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Updated: 47 min 54 sec ago

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
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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
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CITY TALK: Jane Jacobs and the search for connectivity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Connectivity: key for unlocking new arena’s potential

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned.

 

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

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

CITY TALK: Bay Street plan make make things worse

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

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

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

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

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

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

How will that impact the pedestrian experience?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

CITY TALK: Have we recovered from the housing bust?

Sat, 05/07/2016 - 7:27pm
Remember the housing boom and subsequent bust?   That’s a rhetorical question. Of course you remember it. But are you still living with the effects of the bursting of the housing bubble?   That’s a more complex question, and the answer largely depends on where you live and when you purchased your home.     Those of you who have bought houses in the last several years might also be feeling the lingering impacts of the housing crisis, even if you don’t realize it. If you bought in a neighborhood that has not fully recovered, you might have enjoyed a low purchase price, but you might be facing a long period of home value stagnation.   The Washington Post recently published an interesting piece of data journalism — “America’s great housing divide: Are you a winner or loser?” — that allows readers to look at average home values by zip code for 2004 and 2015.   Around 2004, according to the article, “values escalated rapidly in the bubble, fueled by financial speculation, subprime lending and an abiding faith in homeownership as a sure-fire source of wealth.”   That “abiding faith” turned into outright hubris here in Savannah. We lagged the national trends, but the accumulating data made it glaringly obvious that home prices were going to collapse here as they were in other cities. Still, some investors and lenders continued to speculate into 2008.   So what has the recovery looked like for zip codes in Chatham County?   As I go through some numbers, you should obviously keep in mind that average home values might not reflect trends for different price points and that individual zip codes can cover many different neighborhoods.   In the 31401 zip code that includes downtown Savannah, the average home value increased from about $211,000 in 2004 to about $287,000 in 2015. That 36 percent jump might sound good, but it’s only slightly better than the inflation rate.   And the 36 percent increase in the 31401 zip code is better than every other zip code in the county for the 2004 to 2015 period.   For example, the 31415 zip code, which includes West Savannah, has only seen a 12 percent increase in home values. The average home value in 2015 was $113,277.   In a follow up to their original story, the Post explored the weak recovery in home values in predominantly black neighborhoods in the Atlanta metro area. In Savannah, we’ve seen weak recoveries in some areas that are mostly black and some that are mostly white, so the racial questions are especially difficult.   The 31408 zip code, which includes much of Garden City, has seen a 20 percent increase in home values between 2004 and 2015. The adjacent 31407 zip code has seen just a 6 percent increase.   Home values in the 31322 zip code, which includes Pooler, have also underperformed the inflation rate, with an increase of 11 percent. The 31302 zip code, which includes Bloomingdale, has experienced a 14 percent increase in values.   And the 31419 zip code, which includes some of Savannah’s Southside, has only seen an 8 percent increase in home values between 2004 and 2015.   Several zip codes have done moderately better. The 31405 zip code, which includes Ardsley Park and neighborhoods to the south and west, has seen a 27 percent increase. If we were able to break the numbers down further, we’d likely see wide variation within that zip code.   The recovery has been solid for most of the east side and the islands. Home values are up 30 percent in the 31404 zip code, 28 percent in the 31406 zip code, 23 percent in the 31410 zip code and 21 percent in the 31411 zip code.   Tybee Island saw a big jump in home values early in the 20th century, but in 2015 the average home value of $397,153 was just 8 percent higher than in 2008.   In sum, it seems that Savannah area home values have recovered pretty well compared to many other parts of Georgia and compared to other areas along the southeast coast.   But where do we go from here?   Will the downtown area and the islands continue to outpace the rest of the metro area? Will we eventually see a sharper increase in values in West Savannah and other largely black neighborhoods? What will happen to values in West Chatham as development accelerates?   Stay tuned.   City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401. By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiS
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CITY TALK: Plant Riverside redevelopment still an exciting prospect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These improvements will eventually necessitate other investments in public spaces.

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

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

 

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

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

Sat, 04/30/2016 - 11:23pm
For the most part, when I write about employment data here at City Talk, I’m detailing the estimates for payroll employment from the ongoing survey of establishments.    However, the unemployment rate and other characteristics of the labor force are determined by the household survey, not the establishment survey. The household estimates can be noisy from month to month, and sometimes they are out of step with the payroll estimates. Eventually, though, the two surveys align.   I wrote recently about the strength of the latest payroll estimates, and last week the Georgia Department of Labor released similarly upbeat data regarding the March unemployment rate for the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties).    The metro area unemployment rate in March fell to 5.1 percent from 5.6 percent in March 2015, but that’s not the most impressive data point.   In March 2015, there were about 175,000 people in the Savannah area civilian labor force, but that number leaped to more than 180,000 in March 2016.    Sure, the area population is growing, but that growth is probably close to 1 percent per year. The year-over-year increase in the size of the labor force was just over 3 percent. Looked at another way, in the past year about 3,000 more people have joined the labor force than would have been suggested by population growth alone.   At the same time, the ranks of the unemployed fell significantly.    Some of us data wonks had been expecting — or at least hoping — that the labor force participation rate would increase as the local labor market improved, and the current data suggest that is happening.   Of course, all this just brings us to one of the great Savannah paradoxes. Even at a time of booming job growth and increased employment opportunities, many residents are locked in cycles of inter-generational poverty.   The low prevailing wages in certain industries are certainly a factor here, but much of the employment boom has been in sectors that pay quite well. Too many Savannahians simply seem stuck on the sidelines, unable to take part in our robust jobs recovery.   Poverty was a big issue in last fall’s Savannah elections, and it seems like poverty reduction will continue to be an important issue for the current city administration. During the campaign, I wrote a detailed column about the local poverty rate, and I’ll be following those numbers closely for the next few years to see if we are making significant headway.      Checking out the ‘kitchen swap’ at The Grey Last Wednesday evening, a friend and I reserved two spots at the bar in the dining room of The Grey, but, for a change, we weren’t there to eat Chef Mashama Bailey’s food.    The menu for the night was conceived by Ned Baldwin, the chef at Houseman in Hudson Square in New York City.    This was the second half of an unusual and inspiring “kitchen swap.” A week earlier, Bailey had taken over Baldwin’s kitchen at Houseman for one night.   The swap attracted excellent coverage in the New York Times.    In “Two Rising Chefs Enjoy a Busy Reunion at Houseman,” Jeff Gordinier, who has previously covered The Grey for the NYT, noted that Bailey and Baldwin “worked shoulder-to-shoulder in the chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s intimate and influential restaurant, Prune, in the East Village, where the work space feels roughly the size of a ticket booth.”   “Both chefs have achieved independent success in their 40s,” Gordinier wrote, “and their culinary approach reflects a mature, no-frills philosophy that they couldn’t help but internalize during their time at Prune.”   Houseman’s menu was being served at a fixed price of $80, which felt like a bargain when we realized that we could order as many dishes as we wanted. So the two of us ended up with three starters, two middles, two vegetables, two mains and two desserts. (Including wine, but before tip, we each paid about $110.)   The boldness and inventiveness of Houseman’s dishes seemed a natural fit for The Grey. I was especially impressed by the radishes with goat cheese and bottarga (a kind of caviar), the lamb sausage, the roasted leeks with currants and pistachios, the signature Houseman burger and the peanut tart, which seemed a perfect wedding of peanut brittle and pie.   I’d love to see some other Savannah chefs work out a similar initiative with former colleagues in other cities.    I’m sure that arranging this recent swap between Houseman and The Grey took some serious time, but the good press and the customers’ raves will continue to pay dividends for both establishments.   And the collaboration was yet another boost for Savannah’s booming restaurant scene.    City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401. By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiSLead photo: Topic: City Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or maybe you actually remember its previous uses.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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New apartments bring essential downtown density

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiS
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CITY TALK: Finding the right balance in a vacation rental ordinance

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

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

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

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

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

So, win-win, right?

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

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

Flash forward to 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandfly BBQ mentioned in Food & Wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

By: Bill DawersSection: BiS
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Recent events highlight Savannah's public spaces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

CITY TALK: Great early press for 2016 music festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change? Do we want that?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiS
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CITY TALK: Savannah's employment boom continues

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

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

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

The Savannah area labor market is booming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Citizens must look proactively at negative effects of development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Misinformation about new parking proposal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CITY TALK: Are new crime-fighting initiatives working?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The data suggest it’s too soon to tell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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