was hired about two years ago, but I find myself increasingly cynical. Sure, we might return to average levels of violence, but the average for Savannah would be horrifyingly high in many similar-sized cities across the country.

As a longtime observer of Savannah’s economic and cultural landscape, I was especially struck by this line in the recent SCMPD statement on violent crime: “The SCMPD does not determine police services along racial or economic lines.”

On my way to dinner one evening last week, I drove a few blocks in my neighborhood that I would avoid on foot, certainly after dark. At 8 p.m., a prostitute was walking openly in the street. On my way home two hours later, I saw two men dealing drugs on an adjacent block.

No surprise. Street prostitution and drug sales are routine on some streets in my neighborhood, as I’ve said often in this column. It’s also no surprise that those blocks see bursts of violence, including two separate incidents with more than one shooting victim in the last 10 months.

SCMPD leaders may not feel that they’re deploying police services along “racial or economic lines,” but it seems clear that there are institutional biases that have been in place for decades, probably longer than any current officers have been on the force.

After decades of inaction and distrust, the residents who live on blocks with such blatant street crime typically do not call the police. The crimes are happening so openly and often that residents assume that police, city officials and elected leaders must know what’s going on. Better to stay out of it, avoid “risky behaviors” and hope for the best.

I don’t see how we can reduce violence in a meaningful way while street level criminal activity is allowed to flourish. Something has to give.

 

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.

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

CITY TALK: Inside the numbers: Savannah poverty rate declined in 2014

Mon, 09/19/2016 - 11:59pm

Savannah’s high poverty rate became an important campaign issue in 2015, and I hope that we’ll continue to make poverty reduction one of our most important civic goals.

As I detailed in a column last year, it’s difficult to sort through poverty data, and there is a considerable lag between the gathering of raw numbers and the publication of the findings.

According to the latest estimates from the U.S. Census, Chatham County’s poverty rate spiked in the years after the recession, but then declined sharply in 2014 (the last year for which data are available).

As of 2014, Chatham County had a smaller percentage of people living in poverty than Georgia as a whole, but we were well above the statewide rate for children living in poverty.

That’s the summary. Let’s take a closer look at some key numbers.

The so-called “great recession” technically ended in 2009, but poverty in America continued to worsen until 2011 and 2012. Given the financial crisis, the sharp drop in property values, high rates of foreclosure and bankruptcy, plus other factors, it’s not surprising that poverty worsened even as the economy was growing slowly from 2009 to 2012.

According to the latest Census estimates, 15.5 percent of Americans were living in poverty in 2014. That’s down slightly from 15.9 percent in 2012.

In Georgia, 18.4 percent of residents were living in poverty in 2014, down from 19.2 percent in 2012.

In Chatham County, 17.9 percent of residents were living in poverty in 2014, down sharply from 22.5 percent in 2011.

Way back in 2007, Chatham County had a worse poverty rate than the state as a whole, but now the local rate is slightly better than the statewide rate.

I should note here that there is a significant margin for error in all this data, but the general trends seem clear.

The numbers above refer to all individuals, but the estimates are much grimmer if we’re considering the poverty rate for those under 18.

According to the latest U.S. Census estimates, the national poverty rate for those under 18 was 21.7 percent in 2014. In Georgia, the rate was 26.3 percent.

In Chatham County, 27.5 percent of those under 18 were living in poverty in 2014. That number is down from a staggering 34.6 percent in 2011, but that’s cold comfort.

Again, it’s worth noting that there is a large margin for error in all these estimates, and there isn’t one single way of measuring poverty.

And, of course, these are just numbers. Almost 17,000 children are living in poverty in Chatham County, and they all have individual stories.

 

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.

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