BiS: BusinessInSavannah.com - Business news for the creative coast.

City Talk

Subscribe to City Talk feed
City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday - Email me. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.
Updated: 4 hours 48 min ago

CITY TALK: Bay Street 'experiment' will definitely hurt

Mon, 07/25/2016 - 9:15pm

“It wouldn’t hurt to try it,” City Manager Stephanie Cutter said last week during a city council workshop discussion of a proposed Bay Street “experiment,” which was later approved by council.

If you’re a regular reader of this column or if you follow the work of urban planners, you can probably think of several ways that the proposed experiment could — or will — hurt.

The mayor and aldermen seem to be under the illusion that the proposed changes will “calm” Bay Street traffic, but that won’t happen.

Yes, we’ve been averaging about 75 sideswipe accidents per year on Bay, according to data presented at last week’s workshop, and the proposal for widening the travel lanes will likely reduce the number of those types of crashes.

But we know that drivers go faster when lanes are wider, so we’ll see higher speeds. That’s a given.

We also know that drivers go faster when there is no on-street parking, which creates visual friction and forces drivers to be more vigilant.

So we might see fewer sideswipe accidents, but we’re more likely to see higher speed wrecks with injuries. We’ll likely have occasional wrecks, like those on streets like Whitaker, with cars careening into buildings.

The so-called experiment, which is scheduled for September, will remove 116 parking spaces. The perceived lack of parking is the single biggest complaint that I hear these days from local residents and downtown business owners, but we’re going to remove dozens from the heart of the city.

As I’ve noted here in the past, economists’ estimates differ regarding the value of on-street parking, but it’s clear that spaces are extremely valuable. The removal of so many spots would cost downtown businesses many millions per year.

The removal of parking spaces, the faster traffic and the increased traffic noise will also reduce property values. That impact won’t be felt immediately, but potential issues will begin as soon as the experiment is implemented, especially for property owners looking for buyers or tenants.

The removal of parking on the south side of Bay will also degrade the pedestrian experience because the eastbound travel lanes will be closer to the sidewalk. On Sunday morning, I sat along Bay Street on a bench while waiting for a table at B. Matthew’s Eatery, but you won’t find me sitting there in September, when speeding cars will be about 10 feet away.

Most importantly, let’s hope no one gets seriously injured during this experiment. That’s not being alarmist, just realistic. Moving faster traffic closer to pedestrians is a recipe for disaster.

 

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 spray pool in Forsyth a resounding success

Sat, 07/23/2016 - 7:36pm
At noon on Thursday, about 25 children were enjoying the spray pool next to the playground in Forsyth Park. The screaming and squealing kids were having a grand time as their parents and guardians wilted in the sun or sought refuge on the stage itself.   After lengthy delays, the spray pool opened earlier this summer, marking another step in the evolution of Forsyth Park, which many of us consider the crown jewel of Savannah’s amazing public spaces. The spray pool has certainly improved quality of life for the children who visit Forsyth on hot summer days. That includes young tourists as well as locals. Seriously, three cheers for the new play area, although it ought to stay open later than 6 p.m. Many Savannahians no doubt remember the previous attempt to install a decorative fountain with spray jets at its base. The water features were ill-conceived, inconsistently activated and badly marketed. The result was a mess, as children began playing in the fountain itself when the spray jets were turned off.  The city at first considered entirely getting rid of the fountains at the base of the stage. If we had done that, we could have dramatically enhanced performances by having a sort of bowl so that audiences could get much closer to the action. But, as things have played out, we’ve seen fewer and fewer performances on that stage.  Years ago, before the current so-called “band shell” was even constructed, Shakespeare in the Park took over Forsyth for one weekend every year. Until 2015, the Savannah Jazz Festival was using the current stage for several days each year, but organizers cut back to one day in Forsyth in 2015. We have numerous other music festivals in Savannah, but none of them have used the stage for several years. Yes, Savannah Pride uses the stage for one day each year, we still have Picnic in the Park, the Savannah College of Art and Design continues to use the park for its free New Alumni Concert on the night before spring commencement and there are a smattering of other uses throughout the year. But we had just as many public performances in Forsyth Park before we built the current stage as we have now.  The relative lack of use of the stage is a logical result of the poor choices made during the design phase, but at least we now have the spray pool, which is obviously a resounding success.   Local economy adding jobs at rapid pace The good economic news keeps rolling in. According to data released by the Georgia Department of Labor, the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) had 179,500 payroll jobs in June. That’s an increase of 4.1 percent over June 2015. As I’ve been noting for many months, the current pace of job growth is unsustainable. We can’t continue to add jobs at four times the rate of population growth forever. Two sectors accounted for more than half of the year-over-year jobs gains. According to the estimates, payroll employment in professional and business services increased by 1,900 between June 2015 and June 2016. That sector includes a wide range of professional, technical, scientific, managerial and administrative positions.   The leisure and hospitality sector added 2,200 jobs over the past year. That sector is primarily comprised of jobs in accommodation and food services. As has been discussed often around these parts, many of those leisure and hospitality jobs don’t pay well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly earnings in accommodation and food services is just under $14 an hour. I suspect that’s a higher wage than many would have guessed, but it’s pretty low as an average. On the other hand, it’s worth saying that many Savannah food servers and bartenders are making far more money per hour than that.  Also, it’s worth saying that the average work week in accommodation and food services is less than 27 hours. It’s a sector that appeals to workers who prefer limited hours and are sometimes satisfied with limited incomes. Still, it’s obviously reasonable to be concerned about the economic balance in the Savannah metro area. Statewide, approximately 10.7 percent of payroll jobs are in leisure and hospitality.  In Savannah, by contrast, leisure and hospitality comprises 15.9 percent of payroll jobs. In other words, about one in nine payroll jobs in Georgia are in leisure and hospitality, while in Savannah the number is one in six.    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: Will 'Pokemon Go' have lasting impacts on Savannah’s cultural landscape?

Sat, 07/16/2016 - 11:48pm

At 1:30 a.m. on a recent Sunday morning, I spotted a dozen people milling around the north end of Forsyth Park. They were smiling and laughing.

They were playing “Pokemon Go.”

A few nights later, a friend reported that she was enjoying a beautiful night in Forsyth Park. She wasn’t playing Pokemon Go, but the park was dotted with people who were, so she felt safe staying out after dark.

The “Pokemon Go” craze could crash fast, but there are obviously some interesting things happening if a game can so quickly change how Americans interact with public spaces.

We’ve seen a spike in armed robberies near Forsyth Park this year, so it’s notable that the park has been flooded with residents since the game’s release, even on blazing hot afternoons and very late at night when the park is technically “closed.”

After seeing so many people playing the game, I decided to download the free app and give it a try.

Really, who knew that my neighborhood was crawling with Rattatas, Weedles and Zubats?

On the most basic level, “Pokemon Go” is fun. It’s oddly satisfying, if a little embarrassing, to catch a Pidgey in the bread section of Kroger, but it only takes a moment.

No, I certainly didn’t need an “augmented reality” game to make me appreciate the beauty and history of the downtown Savannah area, but there’s no denying that “Pokemon Go” changes the way one navigates the city.

The game, which apparently uses geographic data from the game “Ingress,” has turned real life landmarks into locations where players can gather necessary items and even engage in battles at “gyms.”

Typically, players can access these features if they’re within half a block of the destinations.

As a longtime resident of the downtown area, I’m already familiar with many of the landmarks that are now “gyms” and so-called “Pokestops,” but the game steered me in directions I don’t usually go.

For example, I spent a few minutes last week sitting in Thomas Square, which is adjacent to the Bull Street Library. I’ve lived just a few blocks away for 20 years, but I had no idea how lovely and relaxing that space has become.

In the northeast quadrant of Forsyth Park, I was confronted with a poignant plaque next to a tree planted in 2000 to mark Savannah’s “Victory Over Violence.” I’d forgotten about that community-wide effort to reduce violence in the wake of a spike in violence in the late 1990s.

According to articles about “Victory Over Violence” in the Savannah Morning News archives, the movement was prompted by the 42 homicides in 1999. We had more homicides than that in 2015, and we’ll almost certainly have more in 2016, too.

I also had no idea that there was a Little Free Library in a community garden on W. 38th St., but “Pokemon Go” pointed me to it.

How many of the game’s players were previously aware of the importance of the Georgia Infirmary or Mother Matilda Beasley to African-American history? How many of us who live in the Bull Street corridor can rattle off the names of churches along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard?

“Pokemon Go” also leads users to neighborhood landmarks that may or may not endure. Within several blocks of my house, there are game locations at several hand-painted signs and murals, at least two of which no longer exist.

On my Pokemon-inspired walks, I’ve seen several impromptu interactions between game-playing strangers.

Certainly, there are hazards in all of this. Hanging out in Forsyth Park in the middle of the night probably isn’t advised, even if you’re with a dozen people. And we don’t need tourists spending even more time staring at their phones as they cross downtown streets.

On the other hand, while “Pokemon Go” might encourage more people to stare at their screens, it also encourages them to look up and study the built environment. It encourages exercise, engagement and civic knowledge.

For a variety of geeky reasons, I’m assuming that “Pokemon Go” will get less entertaining over time, but the stunning embrace of the game’s technology raises tantalizing questions and possibilities.

How might this game or a similar one impact tourism and commerce?

How does a fantasy world overlay impact the much-valued “authenticity” of historic sties?

Can a game that lures players outside in large numbers have a consistently positive impact on public safety?

“Pokemon Go” was released in the United States on July 6, so it’s way too early to understand the sociological implications.

But this feels like an important cultural moment to me, and I don’t just say that because I’m at Level 9 and ready to battle for control of the neighborhood.

 

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

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

CITY TALK: How will Savannah respond to recent protests?

Mon, 07/11/2016 - 10:35pm

On Sunday evening, I walked to Forsyth Park for the vigil organized by Savannah’s nascent Black Lives Matter chapter.

The vigil included Bible readings, prayers and moments of silence for Americans killed by police officers, for the police officers killed last week in Dallas and for those killed in the Pulse shooting in Orlando.

I did not follow the subsequent march through downtown to City Hall, although most attendees of the vigil did.

It’s tough to estimate crowds, and I’ve heard all sorts of numbers for the turnout. I’d say there were 500 or so at the vigil, with perhaps somewhat more participating in the march.

The crowd was strikingly diverse. While most attendees were black, there were a significant number of white people on hand. The age range was remarkably broad.

I recognized a lot of people at the gathering, but I was a little surprised that I didn’t see more of Savannah’s most prominent leaders and activists. Of course, some of those folks, including a number of elected officials, were apparently at an “emergency meeting” hosted by the Urban Savannah Chamber of Commerce at First African Baptist Church.

In other cities, Black Lives Matter protests have been blocking interstates and disrupting commerce, but that certainly wasn’t the case here. There just isn’t a lot of traffic to disrupt on a sultry Sunday evening in mid-July in Savannah.

I’d give the Savannah-Chatham police department high marks for its response to the event, which came at a time of extreme national and local angst.

During the vigil, police officers remained unobtrusive, a considerable distance from the crowd. Later, patrol cars sealed off key streets.

The SCMPD communications staff tweeted eight times through the day. The tweets were both reassuring and informational.

And I’d give high marks to the organizers and protestors. I found the atmosphere hopeful and inclusive.

Now what?

Many Savannahians, especially those who live in high-crime neighborhoods, are distrustful of local law enforcement. There are understandable reasons for that distrust.

Many Savannahians also feel that they and their neighborhoods have not been benefiting from the region’s remarkable economic growth.

Like other cities, we have deep racial divides.

At the same time, we should recognize that Savannah is home to many smart and passionate people who share similar goals regarding trust, safety and opportunity.

Sure, citizens will choose different paths to achieve those goals, and sometimes those efforts might seem at odds with each other.

I’m confident that we’ll see some good things come out of that dynamic tension.

 

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
  • Jomo Johnson, head of Savannah’s Black Lives Matter chapter, addresses the crowd that gathered in Forsyth Park to pay respects to Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and the Dallas police killed by a sniper last week. (Will Peebles/Savannah Morning News)
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Le Cafe Gourmet offers authentic, casual French fare

Sat, 07/09/2016 - 7:39pm
If you follow the Savannah restaurant scene, you’ve probably already heard raves about Le Café Gourmet, which opened in April at 53 Montgomery St., just north of Broughton Street.   There’s nothing fancy about the interior. It’s a bright, cozy space with a handful of tables. Large windows look east across Montgomery Street toward Anthropologie and the former Marc Jacobs store.    Le Café Gourmet has the advantage of being just steps from City Market, Congress Street and Broughton Street, but it still feels like a quiet spot far removed from the bustle of downtown.   I’ve had lunch at the new café and bakery twice. On my first trip, I had one of the daily specials — a roast beef sandwich with blue cheese and other items on a small loaf of the special bread of the day.   On my most recent visit, I opted for a simple ham and cheese crepe, which at $6.50 might be one of the most satisfying lunch items in town. The savory and sweet crepes, “croissandwiches” and sandwiches are almost all priced under $8.   I haven’t yet tried any of the pastries, cakes, pies, eclairs or other baked goods, but they sure look tempting in the case. On my last trip, I did pick up a couple of small loaves of the bread du jour. I was told that it would go beautifully with salad, but I opted for butter and cheese. C’est la vie.   If these details sound authentically French, it’s no doubt because, as noted on the café website (http://www.lecafegourmet.com), owners Alexandre and Angela grew up in France and moved to Savannah to open a restaurant.   I’ve only been to Le Café Gourmet for lunch, but many of the items would be ideal for breakfast or even carryout supper. The café’s Facebook page is updated regularly with photos of daily specials or occasionally with changes to normal hours (8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday).    I’ve heard or read raves of Le Café Gourmet from a wide variety of downtown folks, including businesspeople, a tattoo artist who works next door and owners of short-term vacation rentals who have been recommending the spot to tourists. The Grey’s Facebook page even praised Le Café Gourmet in a recent post.    Le Café Gourmet is certainly a welcome addition to the local restaurant scene.   New restaurant planned for 37th and Abercorn And in other exciting news for the local food scene, the owners of Circa 1875 last week announced a new venture.   LaScala Ristorante is slated for the southwest corner of 37th and Abercorn streets, in a grand old home that was formerly occupied by Peacock’s on 37th Flower Shop.   The project is just getting underway, but there are now banners announcing the new restaurant hanging on the building, which has more than 6,000 square feet, according to Chatham County records.   LaScala will be just down the block from Elizabeth on 37th in the heart of the historic Thomas Square neighborhood, which has of course been attracting significant investment and interest.   That surge in investment is the natural result of several important factors, including the increase in commercial rents in the Landmark Historic District, the tilting of the Landmark District economy more toward tourism and the increased frustration of local residents about parking in the city’s central business district.    When you hear about new small business investment in the Thomas Square and Metropolitan neighborhoods or in the Starland area that straddles those neighborhoods, it’s worth recalling that the Mid-City rezoning laid the groundwork for properly scaled new development.    The zoning ordinance has simplified bureaucratic processes, protected the neighborhood’s residential integrity, brought design guidelines into sync with historical standards, encouraged mixed use development, created reasonable off-street parking requirements and facilitated commercial investment, especially on key corners like 37th and Abercorn streets.    The Mid-City rezoning was approved by Savannah officials in 2005 and immediately began paying dividends. I live right next door to a lovely mixed-use property that would have needed a boatload of variances under the arcane rules that were previously in place.    But then the recession hit, and everything stalled for a few years. As a result, the value of that zoning overhaul is not as prominent in our civic consciousness as it should be.   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: First Friday Art March says much about Starland

Mon, 07/04/2016 - 10:39pm

My Fourth of July weekend began at the First Friday Art March in the Starland neighborhood.

A slow but steady stream of folks wandered through Sulfur Studios. A number of artists had their individual work spaces open, and there was an informal exhibition of drawings in the main gallery.

The Wormhole’s patio was bustling, and dozens hung around for Tokalos, XuluProphet and other musicians who played later. Those sets had been moved indoors because of an earlier threat of rain, but the weather ultimately turned out fine.

Over at House of Strut, the vibrant vintage store at the southeast corner of 41st and Whitaker streets, patrons were enjoying the groovy, jazzy music of The Sound Experiment, a talented young band that was dressed in clothing from the store.

A number of other stores were open, as usual, and the event felt focused as much on community as on art.

The turnout wasn’t as large as the Art March has had in other months, but there were obvious reasons for that, including the slow pace of summer and the long holiday weekend.

It’s been interesting to see the commercial and cultural evolution of Starland, the arts district centered on the still unrenovated old Starland Dairy on Bull Street.

I was a regular attendee of art openings in Starland back in the late 1990s, and I looked on Friday night for anyone I remembered from those days. There seemed to be only a few of us around.

Starland seemed poised for resurgence early in this century, but it got caught up in the real estate bubble, which obviously burst. The post recession version of Starland has lots of new players at the table, and now there seems no turning back.

We’ve seen significant commercial investment along the Bull Street corridor in the last few years, and it looks like even more is on the way. We might even see some forward movement on renovations to the Starland Dairy itself soon.

It’s worth noting here that some of that commercial investment would not have been possible without the Mid-City/Thomas Square rezoning over a decade ago.

A cynic might use the word “gentrification” to dismiss the changes to the neighborhood over the last two decades, but as a resident of the general area, I can say that the reality can’t be so easily characterized.

The Starland newcomers, a group that is generally younger and whiter than the neighborhood as a whole, seem genuinely attracted to the area’s diversity and general funkiness. The trick will be maintaining those qualities even as more money and people flow in.

 

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

Savannah’s economy strong, but there’s still a lot to do

Sat, 07/02/2016 - 5:55pm
We’ve hit the halfway point of 2016, and many signs suggest that the regional economy is humming right along. In last week’s column, I detailed the strong job growth that we’ve been experiencing for many months, although it’s worth noting that employment is generally considered a lagging economic indicator. In other words, we might not see a decline in labor market data until a slowdown is well underway. But there are plenty of other signs of a strong local economy, including solid housing data, considerable new business investment and steady tourism.  I’ve been writing this column a long time, and I’d say that entrepreneurs seem more optimistic about Savannah’s prospects than they have in a decade. Of course, a decade ago, much of the new investment was inflating a dangerous housing bubble, but I haven’t seen any signs that those mistakes are being repeated. Still, one important sector has struggled in the first half of 2016.  According to data from the Georgia Ports Authority, total TEU (20-foot equivalent units) throughput in February was 8 percent higher than in February 2015, but January, March, April and May have posted year-over-year declines ranging from 3 percent to 11 percent. The 2016 numbers are still well ahead of the pace from 2014, however.  Other East Coast ports have experienced similar traffic declines, which seem to be the result of high inventory levels, general concerns about the world economy and shifting trade patterns.   There are ample reasons to assume that traffic will increase over the long-term at East Coast ports, especially in the wake of the expansion of the Panama Canal and the billions being spent for U.S. port expansions and improvements. It’s hard to say what will happen in the short run, however, or how much of a drag a continued shipping slowdown will be on the regional economy. But what about politics and crime? The local economy might have been doing fine by most measures in the first half of 2016, but there is a great deal of anxiety out there.  Crime continues to be the major public concern, and, as I’ve detailed in this column, 2016 might be the worst year ever for violence in Savannah.  For now, the general public seems to be giving a sort of grace period to Chief Jack Lumpkin and Savannah’s political leaders, but if the violence continues at this same pace through the remainder of 2016, we could see a markedly different mood at year’s end.  Over the first half of 2016, we’ve also seen Mayor Eddie DeLoach and three new aldermen — Bill Durrence, Brian Foster and Julian Miller — settle into their new roles. It’s really early in the four-year term of this new Savannah City Council, but I remain optimistic about the direction things are headed, even if myriad questions remain. The search team for a new Savannah city manager has identified 12 semifinalists from a fairly large pool of applicants. There are good reasons to be optimistic that we’ll have a strong group of finalists with considerable professional experience, although things could get sticky if the aldermen are divided on the best candidate. The new mayor and council avoided the political minefield of another extended debate about the location of Savannah’s proposed new arena. Uncertainties remain about the total costs of building the arena and creating the proposed Canal District adjacent to it, but it seems like the elected leaders are asking the right questions. The new council is also steadily moving key issues from the backburner to the front burner. A long delayed food truck ordinance might be enacted soon, and I’m hopeful that we’ll see a smarter alcohol ordinance in place before the end of 2016.  We might even see some wrangling with an important overhaul of the city’s zoning code by the end of the year. For more information on that, check out http://www.newzo.org. In the latter half of 2016, we are also likely to see continued public anxiety about a variety of issues beyond crime.  Rapid tourism growth will continue to be a flashpoint, as will Savannah’s high poverty rate.  General anxieties about development, parking and transportation are also likely to increase. I’m looking forward to open and substantive public discussion about all those issues in the second half of 2016.   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: 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
Topic: City Talk

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

 

 

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