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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.By: Bill DawersByline2: City TalkSection: BiSTopic: City Talk
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 email@example.com. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.
By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk firstname.lastname@example.orgSection: BiS
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.
City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via email@example.com. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk firstname.lastname@example.orgSection: BiSLead photo: Topic: City Talk
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 email@example.com. 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)
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.By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk firstname.lastname@example.orgSection: BiSLead photo: Topic: City Talk
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.
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.
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 email@example.com. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.
By: Bill DawersSection: BiS
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.
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.”
- Photo by Visit Savannah.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk email@example.comSection: BiSLead photo: Topic: City Talk
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.
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.