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Updated: 5 hours 26 min ago

CITY TALK: Dueling petitions over alcohol sales in Thomas Square

Sat, 03/25/2017 - 8:44pm

How much alcohol is too much?

Individual answers will vary.

And neighborhood answers will also vary.

I’ve written here repeatedly about the zoning crisis in West Savannah. For years, neighborhood activists have tried in vain to get the area rezoned, but efforts stalled, largely because of inaction by Savannah city officials.

The lack of substantive action on zoning – the term we use for what uses are allowed in what places — led directly to the mess surrounding The Stage on Bay. As most of you know, Savannah City Council originally denied the large new music venue an alcohol license, but the mayor and aldermen later voted to grant the license because the zoning for that location allows alcohol sales as a matter of right.

In response to those issues, residents of West Savannah called on city officials to implement a moratorium on new alcohol licenses in the neighborhood.

The moratorium seemed like a regrettable but necessary step. As I suggested in a column a number of weeks ago, the West Bay Street area likely would benefit from zoning provisions like those in Thomas Square, where I live. For the most part, new businesses that hope to sell alcohol in my neighborhood have to apply for permission to sell alcohol as a “special use.”

But with the moratorium in place along West Bay Street, some residents of Thomas Square are calling for a similar bureaucratic delay.

On March 8, a petition was filed with the Clerk of Council’s office calling for a moratorium on alcohol licenses in areas that are zoned TC-1 and TC-2. That classification designates “traditional commercial” uses, with the “1” being used for smaller businesses, including ones that are not required to provide off-street parking.

The more intensive TC-2 classification is not widely used. The district is primarily limited to businesses on fairly large lots on the north side of Victory Drive between Price Street and Montgomery Street.

But there are many properties in the Thomas Square and Metropolitan neighborhoods – those two neighborhoods are increasingly considered as one neighborhood — that are zoned TC-1. When the current zoning was adopted over a decade ago, Metropolitan Planning Commission staffers largely relied on existing conditions to determine whether properties would be classified as “traditional commercial” or “traditional neighborhood.”

The TC and TN districts are all mixed-use, but the TN zoning is primarily residential, with fewer options for commercial development.

The new petition on file with the Clerk of Council has just eight signatures, most coming from residents of a single block of E. 38th St., but the first signature is from longtime neighborhood activist and president Virginia Mobley, whose name carries considerable weight.

The petition asks for the alcohol license moratorium until “Council can clarify the density of these types of licensees” and make sure the current zoning addresses issues such as “parking, noise and hours of operation.”

That petition has been countered by another petition created by neighborhood resident and business owner Clinton Edminster. As of this writing, the online petition (http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/489/382/279/), which argues that the proposed moratorium “would jeopardize vital local businesses currently opening in the area,” has almost 400 signatures.

Many of the signees are neighborhood stakeholders, but a significant number do not live or have businesses in the neighborhood.

Many of those who have signed the counter-petition have also included public comments, though only first names and last name initials are published on the site. Those comments make compelling arguments about business growth, entrepreneurial freedom and neighborhood revitalization.

A number of signees note the burgeoning restaurant scene south of Forsyth Park — another subject that I’ve covered often in this column.

I was among those who pushed for the current zoning in the neighborhood, and as I’ve argued here, the zoning works pretty well.

Since I live nearby, I was recently notified about a hearing to approve alcohol sales at a restaurant that will be about 40 yards from my front door. The proposed taqueria would not require any off-street parking and could result in more cars on my block. The business could be open late, and there could be issues with noise from the restaurant’s planned patio.

Sure, there could be some mild inconveniences for me as a resident, but when I bought the house over 20 years ago, I knew there were commercial properties all around me. I’m thrilled to see the current surge in investment, and I gladly wrote a letter in support of alcohol sales for the restaurant.

Other neighborhood businesses in the works include everything from a small bar to a large restaurant on the same block as Elizabeth on 37th. In every case, residents have the chance to voice their concerns before alcohol sales are approved.

In economically vibrant mixed-use neighborhoods, it can be difficult to find the right balance between residential and commercial interests. We’ve failed to balance those interests in some neighborhoods, but we’ve done a pretty good job in other neighborhoods.

^

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
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CITY TALK: Crowds large and small for St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah

Mon, 03/20/2017 - 4:52pm

I hope everyone had a safe and fun St. Patrick’s Day, but keep in mind that the holiday isn’t quite over.

The traditional post-St. Paddy’s Irish Road Bowling Tournament is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on March 25. The tournament takes place on the old racetrack on Hutchinson Island.

Who knew that rolling a metal ball down the road could be so much fun? Seriously, if you haven’t gone road bowling, it needs to be on your bucket list. You can register for the event ($20) on the Ancient Order of Hibernians website (http://www.aohsavannah.com/irish-road-bowling).

After last Friday’s parade, I wandered River Street, which as expected was teeming with people. As I’ve noted here before, our holiday crowds don’t rival those from a generation ago, but it was a busy scene.

There were also steady crowds in the northern portions of downtown on Friday night and all day Saturday. Given the perfect weather, the turnout wasn’t a surprise.

Still, I’ll be curious to hear the final tally on wristband sales. I know the $10 price to drink in the streets turned a lot of people off, but the nice weather certainly mitigated the impacts of this year’s price increase.

I was also downtown for a couple hours on Thursday night. The official “festival” was already underway, but the temperature was in the 40s when I got downtown about 10 p.m.

The streets were busier than the average Thursday, but things seemed slower than an average Friday. My designated driver easily found an on-street parking space on Johnson Square, and I didn’t see a single person wearing a wristband, though some might have had them obscured by winter coats.

I live several blocks south of Forsyth Park in an area where many paradegoers park, and on St. Patrick’s Day itself I usually wake up to the slamming of car doors and loud chatter.

But this year there were still parking spots available at least as far north as 32nd Street about 20 minutes before the parade began.

In some years, it’s actually difficult to walk down the crowded Abercorn Street sidewalks near the beginning of the parade, but not this year.

The chilly start to the day clearly impacted the parade turnout, but I can’t help feeling like poor civic messaging continues to deter people from coming into town.

Implausible, overinflated estimates of festival attendance discourage some locals from coming into town for the parade and other festivities. The $10 wristbands are off-putting to many of us, but the hard-core drinkers who are desperate to party won’t bat an eye at that price.

And, once they’ve paid their $10 to drink in the streets, they make sure they get their money’s worth.

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.netSubheadline: Crowds large, small for St. Patrick’s Day in SavannahSection: BiSLead photo: Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Proposed ACA replacement might have limited impact on Savannah economy

Sat, 03/18/2017 - 9:02pm

As I write this, we don’t know if the bill intended to replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or “Obamacare”) will be changed significantly before becoming law. In fact, it remains unclear if the bill, which was proposed just a couple weeks ago, even has sufficient Republican support to get through the U.S. House of Representatives.

Still, I was immediately curious how the proposed American Health Care Act (AHCA) would impact the Savannah economy. Fortunately, I didn’t have to try to run some complex numbers myself. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation (http://www.kff.org) has already released detailed estimates by state and county about some of the impacts of the AHCA, if it survives in its current form.

This might go without saying, but I am assuming for this column that the Savannah economy will likely fare better if as many residents as possible have health insurance. People with insurance will likely have better health outcomes, be more productive, and face less risk of financial ruin because of medical bills.

I am also assuming that higher tax credits will result in greater likelihood of folks being insured. Again, that might seem an obvious assumption.

We don’t know, however, whether the AHCA would lead to higher or lower insurance premiums, though the Congressional Budget Office projects that premiums would decline about 10 percent on average.

But it’s also worth noting that the bill in its current form would give private insurers the flexibility to charge older enrollees higher premiums than are currently allowed under the ACA. Right now, insurance companies can generally charge older Americans three times what they charge younger Americans, but the proposed ACA replacement bill would allow premiums to be five times higher for older Americans than for younger ones.

I also feel compelled to add that this column is not looking at the stories of individuals who might benefit from the AHCA or might be harmed by it. This wonky column is just looking at averages by county, age and income.

The Kaiser Family Foundation’s interactive map also considers only the premium tax credits under the two plans and does not include adjustments for the “cost-sharing assistance under the ACA that lowers deductibles and copayment for low-income marketplace enrollees.”

With those provisos out of the way, let’s look at some numbers.

In Savannah-Chatham

How would the Savananh area fare under the AHCA?

It looks like Chatham County would fare decently well, at least compared to more rural areas of the state.

Under the existing ACA, the average Chatham County 27-year-old ACA enrollee with a $20,000 annual income would get a tax credit of $1,850 in 2020. Under the proposed AHCA, she would get a tax credit of $2,000 — about 8 percent higher — in 2020.

However, a 60-year-old Chatham resident with $20,000 in income would get a $4,000 tax credit in 2020 under the AHCA, but she would get a $6,320 tax credit in 2020 under the current law.

On the other hand, a 60-year-old Chatham County resident with a $50,000 income would get a $2,180 tax credit in 2020 under the ACA. Under the AHCA, she would get a $4,000 tax credit in 2020. That’s a sizable increase, and it might even be enough to offset possible premium increases for older Americans.

Given these examples, one could plausibly argue that the AHCA would have limited impact on the number of Chatham County residents without health insurance.

Areas outside Chatham County

In less densely populated areas, however, it seems clear that the ranks of the uninsured would swell under the AHCA.

Less-populated areas typically have higher average insurance premiums than denser areas. The ACA compensates for this trend by giving higher tax credits in places with higher premiums, but the tax credits in the proposed AHCA would not vary by location.

So a 27-year-old ACA enrollee with a $20,000 income in Effingham County would get a $3,560 tax credit in 2020, but she would get $2,000 under the AHCA.

A 60-year-old Effingham resident with $20,000 income would get a $10,750 tax credit under the ACA in 2020, but would only get $4,000 under the AHCA.

If you look at the Kaiser Family Foundation’s interactive map, you’ll find steep decreases in tax credits across rural Georgia. In Colquitt County, for example, a 60-year-old with $30,000 income would get a $12,790 tax credit in 2020 under the ACA, but would only get that flat $4,000 tax credit in 2020 under the proposed AHCA.

Unexpected politics

The politics of the AHCA strike me as, well, bizarre. In more densely populated areas that Hillary Clinton won in November, the proposed ACA replacement bill might have limited economic impacts.

However, many counties that voted overwhelmingly for President Trump could be hit hard by the steep reduction in tax credits.

I’ve written occasionally over the years about the economic woes of rural Georgia. Atlanta, Savannah and a few other metro areas are adding population and jobs quickly, but many less populous counties have never really recovered from the 2007-2009 recession. Many of those areas are losing population.

In its current form, the AHCA would likely do even more damage to those struggling rural economies.

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: Savannah Stopover capitalizes on history, diversity, proximity

Mon, 03/13/2017 - 4:21pm

The seventh annual Savannah Stopover Music Festival took place last weekend with about 85 artists performing in venues in the northern portion of the Landmark Historic District.

There are certainly other cities with tightly clustered entertainment districts, but few if any cities would suit a festival like Stopover better than Savannah does.

The first piece I ever wrote for the Savannah Morning News was published along with other columns in a special section at the dawn of the new millennium. I focused on the confluence in Savannah of history, diversity and proximity.

These three qualities are especially noticeable if you look at Savannah’s churches and bars.

I live several blocks south of Forsyth Park within a short walk of four different churches named for St. Paul, including a Greek Orthodox congregation. The immediate neighborhood also has a Catholic church, a Baptist church and a mosque.

You’ll find similar religious diversity on the north side of Forsyth too, of course, and the city’s nightlife scene attracts a startling degree of diversity as well, in the space of a few short blocks.

A Tribe Called Red, an electronic music collective comprised of politically active members of indigenous communities, performed during Savannah Stopover at Club One, arguably the most important site for the region’s LGBTQ community for the last generation.

Lewis Del Mar, a fairly new band with a Latino lead singer, played a stellar Saturday headlining set in the North Garden of the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum, a property with 200 years of history.

Ruby Amanfu, a singer-songwriter originally from Ghana, killed it at the historic Trinity United Methodist Church on Telfair Square.

The festival’s other primary venues were historic properties that have become hotspots for nightlife, including The Jinx, Wild Wing Café, Congress Street Social Club and El-Rocko Lounge.

For the 2017 festival, Savannah Stopover also paired with local nonprofits and businesses to present shows in unexpected places, like the secret shows – the artist is announced just an hour before start time – by Wreckless Eric at Emmaus House and Pronoun in the garden of the Telfair Museums’ Owens-Thomas House.

Stopover also hosted a daytime benefit for the Rape Crisis Center at The Grey, featuring rising country star Kelsey Waldon. Christopher Paul Stelling and his band performed inside West Elm on Drayton Street.

I have written occasionally in this space about the importance of authenticity – a term often used by tourism experts. We can think about the word as a framework for connecting the past and the present, for creating a bridge between local and tourist experiences.

Savannah Stopover might be a young festival, but it certainly feels authentic in its increasingly rich relationship with the city’s history.

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: Proposed Savannah River Landing master plan raises hard questions

Sat, 03/11/2017 - 8:35pm

On March 14, the Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission will consider new plans and possibilities for the Savannah River Landing site at the east end of River Street.

According to reporting by Eric Curl last week, Savannah River Landing Land JV, LLC, plans to purchase the 56-acre property if the prospective buyers can get approval for a new master plan for residential, retail, hotel and office development.

It’s been about a decade since the original plans for Savannah River Landing collapsed, and the prospect of major private development on the site might seem exciting for a variety of reasons.

With development at Savannah River Landing, we can generate additional property tax revenue to fund infrastructure improvements in the area and boost government coffers generally. If the site is truly developed for mixed uses and doesn’t become a sea of hotels, SRL might bring some much-needed diversity to the downtown economy, which has become increasingly dependent on tourism.

Given the economic potential, it’s possible that some officials with the MPC and the city of Savannah will be anxious to approve any development at the long dormant site.

But this isn’t a sprint. We need to take the time to ask hard questions.

Savannah River Landing is one of the most important parcels of land in the city. It has extensive river frontage and is immediately adjacent to our gorgeous Landmark Historic District. The site was platted by Savannah founder General James Oglethorpe.

When development of the acreage was considered over a decade ago, urban planner Christian Sottile was hired to extend our existing network of streets and squares so that Savannah River Landing would be a logical and potentially beautiful extension of the Oglethorpe plan.

In preparation for major development, the riverwalk was extended, fill dirt from the Ellis Square project was used to raise the elevation and major work on nearby roads began.

The impending development of Savannah River Landing caught the attention of planners and architects from around the world.

“With a conventional master plan, which often foresees all of the buildings from Day 1,” Sottile told the New York Times in 2007, “you freeze in time the mix of uses. This is the opposite. It’s town-building. The streets come first, public spaces come first, and the blocks become spaces for building, which are not prescribed. It’s highly unusual for American cities.”

Sottile’s plan included design elements generally consistent with the existing Historic District fabric – the pacing of squares, the frequency of streets and the sizes of lots. We would have seen more commercial development near the west side of the site, with more residential development farther east.

The master plan that will be considered next week by the MPC utilizes much of Sottile’s planned street grid, but there would be fewer and smaller squares. The blocks would be configured for larger scale development.

The new master plan for the privately owned site probably makes more economic sense, at least in the short run, than the Sottile plan. The potential developers will likely see a higher return on investment if less space is devoted to the public realm and the parcels are more suitable for intense development.

Readers of this column know that I have long advocated for greater density in the downtown area, and significant residential development at Savannah River Landing could be great news for the economy of River Street and of the Historic District generally.

Still, local officials should scrutinize the proposed master plan, ask some hard questions and listen to voices from the community.

If our civic goal is rapid development over the relatively short term, the new plan might sail through the upcoming bureaucratic approval processes.

But maybe our civic goal is for Savannah River Landing to be a clear extension of the Oglethorpe’s incredibly resilient city plan. In that case, government officials and members of the public need to push the developers to align their vision more closely with the Sottile plan.

Again, I should emphasize that the site is privately owned, which obviously limits public control over Savannah River Landing’s future.

On the other hand, massive public resources have already been invested in and around the site. We are making decisions that will impact the city’s economy and culture for generations.

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via

billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

By: Bill DawersSection: BiS
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Other streets, problems merit attention, too

Mon, 03/06/2017 - 5:08pm

The three most recent City Talk columns have detailed the preliminary design proposals for the streetscapes of Broughton, Bay and River streets by the Florida-based landscape architecture firm EDSA.

You can view EDSA’s presentations at http://savannahga.gov/streetscape. The EDSA team will present the final conceptual designs from 6 to 8 p.m. on March 23 in the auditorium of the Coastal Georgia Center.

It will be an important meeting, for sure, but I don’t know how much public input will be considered at this point. City officials have secured funding with $8 million in bonds and seem determined to forge ahead with changes and improvements.

I’ve heard from a number of readers about the intense focus on those three streets. Some folks who live in other neighborhoods feel neglected, and some think that it’s silly to spend so much time and money on streetscape redesigns when the city has so many other pressing issues.

Many years ago, a local elected official talked to me rather candidly about his frustrations with his time in office. He explained that a functional government can and should deal with many issues simultaneously, not just a few.

Yes, we need intense focus on big issues like crime, but a vibrant city like Savannah also needs to be addressing myriad other needs, including quality-of-life issues like zoning and traffic calming.

But why the intense focus on three key corridors in the Historic District and not a similar focus elsewhere?

Broughton, Bay and River streets – arguably the three most important commercial streets in Savannah’s famed downtown – are plagued by problems that prevent them from reaching their potential. The changes being considered by EDSA could dramatically improve the experiences of both residents and visitors.

That said, I would agree that we need to be devoting more resources to corridor improvements, like the efforts in recent years to address problems on Victory Drive and improve the streetscape on Waters Avenue.

But the needs seem far greater than the available funding.

We could address some problems relatively inexpensively. For example, we could make some simple changes to streets like Drayton and Whitaker that would reduce the dangerously high vehicular speeds.

For relatively little time or money, we could also update the zoning code in ways that would spur private investment on some key corridors.

Ultimately, however, we need a clear vision of how we want to improve our streets, sidewalks and other elements of the public realm.

We need to listen to neighborhood residents, formulate action plans for implementing changes and identify possible funding sources, including grants and future SPLOST revenues.

Yes, some of this work is getting done now, but the needs are growing. As city manager Rob Hernandez settles in to his job, let’s hope that a clearer vision and a clearer process emerges.

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: Is River Street even a street anymore?

Sat, 03/04/2017 - 9:33pm

In several recent City Talk columns, I detailed the progress of the Savannah Downtown Streetscape Improvement Initiative, an $8 million project to enhance the design and safety of Broughton, Bay and River streets.

You can read more about the process at savannahga.gov/streetscape.

A week ago, I devoted an entire column to the preliminary work by the Florida-based landscape architecture firm EDSA for Broughton Street. In Tuesday’s column, I tried to give an overview of the plans for Bay Street.

Today, let’s take a quick look at the preliminary plans for River Street and to the public reaction to those plans at a recent meeting at the Coastal Georgia Center.

I was struck primarily by how much uncertainty remains about the concepts that EDSA designers will present for River Street on March 23.

A few things seem clear. EDSA will likely recommend building a replacement Rousakis Plaza stage that will be on the river side of the riverwalk. There will certainly be some additional enhancements to the riverwalk itself and to the sidewalks along the street.

But how bold will EDSA be with other suggestions? Will they recommend the shrinking or even removal of existing parking lots so that the pedestrian experience can be enhanced dramatically?

Will the consulting firm follow the suggestions of some members of the public who want to ban most vehicular traffic from River Street? If we had a handful of dropoff points on River Street and guaranteed access for emergency and service vehicles, could we largely eliminate cars?

Dramatically reducing vehicular traffic on River Street would probably be contingent on other issues that might be difficult to address in the next month. We need to solve the problem of parking in the northern portion of the Historic District, especially for low-wage service industry employees, and we will likely need more visitor parking than is currently planned for the east and west ends of River Street.

We will also need to have more reliable trolley service on River Street. In a related vein, we only have one operational ferry landing right now – the one down at the east end by the Marriott.

City officials and EDSA have already been considering removing some on-street parking from Bay Street, which will make access to River Street more difficult. Creating additional barriers to access will hurt River Street’s economy and will make it even less likely that local residents will enjoy the riverfront.

To put it simply, how much do we want River Street to function as an actual street? Or is it simply a place, a destination, a plaza that plays no important role in vehicular connectivity?

Zoning crisis update

On Thursday, Savannah City Council voted 7-2 to approve an alcohol license for The Stage on Bay. That was a reversal of the previous vote to deny the large music venue a license.

After the earlier denial, the owners of The Stage on Bay planned to force the city to defend its position in court. It’s hard to see how the city could have won.

After all, The Stage on Bay worked actively with city staffers to make sure they were in compliance with the zoning for the chosen West Bay Street site.

Yes, some city officials argue that an alcohol license is a “privilege” and not a “right” – that language appears in the city ordinance – but the zoning code is much clearer. In some zoning districts, alcohol licenses are allowed by right, and in some districts the licenses are “special uses.”

It would be sensible for almost any major venue, especially one that abuts residential properties and lacks sufficient on-site parking, to follow the procedure for special uses. If such a procedure had been in place for properties on West Bay Street, members of the community would have had a chance to object to the large new venue before the owners had invested significant sums of money.

As I’ve discussed before, the battle over The Stage on Bay’s alcohol license is symptomatic of a broader bureaucratic failure. We have outdated and convoluted zoning in much of the city, and the city’s leaders – elected and unelected – have let the issues worsen 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: Bay Street redesign has (too) many goals

Mon, 02/27/2017 - 4:50pm

Sunday’s City Talk looked at the preliminary design created by the landscape architecture firm EDSA for the streetscape on Broughton Street.

Today, let’s take a look at the Florida-based firm’s plans for Bay Street. The general proposals for Broughton, Bay and River streets were presented last week in a series of meetings with stakeholders and members of the public.

As I noted in Sunday’s column, the Broughton Street plans seemed to be met with broad approval, with the exception of the tree species chosen by city officials.

Interestingly, the web page for the streetscape initiative (http://www.savannahga.gov/streetscape) now has a link to a document that indicates the city is still planning to rely on Bosque Elms on Broughton Street, despite the fact that we’ve hired a major landscape architecture firm that would very likely choose other species.

The Bay Street presentation attracted fewer people than the Broughton Street presentation, but the audience peppered EDSA’s Kona Gray with questions about lane width, pedestrian crossings, bicycle access and, of course, tree species.

It seems likely that no one will be entirely happy with EDSA’s final designs for Bay Street, which will be presented on March 23. There are just too many demands on the street for it to serve all users well.

The preliminary designs leave the Bay Street vehicular lanes about as wide as they are now, but EDSA proposes widening both the north and south sidewalks.

On the north side, the curb would be extended to give more room for the existing live oaks. The planners also seem intent on making the sidewalk wide enough to accommodate bicycles, buts, as both a legal and a practical matter, I don’t know if that will work.

The widened sidewalk on the south side is a critical safety need for pedestrians and will create space for street trees. Two new traffic lights on East Bay would also increase pedestrian safety.

The proposal also includes a very narrow median on some blocks, although there would be significant stretches with no median.

To accommodate these changes, we’d lose half or more of the on-street parking on Bay Street. That’s problematic for a variety of reasons, including the fact that many of those spaces are used by low-wage service industry employees who can park for free after 5 p.m.

If we had fewer vehicular travel lanes, we’d have more flexibility in terms of design. I’ll note that some cities even have travel lanes that become parking lanes after a certain hour.

I’m curious to see how the EDSA team balances some of these demands on the street, but I’m pretty sure no one is going to be thrilled by the necessary compromises.

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
  • Bay Street coastal streetscape plans.
  • The Bay Street historic streetscape plans. (All plans courtesy of EDSA)
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Broughton streetscape debate centers on trees, lighting

Sat, 02/25/2017 - 8:45pm

On three evenings last week, planners from the Florida-based firm EDSA publicly unveiled their preliminary streetscape designs for Broughton, Bay and River streets.

About 80 community members, including many with expertise in architecture, landscape architecture and urban planning, showed up at the Coastal Georgia Center for the meeting about Broughton Street. The meetings to discuss Bay and River streets on the following nights didn’t attract quite as many people, but all three gatherings were notable for passionate citizen engagement.

Kona Gray of EDSA led the discussions, which began each night with reminders about the process and the general goals.

Given the complexity of the issues for each street, I can’t adequately cover all three meetings in a single column. So today I’ll just share some background and commentary about EDSA’s preliminary designs for Broughton Street.

I think most Savannahians would find a lot to like in the Broughton Street plans, which would improve the pedestrian experience, create opportunities for small businesses, and have no negative impact on vehicular traffic.

Under EDSA’s current design, the vehicular lane widths on Broughton Street would be slightly reduced, which would allow for a couple more feet of sidewalk width. That change would create more room for café seating or other amenities between the street trees.

New curb extensions at each intersection would enhance pedestrian mobility and reduce the distance required to cross the street. The semi-circular bumpouts, which Gray said would also serve as one way of controlling water runoff, present opportunities for beautification and would not require the removal of any parking spaces.

In all three sessions, Gray discussed various design details that EDSA would be considering, and he emphasized lighting should not only be consistent with Savannah’s history and architecture but also be “fun,” “festive” and “romantic.”

I have long advocated for fewer restrictions on lighting on Broughton Street – frankly, I’d love to go back to the gaudy neon of the mid-20th century – so I’m especially curious to see if the design firm makes bold recommendations.

The final design will likely include the extensive use of bricks at intersections and native hardscape materials to make the sidewalks more attractive. Gray talked about additional use of signs and markers and removal of some of the tired streetscape elements now in use.

Gray suggested that EDSA’s final plans for Broughton Street would treat the stretch from Drayton to Whitaker streets somewhat differently and make it easier to close those two blocks to vehicular traffic for special events.

As I’ve noted in columns over the years, we have traditionally made improvements to Broughton only as far east as Lincoln Street. EDSA’s study area extends to East Broad Street.

I’ve detailed some significant changes – all improvements in my opinion – but the bulk of last week’s meeting was devoted to the proposed trees.

Savannah city officials have for many years planted Bosque elms on Broughton Street. The shape of the elms provides decent shade in an urban corridor, and the trees are relatively tolerant to drought and heat.

But Bosque elms aren’t native to the area, aren’t especially notable for any reason, and fared poorly during the high winds of Hurricane Matthew.

At last week’s public meeting, there was not one defender of the choice of Bosque elms, and a series of articulate, knowledgeable and passionate local citizens criticized their use in the Broughton streetscape.

One attendee called the Bosque elms “trash trees.” Another referred to the years of public meetings, at which residents routinely criticize the use of elms, as “public participation theater.”

The city’s continued insistence on using so many Bosque elms seems puzzling in light of the resistance to the species. Other options exist, and, especially given EDSA’s plans for extra sidewalk width and for capturing rainwater, we might even be able to consider species that might have seemed impractical in the past.

There was also considerable disagreement about the potential use of native palmettos on Broughton. EDSA’s plan called for limited use on north-south streets of the so-called “palm trees” as a way to indicate the direction of the river, but some residents would like to see many more palms on Broughton itself.

Other residents clearly favor the liberal use of shade trees.

EDSA’s preliminary recommendations call for shade trees on Broughton, but such large trees will obscure some of the street’s final architectural details and reduce visibility of individual businesses. Also, it’s worth adding that the south side of the street has some degree of shade year-round because of the height of the buildings.

There was also disagreement among attendees about the uniformity from block to block. At least a few in attendance favored consistency for the entire length of Broughton, while others called for some variation, especially in trees, from block to block.

One attendee cogently argued against a “cookie cutter” approach that would risk losing the “genuine nature of Savannah scatteredness.”

Speaking for myself, I like the idea of consistency between, say, Drayton and Whitaker streets, but it strikes me as folly to rely for block after block on a single non-native deciduous species.

In upcoming columns, I’ll take a detailed look at the plans for Bay and River streets. You can read more about the streetscape project at http://savannahga.gov/streetscape.

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: Following Pokemon Go’s evolution

Mon, 02/20/2017 - 4:54pm

After the introduction of Pokemon Go in summer 2016, I wrote a column about the ways in which the augmented reality game might impact local residents’ and visitors’ interactions with Savannah’s built environment.

What have we learned in the last six months?

Not surprisingly, many players who downloaded Pokemon Go at its launch have quit the game. The breakneck pace of the early days was unsustainable.

But, with the release last week of “Generation 2” of the virtual monsters, there has been a fresh surge of interest. In just six months of 2016, the game reportedly earned $950 million for its creator Niantic Labs, and it seems like the game can vault back to the top of the revenue charts whenever new content appears.

In recent months, Niantic has announced several significant sponsorship deals, including with Starbucks. Most Starbucks locations across the U.S. now serve as either stops or gyms in the game.

Pokemon Go generally works best in walkable places with prominent public spaces and notable buildings, so Savannah’s older neighborhoods are perfect. The most active local Facebook group for Pokemon Go has grown to almost 2,000 members, and there are hundreds of players in smaller team groups.

I got hooked on the game last summer, so I can attest to a decline in players as the game stagnated in late 2016. Still, there is little doubt that this game and future ones like it have the ability to lure residents into spending much more time in the public realm – sitting in squares, wandering along the riverfront, exploring different neighborhoods.

I see tourists playing Pokemon Go nearly every time I walk through Forsyth Park or the Landmark Historic District. Some are catching creatures as they walk, and many pause to battle at the virtual gyms, especially along the Bull Street corridor or River Street.

In the local Facebook group, there are periodic questions from prospective tourists about the state of the game in Savannah. While in New Orleans for Christmas, I looked for information about the game and subsequently spent part of an afternoon exploring City Park.

In November, a special Pokemon Go event lured tourists from around the world to the area of Japan that had been ravaged by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Given the success of Pokemon Go, we will likely see many games and educational apps that influence the choices of tourists and subtly change the landscape of the city, but I don’t have a good guess about the ultimate magnitude of the changes.

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: Another day, another near miss on Drayton Street

Sat, 02/18/2017 - 7:52pm

One morning last week, Kevin Rose was headed downtown as usual to his office at Lominack Kolman Smith Architects.

Rose was driving in the left lane on Drayton Street when the car ahead of him in the right lane slowed just before the East Gwinnett Street intersection.

Many northbound cars turn onto Gwinnett Street, and that’s what Rose thought was happening.

And then the car came to a complete stop, which made Rose assume that a pedestrian was about to cross the street. He wouldn’t have hit the as yet unseen walker, but he feared that the car behind him would. Rose slammed on his brakes.

“I’ve seen this play out a million times where one car stops and the car in the other lane doesn’t,” Rose said of the incident. “Most pedestrians having seen the first car stop are lulled into a false sense of security.”

The pedestrian turned out to be an older woman using a walker. Rose’s car was rear-ended, but thankfully no one was injured.

Similar scenes happen routinely on Drayton and Whitaker streets.

“Without signalling devices indicating that pedestrians are present,” Rose said, “it is almost impossible to tell from lane two if someone is turning or stopping until it is too late.”

Let me share another story from that same stretch of Drayton Street.

A few months ago, I was about to walk across Drayton at Hall Street, just a block north of last week’s near-catastrophe.

About the same time, a mother and three children were also poised to cross.

There were cars several blocks south of us, and if I had been alone, I would have started crossing the street without thinking. I would have had plenty of time.

But sometimes being a pedestrian in this town comes with some extra responsibility. I knew that I could make it across easily, but I wasn’t so sure about the family next to me.

I waited on the curb, while the teen-age son from the family alongside me decided to go ahead. He correctly judged that the coast was clear but he incorrectly assumed that the situation was safe.

I stopped the two other children and mother from crossing.

The oncoming cars whizzed by us without a pause, and the teen, now standing on the sidewalk across the street, looked perplexed.

After the rest of us caught up to him, the teen remarked that he thought that drivers always stopped for pedestrians. I laughed that suggestion off without belaboring the rules of the road in Savannah.

None of this is a mystery. We know that average speeds on Drayton Street are way too high, and we know that pedestrians are routinely imperiled. I even wrote a recent column about witnessing two auto accidents in less than 24 hours on that same stretch of Drayton Street.

In 2016, downtown resident Matthew Hallett wrote a letter to the editor of this newspaper that touched on the exact situation that faced Kevin Rose last week.

“I have to admit that I often do not stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk near the Mansion on Forsyth Park,” Hallett wrote, “because I fear I will get rear-ended or worse they will get flattened when someone zips around to pass me.”

So we have a known trouble spot where a fatal accident seems almost inevitable, but we have a local culture that tends to blame pedestrians even when they clearly have established the right-of-way. And we have a city bureaucracy that ignores these dangers and is even proposing policies that will increase vehicle speeds on key corridors.

The month-long experimental removal of parking spaces on Bay Street predictably resulted in higher speeds, despite the fact that residents have been alarmed by fast traffic on Bay for many years. At an upcoming workshop about the Bay Street streetscape, the design firm EDSA is likely to make recommendations that will result in even higher speeds.

Some readers will respond to this column by saying that we simply need more enforcement. If drivers are going too fast, then we need more police officers writing more tickets, right?

Wrong. All the problems discussed in this column are the direct result of poor street design. Roads like Drayton and Whitaker are essentially expressways. The unduly wide lanes with no on-street parking encourage dangerously high speeds. For long stretches, there are no signalized crossings for pedestrians.

It’s long past time for city officials to address known dangers like these.

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: Poverty data shows need for bold action

Mon, 02/13/2017 - 4:34pm

Eric Curl’s article on Sunday about the persistence of high poverty rates in Savannah caught my attention, and I hope it caught your attention, too.

As Eric noted, Savannah had a 26.5 percent poverty rate in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. It’s been over a year since the last time City Talk looked closely at the numbers, so this seems like a good time to consider some of the data beyond the headline rate.

The 26.5 percent poverty rate in the city of Savannah is for individuals, and the rate varies dramatically by age.

For example, the poverty rate among Savannahians 65 and over is only 11.3 percent.

Yes, that still means that 1 in 10 seniors is living in poverty, but that’s dramatically lower than other age groups.

The rate is 24.3 percent for Savannahians between the ages of 18 and 64, although that number would be slightly lower if we removed some college students who technically fall below the poverty line.

For Savannahians under 18, the poverty rate is a staggering 41 percent, according to the American Community Survey estimates.

In 2015, 21.7 percent of Savannah households had less than $15,000 in income.

Despite these high numbers, only 17 percent of households received food stamp or SNAP benefits in the past year, and only 1.4 percent of households received cash public assistance.

I should also note that Savannah has a very high rate of uninsured residents.

Approximately 9 percent of Americans lack health insurance, but the rate is 20.6 percent in Savannah. Those estimates include children, the vast majority of whom have insurance of some kind.

Of the 57,500 employed persons in Savannah, 26.6 percent do not have health insurance.

The number of uninsured would certainly be lower if Georgia had accepted the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. A few months ago, it looked possible that Georgia’s Republican leaders might pursue some version of Medicaid expansion, but Donald Trump’s election has likely delayed any such discussions.

I admire the work of the various nonprofits and agencies discussed in Eric’s Sunday coverage, but it seems that we need much bolder initiatives if we want to make a dent in the current poverty rate.

Poverty became an important issue in the 2015 citywide elections, but city manager Rob Hernandez has only been on the job since October 2016. It will be interesting to see if city leaders launch additional proposals in the coming months.

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: Transportation tax vote could bring complicated decision

Sat, 02/11/2017 - 1:00pm

State lawmakers are considering major pieces of legislation that could have significant impacts for Savannah.

As regular readers of this newspaper know, legislators might vote to allow some sort of casino gambling in the state. In recent years, Savannah has been discussed as a possible casino location, so we need to follow the various proposals closely.

If a casino bill appears headed for Gov. Deal’s desk, I’ll devote one or more columns to the issue.

State lawmakers are also revisiting the issue of transportation funding. Under a freshly reinforced T-SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax for transportation), individual counties would be able to secure long-term funding for infrastructure projects.

A lot of things need to fall into place between here and there, but Chatham County voters could soon face another T-SPLOST vote.

In 2012, voters along the Georgia coast turned down a regional 1 percent T-SPLOST, which would have by law mandated the eventual completion of a specific, heavily vetted list of projects. The tax was supported in some areas, but Chatham voters rejected it by 57 to 43 percent.

Given the defeat of the previous referendum on a transportation sales tax, would a new T-SPLOST have any chance of passage?

The new proposed tax might have several things working in its favor.

For starters, the 2012 vote was held at a time when the local economy was still struggling to escape a deep recession. The so-called “Great Recession” officially ended in the summer of 2009, but many sectors and thousands of households faced years of difficult recovery.

Also, while it made sense for a new transportation sales tax to be applied regionally rather than just in individual counties, some voters were clearly uncomfortable with the bureaucratic reach of the 2012 referendum.

And many voters doubted that key projects would in fact be completed, despite language in the referendum that required completion as a matter of law.

On top of all that, many voters objected to specific items on the project list that they found counterproductive, unnecessary or too costly. Some voters dismissed the very idea of the removal of the I-16 ramp over Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, even though others of us see that as a project that will spur private investment and actually improve mobility in the Historic District.

After the failure of the regional T-SPLOST referenda in most areas of the state, Georgia leaders in 2015 raised gas taxes and hotel taxes to fund transportation, but it seemed clear at the time that the additional funds would not meet the growing needs throughout the state.

Will local voters view T-SPLOST differently than they did in 2012? Has anything happened in the past five years that would change the outcome at the polls?

We’ve heard intensified calls over the past few years for major improvements to U.S. Highway 80 on the way to Tybee. During the debate five years ago, I argued in this column that an expensive project like that, no matter how much it were needed for safety, might get delayed indefinitely if voters aren’t willing to foot the bill.

I’d make the same argument today, but will voters see the issue the same way?

It’s also worth noting that the local economy is stronger in 2017 than in 2012, which might make some voters more likely to vote yes on a sales tax increase.

But will there be a specific project list, so voters know exactly what will be done with their money?

Will we be able to use the tax revenue for transit operations and not just transit infrastructure?

Will there be funding for bicycling infrastructure, which costs extremely little compared to other types of transportation infrastructure?

If the new T-SPLOST is less than 1 percent, will officials find the right balance between revenue and proposed projects? The omission of too many desired projects could doom the future referendum, even if some voters are more likely to vote for, say, a 0.5 percent sales tax than a 1 percent sales tax.

I was a lonely public voice supporting the 2012 T-SPLOST, but that’s no guarantee I will back a future referendum. There are just too many unanswered questions at this point.

On the other hand, we have critical needs, like improvements to the road to Tybee. We might once again have to choose between a problematic funding mechanism and no funding mechanism at all.

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: Savannah’s zoning crisis is here. Now.

Mon, 02/06/2017 - 4:22pm

The wonderful and dark 2016 film “Christine,” which was filmed in Savannah, tells the story of Christine Chubbuck, a troubled journalist who worked in Florida in the 1970s.

Chubbuck thinks that she needs splashy stories to advance in the TV news business, and she also wants to tell serious stories about issues that matter to the community. That combination of ambition and seriousness is obvious at the outset of the film when she is covering a “zoning crisis.”

Can a community have a “zoning crisis”? Yes, as it turns out, and Savannah has one right now.

I first started writing seriously about zoning about 15 years ago, when we were working on a difficult but ultimately successful rezoning of my Thomas Square neighborhood.

By that same time, activists in tightknit Hudson Hill were calling on city officials to rezone their neighborhood, but nothing happened. Over a decade ago, the capable planners at the Metropolitan Planning Commission began working on a much-needed overhaul of the zoning code – another subject covered exhaustively in this column – but that process was delayed for years by political inaction.

Enter The Stage on Bay, a 1,000-capacity venue that has the potential to have profoundly positive impacts on the Savannah music scene.

According to the venue’s website, there are about 60 on-site parking spaces. For bigger shows, attendees can also park in two nearby lots with a total of 200 spaces. Parking will cost $10 to $20 for headline acts.

I’ve seen a lot of social media posts bashing the neighborhood for objecting to the new venue, but there isn’t a neighborhood in town that would embrace a 1,000-capacity venue that has only 260 parking spaces and will be open late every weekend.

It turns out, however, that The Stage on Bay met the existing zoning requirements, so neighborhood residents had no formal way to make their objections known until the venue applied for their liquor license.

And that’s another problematic element of our zoning process. Entrepreneurs can work with city staff and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a location where alcohol is clearly allowed only to be thwarted when they are poised to open?

By contrast, in my neighborhood with a functional zoning process, an aspiring restaurateur received approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals for an alcohol license before beginning construction. With the support of neighbors and the ZBA already on record, city approval will be a formality.

If alcohol is a key part of the business model, we have to let businesspeople know far in advance if their license applications will be approved.

There are no winners here, except the attorneys who will profit from the litigation.

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: Expect fewer locals at St. Patrick’s day festival after wristband fee increase

Sat, 02/04/2017 - 9:22pm

In many respects, St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah shows the city at its best.

In the coming weeks, we’ll see a host of traditional events — formal ceremonies, family gatherings, celebrations of heritage. Some events will be solemn and religious, some will be raucous and secular, and many will fall somewhere in between.

But St. Patrick’s Day brings controversy too, especially regarding the defined festival period in the days before and after the holiday itself.

Many readers of this column weren’t out partying in Savannah in the 1990s. Many of you were too young to drink back then, and many of you didn’t even live here.

So if you fall into one of those categories, you’ll have to take my word that the crowds were much bigger and the partying much crazier back in the 1990s.

Actually, you don’t have to take my word for it.

Consider a little of the history. In 1999, largely because of concerns about crowd management, city officials controlled access to River Street and required the purchase of $5 wristbands for anyone who wanted to drink alcohol outside.

For the record, I began writing this column in 2000 and have been consistently critical of bureaucratic efforts to restrict access to public spaces and impose fees for activities that are legal and free throughout the rest of the year. Still, when I remember the crowds on River Street back in the 1990s, I can understand why officials wanted to have better control.

According to a 2013 article by Lesley Conn in this newspaper, there were 84,800 wristband sales during the 2001 St. Patrick’s Day festival period. The festival period was just two days that year — Friday and Saturday. So that number doesn’t include the large Thursday night crowds, and it doesn’t include the revelers in the City Market area or anywhere else downtown.

Officials eventually nixed the River Street wristbands for a variety of reasons, but for the past few years a coalition of business groups and public officials have mandated the purchase of wristbands by anyone who wants to consume alcohol in a much larger festival zone.

According to an article last week by Eric Curl, wristband sales were between 70,000 and 80,000 in each of the last three years. Two of those years were four-day festivals, and one was a three-day festival.

So how did we go from 84,000 wristband sales in two days on River Street to less than 80,000 sales in three or four days across a dramatically larger area?

It seems like that there are a variety of factors that contributed to the decline in festival attendance.

Almost certainly, the decline was in part due to the restrictions imposed beginning with the River Street wristbands and gates in 1999.

Before I continue, it’s worth noting that some local folks are glad to see smaller crowds and fewer public safety concerns during the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. If we want to shrink the festival even more, we can create additional bureaucratic barriers, like this year’s doubling of the wristband price from $5 per day to $10 per day.

Who’s willing to pay $10 per day to do something that’s free every other day of the year? Many visitors, especially those for whom drinking in public is a novelty, won’t think twice about the $10 fee. Also, those who are desperate to get blindingly drunk probably won’t balk at the higher price.

But the increased wristband cost is another barrier for average local residents — the people who want to enjoy a little of the party, who want to have a couple drinks, who want to get in and out of town safely.

Yes, I have heard the endless argument that there’s no other way to pay for cleanup, police, entertainment and the like. That’s a weak argument. Other cities have far larger and more costly public festivals that don’t require individual attendees to buy wristbands at streetcorner stands.

And it’s worth adding that the wristband sales aren’t simply covering costs, but also generating additional revenue for other events throughout the year.

The proposed increase to $10 per day per wristband fits into a broader pattern.

As the downtown economy and business landscape have increasingly catered to tourists, many area residents don’t feel like they are welcome or even wanted in the downtown area.

The increased wristband fee comes on top other policy proposals — removal of on-street parking, price increases for on-street parking, a proposed fee added to sales-tax eligible transactions — that would further discourage local residents from coming downtown.

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
  • Crowd dances to the live music on Rousakis Plaza on River Street. 1999 / bob morris photo.
  • Photo Adam Traum/The Savannah News Press An east view of River Street in Savannah Saturday. Thousands gathered to take part in one on the holiday’s largest parties. 1999
  • Brian LaPeter/Savannah Morning News Michael Anderson’s job early Thursday morning was sanitizing the sidewalks on River Street after a crew used blowers to push the debris into the street. City workers began the post St. Patrick’s Day celebration cleanup before 4 a.m. 1999
  • Sign on one of the Waterfront Association’s beer sales booths on River St. Bob Morris photo. 1999
  • Brian LaPeter/Savannah Morning News Stacey Weltzin, of Oregon, watches as a friend gets her wristband allowing alcohol consumption.1999
  • Brian LaPeter/Savannah Morning News Gates went up on River Street Friday afternoon, though wristbands for alcohol consumption were not immediately available. 1999
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: New charter school, Savannah Philharmonic enliven Bull Street

Mon, 01/30/2017 - 6:49pm
The Bull Street corridor south of Forsyth Park is usually quiet on Sunday afternoons.   But not last Sunday.   The Savannah Philharmonic hosted “Philharmonic in the Streetz” at Tricks Barbecue at the corner of Bull and 42nd streets. There was such a good crowd that I forgot to do my usual event headcount.   Some of the Philharmonic’s brass musicians performed, as did Laiken Love and The Fellowship of Love and an ensemble led by Ricardo Ochoa. Magic Marc Dunston emceed and did some nifty tricks, and Leopold’s Ice Cream showed up with free treats.   And, of course, there was the wonderful BBQ from Tricks. The $10 rib dinner is enough food for two, but there was no way I was sharing.   There was also some uncharacteristic Sunday afternoon activity in the gym of the historic school building at the corner of Bull and 34th streets.   The event was an open house for the Susie King Taylor Community School, a K-8 charter school planning to open in fall 2017.   The new school is expecting final state approval in February and is negotiating to lease the site of the open house – the historic school next to Sacred Heart Catholic Church. The building was home to the original Benedictine College, which left the neighborhood more than 50 years ago, and was most recently occupied by Notre Dame Academy, which closed in 2015.   Susie King Taylor is an iconic figure in the history of the Georgia coast. At the age of 13, before the Civil War was even over, she was teaching newly freed black students in a school on St. Simons Island, which was under the control of Union forces.   In 2016, it looked likely that the building would be sold, possibly for a condominium development, but that prospect didn’t sit well with members of Sacred Heart Catholic Church who want the site to remain active as a school.   I’ve written approximately one million columns calling for greater residential density in the downtown area, and I live just a couple blocks away from the planned site for the Susie King Taylor Community School. Condos would have been preferable to many other uses, but if the building had been converted to residential, it would probably never be a school again.   Sunday’s open house featured general information about the new school plus a chance for visitors to interact with some of the school’s community partners, including Oatland Island Wildlife Center, storyteller J’miah Nabawi, Farm to School, Historic Savannah Foundation, Davenport House and blacksmith Gilbert Walker.   Susie King Taylor Community School is now accepting applications for grades K through 4. For more information, check out the website at https://www.sktcs.org.       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: Existing processes pit developers, residents against each other

Sat, 01/28/2017 - 9:40pm

In recent months, we’ve seen several high-profile examples of residents trying to limit commercial development in their neighborhoods.

Neighborhood residents have opposed attempts by hoteliers to reduce restrictions for specific projects on Liberty and Drayton streets. Parkside residents have been increasingly vocal about proposed developments along East Victory Drive.

In recent weeks, residents of Hudson Hill and other West Savannah neighborhoods have spoken out against a 1,000-capacity music venue, The Stage on Bay, which is poised to open next week.

The details are obviously different in all these cases, and I am not equating them.

But these three examples reflect the ongoing tension between private property rights, zoning restrictions and residential quality of life.

I wish I had a nickel — or maybe $10? – for every time I’ve heard someone say that owners should be able to do whatever they want with their privately owned property, but that argument breaks down fast when neighbors are suddenly confronted with new uses that clearly reduce their quality of life.

Savannah seems to have more than its fair share of public debates that involve this fundamental tension between commercial developers and neighborhood residents.

I think the neighbors have some valid concerns in all three of the issues that I cited at the beginning of this column, but we also have a history of indulging spurious complaints from residents who don’t understand the issues at hand or have radically different definitions of “quality of life” than their neighbors do.

A number of readers objected to a recent column in which I suggested that the planned West Elm Hotel on Drayton Street might be a better building if it were allowed a fifth floor. The disagreements, the bureaucratic delays and the lawsuit threats could likely have been avoided if we simply had a clearer zoning code.

In his excellent talk a few months back in the Savannah Urbanism Series, longtime Charleston mayor Joe Riley emphasized that cities can “curate” the experiences of their visitors. Regarding future hotel construction, we can update our ordinances so that neighborhoods are more protected and developers have a clearer idea what to expect.

Perhaps we should get rid of the whole policy of allowing so-called bonus floors for hotels that incorporate street-level retail and restaurant uses. We could simply set a fixed height and also require engagement at the street level.

We could also limit the size of future hotels in certain parts of the city. Maybe hotels south of Liberty Street should have a strict limit set on the number of rooms or on the building footprint.

Yes, such restrictions would impact property rights and potentially reduce commercial investment, but more restrictive policies could be paired with less restrictive policies for other types of projects.

In particular, we could offer those bonus floors for residential development, and we could reduce other restrictions so that new construction would still be profitable.

Of course, some readers might not want any of those things. Some of you might oppose any development that might result in more traffic or noise – that might have any negative impacts at all.

Urban theorist Jane Jacobs used the word “squelchers” to describe the people and the bureaucratic systems that stifle all innovation. If cities are going to thrive, we have to accept and maybe even embrace some of the changes.

At some point, we are going to see additional commercial development in areas that right now are underutilized, including portions of Victory Drive, West Bay Street and Montgomery Street. It looks like that seemingly inevitable surge in investment is coming sooner rather than later.

While the development pressures are mounting, our local bureaucracies have been spinning their wheels with arcane regulations that don’t align with current development trends and also don’t align with neighborhood needs.

In the coming months, City Manager Rob Hernandez will likely propose some new guidelines for hotel development. The long-planned overhaul of the zoning codes for Savannah and Chatham County might finally be moving ahead.

Those changes to public policy seem necessary but by no means sufficient to address the issues ahead.

I devoted a recent column to the need for more focus on the needs of individual neighborhoods. Those needs won’t be addressed simply by changing the zoning code or creating an overlay map for hotel development.

Just as we need more predictable processes from the top down, we need more avenues for grassroots neighborhood efforts to be manifested in policy.

If we don’t find better ways to handle these current tensions between commercial investors and neighborhood residents, we are going to see an endless series of conflicts.

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: Recent streetscape meeting presents problematic options

Mon, 01/23/2017 - 10:22pm
Last week, more than 100 engaged citizens attended the second in a series of meetings to discuss streetscape upgrades for Broughton, Bay and River streets.   The design firm EDSA is spearheading the Savannah Downtown Streetscape Improvement Initiative, which is being funded by $8 million in city bonds.   I was fairly enthusiastic about the direction of the process after the first meeting in late 2016, but last week’s session at the Coastal Georgia Center presented a number of problems.   Of course, nothing has been finalized, and I’d encourage anyone interested in the vitality of downtown to attend the upcoming meetings that will look more closely at each of the three corridors. Those meetings are scheduled for Feb. 20-22.   Stakeholders should also take a look at last week’s presentation at savannahga.gov/streetscape and then respond to the online survey.   EDSA’s Kona Gray led the presentation of two thematic approaches — “historic” and “coastal.”   The design choices for Broughton Street struck me as excellent. We will eventually have better tree cover and more cohesive design elements, and EDSA is recommending either intersection nodes or mid-block pedestrian gathering areas.   I prefer the design includes curb extensions and landscaping at intersections for a variety of reasons, but that design wouldn’t preclude the creation of mid-block pedestrian gathering areas.   EDSA’s preliminary concepts for Bay and River streets are much more problematic than their options for Broughton Street.   Stakeholders are clearly concerned about high vehicular speeds on Bay Street, but neither of the design options would reduce speeds – and one option would likely increase speeds.   Both options would protect existing trees and allow for new ones, but both would result in considerable loss of on-street parking that is critical for downtown retail stores and restaurants.   No bike lanes are being recommended for Bay or Broughton streets.   Curiously, the suggested options for River Street do include a bike lane, but I don’t see how that will work.   As someone who rides my bike routinely, I am unconvinced a useful bike lane can be added to River Street. There are simply too many pedestrians at busy times, and too many of them will end up walking in and across the bike lane.   Also, the proposed bike lane will have to negotiate the de facto barriers created by the Hyatt and by the cramped public spaces in the area of Joe’s Crab Shack.   My main concern as a cyclist is simply getting to River Street, not riding along River Street.   Under both design options, some of the historic cobblestones on the street itself would be covered.   The streetscape initiative is moving quickly, and funding has been identified. So interested parties need to get involved and be prepared for the February meetings.   ^   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: Savannah’s economy today vs. 2008

Sat, 01/21/2017 - 8:25pm

How has the Savannah economy changed during the Obama presidency?

Before I give some wonky answers to that question, I should note that U.S. presidents are frequently given too much credit and too much blame for economic shifts that happen on their watch.

Presidents sometimes inherit economies with clear positive momentum, so they might end up in the luxurious position of overseeing growth that they did little or nothing to effect.

Sometimes, as in Obama’s case, presidents can come into office when the economy is in rough shape. When Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, the U.S. economy was still reeling in the wake of the housing bust and the financial crisis.

For what it’s worth, I think the Obama administration did a lot of things right in trying to jumpstart the economy, but there were miscalculations, too.

At the end of the day, however, dramatically different policies might have had only limited impacts on the long slog back to a new normal after the deepest recession since the Great Depression.

Even if presidents have only limited influence over the economy, the turnovers between administrations have become important historical benchmarks.

So let’s look at some numbers from December 2016 and from December 2008.

According to data from the Georgia Department of Labor, the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) had 157,000 nonfarm payroll jobs in December 2008.

In December 2016, we had 182,500 jobs – an increase of 16.2 percent in eight years.

That works out to annual job growth of 1.8 percent, which is markedly faster than the rate of population growth.

Of course, that yearly average includes some weak years for employment. The nation’s economy exited the recession in summer of 2009, but recoveries from financial crises are notoriously slow. Predictably, the economy has gained steam over the last few years, and we saw a strong 3.9 percent job growth between December 2015 and December 2016, according to data released last week.

Despite the strong growth in recent years, the Savannah economy looks markedly different today than it did when Obama’s first term began.

In December 2008, we had 8,300 payroll jobs in the sector that includes construction employment, but that sector had only 6,100 jobs in December 2016.

Some of that decline might be due to changes in the construction industry, but the numbers also reflect the extremity of real estate speculation before the housing collapse. The Savannah area is still dotted with uncompleted residential developments that were started before the bust.

Employment in financial activities has also stagnated over the last eight years, but that’s no surprise given the irrational exuberance before the financial crisis.

Construction employment might still be lagging, but manufacturing employment in the Savannah metro area has increased from 14,900 jobs in December 2008 to 18,200 last month. Of course, we’ve also seen a jump in jobs in leisure and hospitality — from 19,900 in December 2008 to 27,300 in December 2016. That is certainly rapid growth, but several other sectors have also posted strong gains. Employment in the broad category of education and health services increased from 22,000 in December 2008 to 26,300 in December 2016.

Employment in professional and business services increased from 17,000 in December 2008 to 22,700 in 2016. The Savannah metro area has also seen significant growth in employment in retail trade and in transportation, warehousing and utilities. Government employment was 24,100 in December 2008. That increased to 25,500 in December 2016. Given the robust population growth, that’s a remarkable statistic.

In theory, we should see the number of teachers, sanitation workers, public safety officers and other government jobs increase at the same rate as population growth.

In prior recessions, government employment wasn’t significantly impacted, and public sector job growth typically continued throughout economic recoveries.

As I said in Tuesday’s column, the Savannah economy has been a winner during the current economic expansion, but you don’t have to go far to find Georgia counties that are still struggling with employment stagnation and population loss.

Given the generally robust metro area economy, one wonders if we need a large stimulus package like the one proposed by President Trump, but many areas of Georgia could potentially benefit from aggressive public sector spending.

I don’t have space to discuss other changes to the local economy during the Obama presidency, so I might loop back around to this in a future column.

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

By: Bill DawersSection: BiS
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Looking back at our 2009 economy

Mon, 01/16/2017 - 8:08pm

This is the last City Talk column of the Obama years. Can you even remember 2009?

The national economy was in freefall by the time of the 2008 general election, but many Americans couldn’t imagine how much damage the financial crisis and housing bust would do.

The overconfidence was especially prevalent here in the Savannah area, which had been riding high on the housing bubble.

Of course, by the end of 2008, anyone who took a frank, honest look at the data could see that real estate collapse would have ramifications for years.

We didn’t have all the numbers at the time, but the U.S. economy fell into recession at the end of 2007. Throughout 2008, the inventory of properties for sale was climbing perilously, home prices were falling and lenders were under stress.

Despite the clarity of the data, some major players in Savannah continued to tout the resilience of our diversified economy, but the collapse would predictably hurt some of our major sectors, including tourism, private jet sales, real estate speculation, international trade and public sector spending.

By the time of the 2009 inauguration, it was clear that we were looking at a recovery that would take years, but I found that many Savannahians were still overconfident. Or just confused.

Some Obama voters thought a new president would immediately begin a new era. Some entrepreneurs hadn’t yet seen significant declines in their own businesses and thought that Obama’s inauguration brought on the crisis.

Heck, deep into 2009, city officials and many private investors still had confidence that the Savannah River Landing development was poised to move ahead.

The simple reality is that economic trends rarely reverse themselves suddenly. In particular, real estate prices tend to be “sticky” and don’t respond immediately to economic shifts.

Employment is also a lagging indicator of economic conditions. By the time Obama took office, it was inevitable that we would see job losses through much of 2009. Given the depths of those job losses, it was inevitable that it would take several years to get all those jobs back.

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that there were winners and losers in the recovery. Savannah was a winner, and so was Atlanta. In general, metro areas with growing populations have strong economies today, but many small towns and rural counties have never really recovered.

Did we learn any lessons from all those experiences? Did we learn the right lessons?

In my upcoming Sunday column, I’ll take a quick look at some of the structural changes in the Savannah economy since 2009.

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