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

City Talk

Subscribe to City Talk feed
City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday - Email me. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.
Updated: 49 min 26 sec ago

CITY TALK: Buckle up — summer’s here

Sat, 06/03/2017 - 9:22pm

Summer doesn’t officially begin for a few weeks, but Savannah’s summer break has begun.

A decade or so ago, the ending of the Savannah College of Art and Design’s spring quarter was like the flipping of a light switch for the downtown area. Everything would be busy one week, and then the city would be much quieter the next.

We don’t see the same sort of dramatic summer slowdown these days. The SCAD student renters are dispersed over a broader area, so their exodus isn’t as noticeable as it once was. Tourism activity would also slow as the summer heat took hold, but we now have more tourists year-round.

Back in the day, everything in the downtown area — including business openings, land development and governmental actions — happened more slowly with the advent of June. Now, not so much. With so much going on, here are some trends worth watching over the summer.

^

New investment, business openings south of Forsyth

If you follow the business trends in Savannah, you already know that we are seeing a surge of investment south of park.

The law firm Bouhan Falligant recently moved to its new digs on Park Avenue — more on that soon — and several businesses are poised to open in the coming months in the Bull Street corridor between Forsyth Park and Victory Drive.

We are also seeing heightened interest from developers and investors in the Barnard and Montgomery street corridors north of Victory Drive.

As I have argued routinely over the years, the large underutilized properties and convenient location make the neighborhood ripe for development.

An important summer for tourism management

^

We might get some big news this summer about the future of tourism in Savannah.

We are likely to see new zoning guidelines for the development of large hotels in the downtown area and we should see new rules for future short-term vacation rentals, or STVR.

The new policies could ultimately address three key areas of concern: the degradation of the residential character of downtown neighborhoods, the privileged position given to hotels in our existing development rules and the sense that we have collectively been prioritizing tourists over residents.

Or, alternately, the proposed fixes might prove too timid to have any significant impact on those concerns.

Community members noted tourism management as a major issue during the recent meetings for Savannah Forward, an ambitious new initiative recently launched by city officials, so we might see additional proposals for hotels and STVRs.

I hope readers understand, however, that tourists are likely to keep coming in larger and larger numbers, no matter what. Savannah is an alluring destination for a multitude of reasons, and we should expect — and welcome — more visitors from around the world.

Will crime trends

continue to improve?

As of May 27, there had been 17 homicides and 97 street robberies in the total jurisdiction of the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department. We had 25 homicides and 143 street robberies at this point in 2016.

The latest crime tallies do not show year-over-year improvements across the board, but the numbers give plenty of room for optimism.

For example, the number of citizen-initiated calls for police has declined by four percent in 2017 compared to a year ago, and the number of calls for shots fired has declined even more sharply.

Savannah has a very high crime rate given its population, and that fact isn’t going to change any time soon. However, we might be seeing the crime rate return to long-term averages, and maybe we are even seeing the early stages of a sustained decline.

^

Can council stay on track?

Will important city initiatives get derailed by the recent controversies involving Alderman Tony Thomas?

I suspect that City Manager Rob Hernandez, Mayor Eddie DeLoach and other officials can focus the agenda appropriately, but there will surely be more political brouhahas ahead. Those tensions, especially if combined with premature political posturing for the 2019 city elections, could spawn all sorts of trouble.

Hold on to your hats. It could be a stormy summer.

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: Revisiting ideas for Meldrim Row

Mon, 05/29/2017 - 3:15pm

At a Savannah City Council workshop session last month, Mayor Eddie DeLoach objected to the design for the new Central Precinct, which is planned for the east side of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard near 33rd and 34th streets.

The large site has been sitting empty for over two years. In 2015, the city demolished 18 cottages, most of which were duplexes, that made up part of historic Meldrim Row, which was developed in the late 19th century as housing for African American workers and was rehabilitated in the late 20th century as affordable rentals.

Fortunately, Meldrim Row still exists on the west side of MLK, but that fact doesn’t temper the loss of so much history in a city with a reputation for protecting history.

As I noted repeatedly in columns in 2014 and 2015, the immediate neighborhood around Meldrim Row is dotted with vacant, underutilized properties that few would consider historic. There are obviously other sites that could house a new police station.

I was glad to see Mayor DeLoach object to the latest design, which he likened to a prison. Let’s hope city officials do their best to lessen the negative impacts of the building, but we’re probably going to wind up with forbidding frontages facing both MLK and Montgomery Street.

We are also almost certain to end up with a large, unsightly and mostly empty parking lot. The current Central Precinct, which is only five blocks away, has a much smaller parking lot, but officers routinely use adjacent church parking that sits empty most of the week.

Once the new precinct is completed, neighbors will quickly realize that the building will be locked and and quiet most of the day and night. That’s as it should be – we want officers out in the community as much as possible – but city officials convinced many folks that choosing this site would transform the neighborhood.

Of course, the neighborhood is transforming – rapidly – but the changes have nothing to do with the dormant Meldrim Row site. As the economic recovery continues, investors are flooding into the Metropolitan Neighborhood, which has been experiencing rapid demographic change for over 20 years.

City Manager Rob Hernandez, Mayor DeLoach and several aldermen had no hand in any of the bad decisions of the previous administration, but maybe, at minimum, they find a design and site plan that minimize the negative impacts.

Or maybe they’ll make a bolder move. This particular site has awesome potential, especially for mixed-use development with affordable housing.

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

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

CITY TALK: Local jobs estimates suggest continued growth

Sat, 05/27/2017 - 10:56pm

The latest estimates from the Georgia Department of Labor suggest that Savannah’s employment boom is continuing.

According to the data, the Savannah metropolitan statistical area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) had 179,700 payroll jobs in April. That’s 3,900 more jobs than in April 2016, a 2.2 percent increase.

The year-over-year increase was about twice the likely rate of population growth.

Let me add, as readers have recommended after previous columns about the area job market, that self-employed workers do not show up in the payroll job estimates. It’s also worth adding that some workers might have more than one payroll position.

So the numbers alone don’t give us a full picture of the significant contingent of freelancers and independent contractors, but the numbers do give us clear benchmarks for comparisons with previous months and years.

Not surprisingly, the leisure and hospitality sector added about one-third (1,200) of the new jobs over the past year. Many of those positions probably pay less than a living wage, but it’s also true that many service sector workers get good tips, live fulfilled lives and have opportunities for advancement.

I hope we’ll continue to see public concern about wages in tourism-related businesses, but we need to avoid sweeping generalizations.

The leisure and hospitality sector accounts for about 15.5 percent of payroll positions in the Savannah metro area, while leisure and hospitality accounts for about 10.8 percent of payroll jobs statewide. That’s a significant gap, but the numbers aren’t surprising given Savannah’s attractiveness as a destination.

The Georgia Department of Labor’s most recent estimates also suggest solid growth over the past year in government employment, in professional services and in education and health services.

According to the estimates, employment in several sectors stagnated or declined slightly over the past year, but that could be statistical noise. Trends should become clearer in future releases.

A decade ago, we were also seeing robust employment growth. The Savannah metro-area job market seemed robust in spring 2007 before stagnating and then deteriorating through the housing bust, financial crisis and deep recession.

In April 2007, the Savannah metro area had 162,200 payroll jobs. So, yes, we have been seeing rapid job growth in the past couple of years, but the current estimate of 179,700 represents an increase of less than 11 percent over the last decade.

In other words, we are close to where we might have been if the economy had maintained a slow, steady pace instead of jumping on a roller coaster.

Should we be bracing for the kind of steep economic decline that began in late 2007?

In 2007, the local housing bubble was continuing to inflate. Today’s real estate market might be a little overheated in some areas, but the inventory numbers are in line with long-term trends, and we have not been adding new housing units at an unsustainable pace as we were early in this century.

Historical patterns of economic expansions suggest that the United States will likely fall into recession within the next few years, but that eventual recession probably won’t crush dreams and bankrupt businesses like the last one did.

If I’m right in these predictions — and that’s a big “if” — then Savannah-area residents might have to adjust to an extended run of economic and population growth, with all of its attendant benefits and challenges.

What’s next for Savannah Serves?

On Thursday, Savannah City Council indefinitely tabled the proposed funding mechanism for the ambassadorial program Savannah Serves. The plan would have added a 25-cent fee to most sales tax-eligible transactions in the busiest portions of the Historic District.

As Eric Curl reported in this newspaper on Friday, the funding scheme was dropped after “opposition from businesses and questions about the legality of the proposal” following inquiries to the Georgia Attorney General’s office.

In 2014, after I began raising questions about the economic implications and even the legality of the proposed fee, I got a lot of blowback from Savannah Serves supporters who focused their arguments on the need for the program rather than on the substance of my arguments about funding.

Now that the deeply problematic and probably illegal fee is off the table, we can debate the merits of Savannah Serves and decide as a community how, or if, to fund it.

In last Tuesday’s column, I encouraged readers to attend upcoming public meetings about Savannah Serves, but those meetings have been canceled.

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

By: Bill DawersSection: BiS
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: ‘Fee’ would burden downtown residents, workers, businesses

Mon, 05/22/2017 - 4:18pm

Savannah City Council is poised to consider a new “fee” that would add 25 cents to most sales tax eligible purchases over $10 in the busiest portions of downtown.

The revenue would fund Savannah Serves, an ambassadorial program that was created, according to the official website (http://www.savannahserves.com), “to enhance the downtown visitor and resident experience.”

We could debate the merits of the program, but it certainly has laudable goals of assisting visitors, beautifying downtown and providing more resources for public safety.

However, the proposed funding mechanism, which I have been covering off and on for the past three years, is problematic for a variety of reasons. I’m surprised that Mayor Eddie DeLoach, the aldermen and city staff are willing to risk the inevitable political backlash, especially coming so soon after hiking some downtown parking rates.

Proponents have dubbed the extra quarter as a “fee,” but it is in effect a flat sales tax. All sales taxes are regressive to some degree, but flat sales taxes are especially so.

If approved, most of the total revenue would be raised from tourists, but the tax would disproportionately impact locals who spend a lot of time in the Historic District.

The new tax would cost some downtown households a few hundred dollars per year. Low wage downtown workers would also be hit hard if they shop or dine anywhere in the service area.

Retailers would be permitted to keep a percentage of the revenue to cover bookkeeping costs, but small business owners will probably face more headaches than bigger enterprises with more sophisticated point-of-sale systems.

The added charge also sets up retail and service industry workers for freqent negative interactions with customers who question the extra charge.

Are there other ways of funding Savannah Serves? Of course there are. We have robust and increasing hotel tax collections. The city of Atlanta funds its ambassadorial program through commercial property taxes.

A couple years ago, I reached out to the Georgia Attorney General’s office about the constitutionality of the proposed tax, but officials would not comment. The state constitution gives local municipalities broad flexibility to impose fees, and that language is being used to justify the extra 25 cents.

Under this logic, local governments across the state could impose much larger transaction “fees” over much broader geographical areas as long as the revenue is serving the area in which the revenue is being collected.

City officials are hosting public meetings about the proposal at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. on May 31 at the Savannah Civic Center. If you have strong feelings one way or the other, now is the time to make your voice heard.

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
  • Bill Dawers
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: District 2 stakeholders share visions for city

Sat, 05/20/2017 - 9:11pm

Last Wednesday evening, about 100 Savannah residents participated in the District 2 meeting at the Savannah Civic Center to gather input for Savannah Forward, a strategic planning process that is one of the most important initiatives launched since the hiring of City Manager Rob Hernandez.

At the recent Johnson Square press conference announcing Savannah Forward, Mayor Eddie DeLoach invited residents to engage in the process and then turned the mic over to Hernandez.

Hernandez noted some strengths of our city government, but he also said, “Our government is not near where it should be, and it is not prepared to meet the high expectations and aggressive goals that have been set forth by this mayor and the city council.”

Hernandez explained that a key goal of Savannah Forward is to align city spending and services with citizen priorities. He said that our city government needs to be “more targeted and more focused.”

For what it’s worth, I’m optimistic that we will see some real results from Savannah Forward, assuming city staff and consultant Jeremy Stephens of Managing Results LLC can find clear themes amid the flood of suggestions from residents.

There were dozens of ideas discussed at the session for District 2, which includes a number of Savannah’s oldest neighborhoods. I can’t possibly recap the entire meeting in a single column, but a few themes emerged.

Slower traffic, improved streetscapes

The first speaker noted the high-speed traffic on the one-way Henry and Anderson streets. The second speaker echoed that comment with an emphasis on Drayton and Whitaker streets. Numerous other comments during the session also focused on the need for traffic-calming in those corridors.

One resident noted, as I did in a recent column, that an extended lane closure on Whitaker Street has had positive results and has not produced the gridlock predicted by city staff.

This one issue gets right to the heart of the challenge facing Hernandez and his team. Clearly, the residents of District 2 and alderman Bill Durrence recognize the need for calmer traffic on key corridors, but city staffers have repeatedly dismissed those concerns. How will Hernandez and company solve that disconnect?

A number of downtown stakeholders also objected to various elements of the recently approved parking overhaul. City officials may have worked on the plan for two years or more, but they clearly didn’t do the necessary work to secure broad public support.

Several speakers talked about the need for general streetscape upgrades, including better sidewalks. Considerable work has already been done on Waters Avenue, but nearby streets need improvement, and one attendee made a compelling case for more attention to Abercorn Street between 37th Street and Victory Drive.

Out-of-control tourism

Attendees expressed great frustration about issues related to tourism.

Downtown property values and rental costs have been inflated because of the lucrative short-term vacation rental market. Some types of tours are disruptive to residential quality of life. The hospitality industry needs to pay higher wages, and we need city policies that support the workforce rather than make their lives more difficult, as the extended hours of meter enforcement will.

One of the most interesting suggestions was that we revisit the approach to regulation of STVRs. We should discourage their proliferation in the Historic District, where the residential fabric is being threatened, but encourage STVRs in east-side neighborhoods that are begging for investment.

Better planning

A number of stakeholders expressed the need for better decisions regarding planning, zoning and related areas.

The gist of the comments was that there are good plans out there, especially those coming from organizations like the Metropolitan Planning Commission and the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority, but city officials aren’t taking advantage of the available expertise.

More opportunities

Crime was discussed by a few attendees, but the topic got less attention than I expected. Attendees focused instead on finding more ways to enrich the lives of young people through education, job opportunities and community services.

It’s worth noting that Savannah city officials have no direct control over public schools, but residents suggested a number of ideas that the city could explore.

A few residents noted the need for additional services for seniors in downtown neighborhoods.

Also, there seemed to be a sense in the room that many residents simply don’t know about existing programs that could benefit them. We need to find better methods of communication.

A daunting task

Many other issues were raised, including corruption, the need for stronger city support of the arts, the alcohol ordinance, problems related to suburban sprawl and the need for healthy food options, but I simply don’t have the space to detail them all.

Now, the consulting firm and city staff have to make sense of the priorities expressed by residents throughout the city. That means some real scrutiny of the disconnects between city policies and residents’ priorities.

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: Winners, losers in parking overhaul

Mon, 05/15/2017 - 11:57am

At the most recent Savannah City Council meeting, the mayor and aldermen approved many parts of a downtown parking overhaul, but they limited the changes to areas north of Liberty Street.

The results are a mixed bag.

If you work night shifts in the downtown service industry and are accustomed to parking on the street for free after 5 p.m., you’ll have to feed the meters until 8 p.m. north of Liberty Street. That will cost you $3 to $6 per night depending on where you park.

That’s a huge burden – as much as $1,500 per year – for low-wage workers, and I’m sorry that local progressives arguing for higher service industry wages didn’t speak out against the increased burden, which amounts to a regressive tax.

On the other hand, if you’re one of those impacted workers, you will still be able to park for free after 5 p.m. south of Liberty Street, and then you can walk or perhaps snag a shuttle from there.

If you’re affiliated with St. Vincent’s Academy, Congregation Mickve Israel or American Legion Post #135, you should probably thank members of council for delaying implementation south of Liberty Street.

Under the plan presented by city staff, St. Vincent’s students would have been able to buy a $160 yearly parking pass, but City Council’s exemption of areas south of Liberty Street will allow students to continue to park for free in areas close to the school, even if that impacts available parking for residents.

American Legion members will still be able to attend evening events without feeding parking meters. Congregants at Mickve Israel won’t have to pay for meters during Saturday services, so they’ll be treated the same as attendees of downtown church services on Sundays.

If you live north of Liberty Street, the extended hours of enforcement will almost certainly make it easier for you to find on-street parking in your immediate neighborhood.

But if you live south of Liberty Street, you might find it harder to park on the street on Saturdays and in the evening. It might take awhile for tourists to catch on – many of them feed the meters on weekends and at night even now – but local area residents will quickly learn that Liberty Street is the dividing line.

If you own a business in the northern half of the Historic District, the higher rates and extended hours of meter enforcement should, at least in theory, make it easier for local customers to find convenient on-street parking.

However, it seems at least as likely that the higher rates and longer hours will discourage local customers from patronizing your business at all.

I will revisit these and other issues as parts of the new plan are implemented.

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
  • Bill Dawers
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Developments east, south of downtown worth attention

Sat, 05/13/2017 - 8:22pm

Regular readers of this newspaper are probably familiar with the major hotel developments in the works at the west end of River Street. If you haven’t walked down there in a while, you should take a look at the current state of the project.

You probably also know that development plans are in the works for the large Savannah River Landing tract at the east end of River Street.

But there are smaller developments that are changing the face of the greater downtown area.

One of the most interesting and promising projects is the rehabilitation of the historic Kehoe Iron Works at 660 E. Broughton St., adjacent to Trustees Garden.

According to the website for Lominack Kolman Smith Architects (https://www.lksarchitects.com/kehoe-iron-works), the oldest portion of the grand building dates to 1873. The future uses include “event space, a black box theater, and an outdoor plaza and amphitheater.”

There is also a major development in the works near the intersection of 38th and Bull streets. Two large properties near that intersection — a sprawling church complex and a city-owned police building — have been on the market.

The Foram Group, which has an impressive development portfolio, posted but then removed an ambitious mixed-use plan, which included residences, office space, restaurants and a large event and performance venue. That’s obviously a story that I’ll be following closely.

We are also seeing activity at other key properties along Bull Street south of Forsyth Park, even as the old Sears building — perhaps the most visible and most discussed property in the corridor — sits idle. If that structure and parking lot were listed for sale at a price the market could support, there is no doubt that investors would start making offers tomorrow.

I know there is a great deal of angst about downtown area development. Yes, neighbors should certainly be ready to scrutinize any plans that require zoning changes or variances, but it’s clear that there are some positive changes on the way.

Charleston’s lesson in connectivity

While downtown Savannah residents are making little headway with traffic calming, our neighbors in Charleston are about to embark in a major redesign that will dramatically improve quality of life on the peninsula.

Charleston’s elected leadership agreed several years ago to convert Spring and Cannon from one-way to two-way streets, but the conversion process has been delayed several times.

According to a recent article in the Charleston City Paper, the one-way to two-way conversion should be undertaken this summer. The change won’t reduce the number of vehicular lanes, but it should have several clear benefits.

Here’s a key paragraph from the weekly’s most recent coverage: “Planning Director Jacob Lindsey says the ultimate purpose of the conversion of the two routes that connect the Crosstown and Ashley River bridges to Upper King Street is to slow traffic and improve pedestrian safety in the surrounding residential neighborhoods. “

Lindsey also notes that the resulting improvement in connectivity will increase traffic safety: “In general, converting streets creates more routes of travel through the network and helps better distribute cars throughout the city.”

Two-way streets are also generally more attractive to residents and investors than one-way streets.

Lately it seems that whenever we debate traffic calming measures, the conversation devolves into bickering about bicycles.

In those arguments, we lose sight of the fact that improved connectivity can also benefit drivers tremendously.

Have you ever been stuck on Liberty Street, Oglethorpe Avenue or Broughton Street while trying but failing to drive out of downtown? Blame poor connectivity.

Across decades in the 20th century, Savannah disrupted the efficiency of the downtown street grid. We removed key blocks from east-west streets on the west side of the Historic District and converted important commuting routes to one-way.

In days of yore, a westbound driver on Broughton Street who wanted to go south could have turned on Jefferson Street, which is now interrupted because of the Civic Center, or on Montgomery Street, which is now one-way northbound.

How many times have you driven several blocks east or west out of your way just to find a decent route north or south?

As the downtown area experiences additional development, we are going to see increased concerns about traffic calming in the city’s older neighborhoods. In many cases, we can address those concerns while also providing better connectivity for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.

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

By: Bill DawersSection: BiS
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Broughton shopping gets USA Today notice

Mon, 05/08/2017 - 4:26pm

For many years, Savannah has received more national press than a city of our size could reasonably expect.

Just consider USA Today’s “10 great American shopping streets,” which was published on May 5.

For this listicle, USA Today consulted Robert Giibbs, an urban planner at Harvard. Gibbs and USA Today didn’t rank the top 10, but it’s worth noting that Broughton Street is the first one mentioned in the article.

Gibbs and USA Today frame their selections by noting the resurgence of downtowns in many cities across America.

According to Gibbs, the shopping streets and districts in the article have “the X-Factor of Urbanism. Very cool, historic and filled with interesting shops and restaurants, surrounded with walkable neighborhoods.”

The resurgence of downtown shopping areas is being driven largely by lifestyle choices of younger Americans. For many young adults, car-dependent suburbs and exurbs are less appealing than they once were, while mixed-use older neighborhoods have become increasingly attractive.

Of course, the resurgence of Broughton Street isn’t due solely to demand from metro area shoppers. The ongoing tourism boom is a crucial factor here.

“This Southern coastal city, famous for its public squares and parks,” the article begins, “has one of the most vibrant downtowns in the nation, Gibbs says. In the last few years, its core has been transformed into a shopping and entertainment destination, marked by careful restoration.”

Yes, developer Ben Carter and others have invested many millions in restoration efforts in our downtown commercial district in recent years, but the street hasn’t been “transformed” so quickly. I started writing this column in 2000 in part because of the surge in investment on Broughton Street, including the opening of Gap and Banana Republic.

There were some slow years for Broughton Street, especially during and after the 2007-2009 recession, but the long-term trends have been positive for over 20 years.

Gibbs and USA Today spotlight an interesting example of the changes on Broughton Street: “Savannah Taphouse, partially owned by Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The modern sports bar fits seamlessly in a former theater building.”

I like the casual, reasonably priced menu at Savannah Taphouse, and the interior is certainly well-designed, but it’s not the first place that comes to mind when I think about the big changes on Broughton Street so far in the 21st century.

Other shopping streets mentioned in USA Today’s interesting list can be found in Columbus, Ohio; Sioux Falls, S.D.; Greenville, S.C.; Petoskey, Mich.; Delray Beach, Fla.; Chatham, Mass.; Pasadena, Calif.; Philadelphia and Denver.

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

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

CITY TALK: Savannah Forward could align priorities of city government, residents

Thu, 05/04/2017 - 2:06pm

I hope readers of this column have already filled out the online survey for the city of Savannah’s new Tourism Management Plan. If you haven’t gotten to it yet, you have until May 14 to complete the survey via www.savannahga.gov/tourismmanagementplan.

City officials have also undertaken Savannah Forward, an ambitious process to determine citizens’ priorities.

At http://www.savannahga.gov/savannahforward, you can find an online survey as well as details about an ongoing series of meetings in each of our six aldermanic districts. There have already been meetings for the 3rd, 4th and 5th districts, and meetings for the 1st, 2nd and 6th districts are slated for the week of May 15.

The meetings, the survey, the work of a consultant and other information will be used to formulate a strategic plan “to make Savannah the best community of our size in America,” according to the city’s website. This is one of the most important initiatives spearheaded so far by City Manager Rob Hernandez, who has been on the job since last fall.

Months ago, this column proposed a bottom-up process to identify needs of individual neighborhoods, which would obviously entail many more public meetings than the six that have been scheduled. But the chosen process work out fine if Hernandez and his team are able to identify common themes.

This column has traditionally concentrated on the neighborhoods that are now in the 2nd District, which was significantly redrawn after the 2010 Census and which is now represented on council by Bill Durrence.

There was a time when the problems north of Forsyth Park were largely different than the issues south of Forsyth, but the neighborhoods increasingly share concerns, including crime, traffic calming, poor connectivity for pedestrians and bicyclists, tourism management and affordable housing.

Some of those issues were also raised at recent meetings by citizens of other districts, so perhaps we’ll see city government priorities in 2018 and beyond that align more closely with those of residents.

Where’s the gridlock?

During a recent workshop session to discuss traffic calming on Drayton and Whitaker streets, members of Savannah City Council were told by the traffic engineering department that there would be “gridlock” if the streets were reduced to one vehicular lane.

We have recently been given an unintended preview of that supposed “gridlock.”

If you drive Whitaker Street regularly, you already know that one lane has been closed between Huntingdon and Hall streets for repairs to pipes far underground. That means all traffic has had to merge into the left lane in the block immediately south of Gaston Street.

I stood at the corner of Whitaker and Huntingdon from 5 to 5:15 p.m. on Tuesday of last week to see what happens at rush hour. My observations match those of others.

No gridlock.

The merge point is well-marked, and the vast majority of drivers handle the stretch competently. Drivers turning from Gaston Street have no trouble at all because cars are already turning onto Whitaker one at a time, and the new configuration delayed traffic by mere seconds, if at all.

I was especially curious to see what would happen when there were cars in both lanes of Whitaker at the light at Gaston. Again and again, when the light would turn green, both lanes would start moving, and the drivers would do a relatively efficient zipper merge into one lane.

By the way, there was a flurry of news reporting in fall 2016 about the “zipper merge” – just google it.

Traffic slowed down slightly as the drivers merged into one lane, and drivers continued to go slightly more slowly than usual alongside the park. Interestingly, I did not see any drivers accelerate dramatically past the point when both lanes were open again. Beyond the construction zone, drivers tended to maintain a steady speed and a safe distance from the cars in front of them.

Obviously, we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from this one example, but it’s clear that even rush hour traffic could easily be accommodated if Whitaker were reduced to one lane next to Forsyth Park.

In response to this column, some readers will no doubt point to the annoying backups on Drayton Street because of a lane closure for construction of a new hotel just north of Liberty Street, but we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from that experiment either. As I detailed at the time, those delays were almost entirely caused by walk signals for pedestrians preventing drivers from executing left turns from Drayton Street onto Liberty Street. In other words, those delays could have been addressed easily.

While we should be cautious about drawing too many conclusions, it seems obvious that the fears of “gridlock” are overblown. Here’s hoping city officials drop the hyperbole and try to address rather than dismiss citizen concerns about the need for traffic calming on Drayton, Whitaker and other streets around town.

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
Video: Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Participate in tourism survey or get missed

Mon, 05/01/2017 - 3:55pm

The city and several other organizations are working on a tourism management plan. You can find an online survey about tourism in Savannah at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/TourismManagementPlanSurvey.

I would encourage readers of this column to add narrative comments in addition to clicking the various boxes. The surge in tourism over the last few years has raised some hard questions about Savannah’s past, present and future, and small choices that we make today could have profound impacts in the coming decades.

How can you know that your voice will be heard?

Well, we can never be sure that our voices are heard, but I have fairly high hopes for this project.

The City of Savannah is funding a good portion of the development of the plan, and other partners include the Downtown Neighborhood Association, Visit Savannah, Historic Savannah Foundation and Tourism Leadership Council. City officials also secured a $10,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Among other questions, the survey asks respondents to rank 10 different tourism-related issues in terms of importance. All of the issues seem important, but I think the most critical areas focus on residential quality of life, preservation of the Savannah’s heritage and culture, and the development of viable career paths related to tourism.

You will also find a question that seeks input on a statement of vision developed after a series of meetings in 2012: “Savannah tourism embraces its vibrant future while maintaining its historical integrity and respecting the unique residential and pedestrian quality of life. Our community must be balanced, sensitive, and well-managed to assert an enhanced quality of life for residents and a high-quality visitor experience.”

I reserve the right to nitpick that statement in an upcoming column, but it hits a lot of the right notes.

The survey also has an interesting question about trying to get tourists looking beyond the usual Historic District destinations.

I don’t know why anyone would encourage large numbers of tourists to visit Hutchinson Island or the undeveloped Savannah River Landing, but there are many sites and many stories that deserve more attention, especially ones that relate to African American history and ones that showcase our coastal environment.

In his excellent lecture last year at the Savannah Theatre, former Charleston mayor Joe Riley emphasized that we have the power to curate the experiences of tourists.

No, we can’t eliminate tensions and pressures caused by tourism, but we can make more thoughtful choices.

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

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

CITY TALK: Proposal to enforce parking meters until 8 p.m. raises tough questions

Sat, 04/29/2017 - 7:34pm

Last Tuesday evening, I spent a few minutes standing on the corner of Houston and Broughton sttreets.

It was just after 7 p.m. There were no cars traveling on either street. I didn’t see any pedestrians or bicyclists either.

A handful of the on-street parking spaces were occupied, but from where I was standing, I could see more than 30 metered on-street spaces that weren’t being utilized.

And I don’t even see very well.

It was a lovely evening, by the way, so the quiet wasn’t due to the weather. The city is teeming with tourists right now. SCAD’s spring quarter is in full swing.

From comments I routinely receive, I know that some readers of this column think that downtown is always overflowing with tourists, cars and demand for on-street parking. Apparently, a number of key city officials are under the same impression.

Absent significant public outcry, Savannah City Council appears poised to move ahead on May 11 with some major changes to parking rules in the downtown area. I have written a number of columns about the proposed changes, but I might have written those columns too soon — before the general public was ready to scrutinize the proposals.

I like many things about the parking overhaul, which arose out of the extensive study called Parking Matters.

Actually, “like” is the wrong word. I don’t “like” that meter enforcement will be extended to Saturday and probably much of Sunday, but the parking demand in core areas makes a compelling case for enforcing meters on those days.

I don’t see similar justification, however, for the city’s plan to extend meter enforcement from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. even on weekdays.

Sure, there are some parts of downtown where demand seems to support the extension of the hours of meter enforcement. Around Franklin and Ellis squares, for example, the level of demand would likely warrant extending the hours of enforcement much later than 8 p.m. on weekdays.

Even on a quiet Tuesday evening, you might struggle to find on-street parking in the area bounded loosely by Bay Street, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, York Street and Lincoln Street. You might find limited spaces on Bull and Abercorn streets until you look south of, say, Jones Street.

However, in the vast majority of the area with current and future parking meters, there is low demand for non-residential on-street parking on the average weekday evening.

Many folks understand these parking patterns, and many readers of this column know that weekday evenings are the ideal time to head downtown for dinner or even just for a stroll.

How many spaces are available on a typical weekday evening? Are all those spaces as far from downtown destinations as Houston Street?

Well, at 7 p.m. last Tuesday, there were 16 empty on-street metered parking spaces on Oglethorpe Avenue between Bull and Drayton streets, right in the heart of downtown. That was not an anomaly. On many blocks throughout the Historic District, you can find fistfuls of spaces on an average weeknight.

According to the extensive data collected for the Parking Matters study in 2015, many of the blocks of Oglethorpe Avenue have parking utilization below 60 percent on a typical Thursday evening at 7 p.m. Ditto for many blocks of Liberty, Jones, Barnard and other streets.

You can look at the parking utilization data and find lots of other information at http://www.savannahga.gov/parkingmatters.

If demand for parking is already so low in so many areas on weekday evenings, what will happen when meter enforcement is extended to 8 p.m.? The answer seems obvious. The extra charge for parking will discourage some locals from driving downtown, and even more spaces will sit empty. The new policy will drive a further wedge between downtown and the rest of the city.

Some experts in urban issues will argue, correctly, that every parking space comes with a cost. For example, cars driving into downtown can create congestion and can take up parking spaces that could be more effectively utilized.

Some advocates of alternative transportation will argue, correctly, that extended meter enforcement will encourage bicycling and mass transit use.

But those arguments start to break down when the supply of on-street parking spaces dramatically exceeds the demand. Plus, our existing bicycling infrastructure and transit services simply do not meet the needs of many Savannahians.

Yes, some downtown residents will find it easier to park on the street if meter enforcement extends to 8 p.m., but the new policy would obviously impact those residents’ evening visitors as well. Many downtown residents are also among those who drive to restaurants in other parts of downtown.

The extended hours of meter enforcement will be especially tough for some service industry employees. For example, a cook at a downtown restaurant can currently park for free after 5 p.m. If the meters are enforced until 8 p.m., that low-wage employee will have to pay an additional $3 per day for parking – approximately $750 per year for a full-time evening worker.

As Savannah has pursued various policies that will make parking more difficult and more expensive, there has been woefully little discussion about the impacts on low-wage workers and on poor people generally.

Perhaps it’s also worth considering the rules in Charleston, where meter enforcement ends at 6 p.m. and metered parking is free all day on Sunday. Do we really have that much more demand for downtown parking than Charleston does?

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 TalkBreakout Box: 

PARKING PLAN

The City of Savannah will hold “Drop-In” sessions to answer questions and provide information on the parking recommendations in preparation for a May 11 council meeting.

• 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Monday,

Space Station at Starlandia Cafe, 2438 Bull St.

• 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., May 10, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.

For more information contact the Mobility & Parking Services Department at 912-651-6470.

CITY TALK: Impressive job gains continue for Savannah economy

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 3:35pm

According to the latest estimates from the Georgia Department of Labor, the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) had 180,000 nonfarm payroll jobs in March, an increase of 6,700 jobs from March 2016.

That’s a 3.9 percent annual jump in local payrolls, which is much faster than the rate of population increase.

If you’ve been following the local economic trends, you won’t be surprised by the sectors that gave the biggest boost to that robust growth.

Over the past year, we’ve added 2,100 jobs in the broad category of professional and business services, 2,000 jobs in leisure and hospitality, and 1,100 jobs in education and health services.

The Savannah metro area has also seen the number of public sector jobs increase by 1,600 (6.8 percent) over the past year. There was solid growth in federal, state and local government employment.

For the first several years of the ongoing economic recovery, government hiring lagged both private sector hiring and population growth. That was a trend nationally, not just locally, but it seemed inevitable that the need for additional employees in critical sectors like education and public safety would boost public payrolls.

Most other sectors added payroll jobs between March 2016 and March 2017, but the estimates suggest that several key sectors contracted slightly. According to the data, manufacturing lost 600 jobs, information lost 300 and the broad sector that includes transportation, warehousing and utilities lost 500.

Those employment declines might just be statistical anomalies, but the numbers are nevertheless worrisome and deserving of future scrutiny.

In March, the Savannah metro area saw 562 initial claims for unemployment insurance, a decline of 26 percent from the 755 claims in March 2016.

The Georgia Department of Labor hasn’t yet released the local unemployment rate for March, but the February rate was 4.7 percent, down from 5.2 percent a year earlier.

As I’ve noted routinely since the current economic expansion began almost exactly eight years ago, most rural and lightly populated parts of the state are not experiencing the job gains that we’ve seen in Savannah, Atlanta and a few other Georgia metro areas.

The February unemployment rate was more than 7 percent in a dozen counties west and northwest of Savannah, including Screven, Jenkins, Emanuel and Toombs.

I have been reading some interesting analyses lately about the prospects for economic recovery in rural areas that have experienced population losses in recent years, and I’m left with the sense that we’re likely to see continued growth in metro areas even as rural economies stagnate.

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

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

CITY TALK: Green Fire Pizza now serving on Drayton Street

Sat, 04/22/2017 - 4:30pm

We’ve seen a flurry of activity in recent weeks for the Savannah restaurant scene. Several promising new spots have expanded the options for residents and visitors in the downtown area.

The newer establishments include Green Fire Pizza at 236 Drayton St., the vegan restaurant Natural Selections Café at 1526 Bull St., the coffee shop and bakery Henny Penny Art Space & Café at 1514 Bull St. and Fork & Dagger, a breakfast and lunch spot at 609 ½ Abercorn St.

One evening last week, a friend and I decided to make our first trip to Green Fire Pizza, which is located in a former gas station. There’s a Woof Gang Bakery adjacent to the restaurant, and the interesting old building is nestled between Drayton Tower and the Perry Lane Hotel, which is still under construction.

From the patio, diners can also see the DeRenne apartment building and the DeSoto Hilton, which makes Green Fire’s cozy space feel like an oasis in an urban corridor. Green Fire Pizza is caddy-corner across Drayton Street from its sister restaurant McDonough’s Restaurant & Lounge.

Green Fire provides counter service inside, but all the seating is outside. We were immediately drawn to the Smokin Green Fire Pizza, a delectable combination of roasted red pepper cream sauce, sausage, basil, cheeses and red, yellow and green peppers. The 16-inch ($20.95) pie turned out to be just perfect for two hungry adults, but we should have restrained ourselves and taken a couple of slices to go.

Including a beer, a soda and a tip in the jar, dinner for two was just $30.

If you want to design your own pizza, Green Fire offers more than two dozen standard toppings, but on future trips I’ll likely try some of the other specialty pizzas, like the Pizza Alla Vodka with vodka sauce, Romano, Mozzarella, mushrooms, peas and prosciutto.

Green Fire’s brick oven produces a great mix of flavors, and I really liked our thin but still slightly doughy crust.

The restaurant also offers a handful of other menu options, including salads, appetizers and oven-baked frittatas. In addition, Green Fire serves wine and a fairly broad selection of beer.

Green Fire also sells loaves of homemade French bread. I haven’t tried the bread yet, but it has been getting raves.

A fair number of Savannah restaurants are dog-friendly, but many of those only have seating on the sidewalk, so dogs are routinely interacting with pedestrians. But Green Fire’s comfortable patio and widely spaced tables easily accommodate dogs, and the proximity to Woof Gang Bakery creates a nice synergy.

Some of the seating is covered by the part of the building that once extended over the gas pumps, and the rest of the tables are shielded to some degree by green umbrellas, which brighten the space considerably.

As much as I enjoyed my first trip to Green Fire Pizza, I suspect the restaurant will improve as things settle down. Our service was friendly and prompt, but there wasn’t any ice on the evening we were there. With summer approaching, the dining area might soon need some fans or misters.

All in all, Green Fire Pizza seems like a wonderful addition to the downtown restaurant scene. It’s a casual, inexpensive, centrally located spot that seems likely to attract downtown workers, residents, families, tourists – anyone who might be in the neighborhood.

Green Fire Pizza is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Check out the restaurant’s Facebook page for more information.

Changes in the works for downtown parking

If you typically have to drive to get downtown, I would recommend trying Green Fire Pizza on a weekday evening. It’s extremely likely that you’ll find free, on-street parking after 5 p.m. nearby on Oglethorpe Avenue or Abercorn Street.

Despite the general availability of parking on weeknights, city officials seem ready to move ahead with an overhaul of parking rules that includes the extension of parking meter enforcement to 8 p.m. throughout the week. I’ve argued in previous City Talk columns that extending the hours of enforcement will deter area residents from coming into town in the evening, and I don’t see any clear justification for extended enforcement hours in most of downtown from Monday through Thursday.

I’ll be circling back around to parking matters and checking out other new restaurants soon.

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
  • Green Fire Pizza at 236 Drayton St. (Image from Green Fire Pizza Facebook page)
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Savannah hotel moratorium’s lasting impact unclear

Mon, 04/17/2017 - 11:50pm
Savannah City Council pulled the trigger last week on a 90-day moratorium on large hotels across a broad swath of the downtown area.   The resolution says the reason for the moratorium is to give city officials some time “to study the interaction of such hotels with the surrounding neighborhoods.”   When I started writing this column in 2000, it was hard to imagine we would ever have a need for such an aggressive move. We already had a burgeoning hospitality industry at the turn of the century, and River Street was increasingly the domain of tourists. But you could have safely rolled a bowling ball down the middle of Broughton Street on an average evening.   During the housing boom more than a decade ago, market forces spurred some ambitious residential investment, but you know what happened next. We experienced slow sales, falling prices, a high rate of foreclosures and a dramatic decline in new construction.   The current economic expansion began in 2009, but demand for new housing lagged even as Savannah became ever more popular as a tourist destination.   For many years, there has also been a strong local bias against increased residential density in historic neighborhoods. For various reasons — some logical, some not — longtime residents were resistant to any significant population increase.   And so the market was determined.   I’m especially glad to see that the hotel moratorium extends as far south as Victory Drive between East Broad Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. We haven’t yet seen significant hotel development extend beyond the Landmark Historic District, but it seems inevitable that major hoteliers will look into the Victorian, Thomas Square and Metropolitan neighborhoods.   There are large, underutilized parcels in those neighborhoods, especially in the Montgomery Street corridor, and many of us hope that we can reestablish the historical fabric of homes and small businesses.   The moratorium has significant limitations. The temporary delay doesn’t apply to hotel projects already well underway or those with fewer than 55 rooms. Even though some excellent proposals to encourage residential investment have been put forward, it is unclear how much city officials will be able to do in 90 days.   Still, a moratorium like this is a strong political statement.   In addition to incentives for residential development, I hope Savannah officials will consider a permanent ban on additional large hotels in almost all of the area covered by the moratorium. In the limited areas where such hotels make sense, we should mandate ground level retail and restaurant uses with dedicated entrances.   If, after a few years, such restrictions prove too onerous, we can always adjust.   ^   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
  • Bill Dawers
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: New report finds flaws, successes in hurricane response

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 8:17pm

Last week, the Chatham Emergency Management Association release a 34-page report examining the local response to Hurricane Matthew.

Reporter Mary Landers provided some excellent coverage of the report in last week’s newspaper. I encourage readers to take a look at that article (http://savannahnow.com/hurricane-guide/news/2017-04-11/hurricane-matthew-report-prompts-new-evacuation-rules-chatham#) and of course at the full report itself (https://www.scribd.com/document/344911934/After-Action-Report-DR-4284-Hurricane-Matthew-FINAL#from_embed).

I commend CEMA and agency director Dennis Jones for taking a comprehensive look at so many different aspects of the hurricane response and for taking actions that should allow us to handle future emergencies more effectively. In the immediate aftermath of Matthew, I wrote a column that was quite critical of the government response generally, both by local and state officials, so I was curious to see the points of emphasis in the “After Action Report” released last week.

In my comments after the storm, I focused especially on the communication problems, and this report acknowledges some areas that need to be improved.

For example, the report correctly notes that the evacuation terminology, including the use of term “mandatory evacuation,” was sometimes confusing.

“Better communication of the terminology pre-event should occur to ensure clear communication,” the report says.

Area residents were also generally confused about the physical area covered by the evacuation orders, so the report calls for “using a geographic boundary that most people, even tourists, recognize.”

The report also notes that we need “a single, unified voice during press conferences” and that CEMA needs to “ensure all jurisdictions have representation.”

Those improvements to communications sound like positive steps, but I was also struck before, during and after the storm by CEMA’s apparent struggles with social media. Last week’s report claims that the “County’s presence on social media” was a strength, but merely being present on social media is not enough.

CEMA relied heavily on Twitter to disseminate information about Hurricane Matthew, with tweets cross-posted to Facebook. That was problematic for a variety of reasons.

For starters, as a former Savannah Morning News reporter once said to me, Savannah really isn’t a “Twitter town.” Many residents have Twitter accounts, of course, but in terms of community conversation and engagement, this is a “Facebook town.”

By its very nature, Twitter encourages short bursts of information, with little room for elaboration. The character limit on each Tweet largely precludes nuance, elaboration or adequate attention to tone.

So at the height of the storm, when area stakeholders needed information rapidly, Twitter might have been an appropriate starting point, but the general public wanted more detailed information and explanations via social media both before and after the hurricane.

Of course, the communication problems can’t be blamed entirely on the medium. In the aftermath of the hurricane, we saw various government entities issuing statements that directly contradicted each other. Let’s hope that the report’s recommendations will get our local bureaucracies on the same page the next time a hurricane comes rumbling toward us.

It’s worth remembering that Hurricane Matthew could have been much, much worse.

According to the National Weather Service in Charleston, the storm surge at Fort Pulaski peaked at 7.69 feet. In other words, the surge of water was more than 7 feet above the predicted tide. In some areas, the surge was probably even higher.

If the hurricane had moved closer to us or if the peak of the surge had coincided with high tide, we could have had much worse flooding, with a much higher chance of loss of life.

CEMA’s report addresses the need for regular “education of pertinent evacuation plans and procedures for Chatham County,” but I hope that local officials will try to educate residents about other hurricane-related issues, especially ones related to the dangers of storm surge.

Sure, citizens are responsible for themselves and their own decisions, but I was alarmed in the lead-up to Matthew by how many residents didn’t even know the elevation or flooding risk of their own homes.

With a better understanding of surge risks, we might make smarter decisions as a community in terms of long-term development. As we plan new residential areas and transportation routes, we need to be acutely aware of the plausible worst case hurricane scenarios.

Let’s hope that decades pass before we are threatened by another dangerous hurricane. And let’s also hope that CEMA’s recent report spurs some changes in how we prepare for the next big one.

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

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

CITY TALK: Savannah Music Festival influence continues even after concerts end

Mon, 04/10/2017 - 9:38am

Just before “Stringband Spectacular” on the final Friday of the Savannah Music Festival, a polling firm was asking audience members about their festival experiences. The couple sitting behind me had come to town for six days of shows.

Cities covet tourists like those who are traveling for arts events and cultural festivals like the SMF.

I typically go to Charleston for a couple of days during Spoleto, and I’m always struck by the mix in the audience of visitors and local residents. The Savannah Music Festival hasn’t been around for as long as Spoleto, but it seems clear that the consistently stellar programming in such a beautiful city will attract more and more tourists each year.

I’m not talking here about the kind of mass tourism that could overwhelm the city, but about visitors who enjoy programming that is primarily supported by local residents. For many of us, the 17-day SMF is one of the most exciting times of the year, and it’s great to see so many Savannahians enjoying downtown and supporting locally owned restaurants.

“Stringband Spectacular” is of course the annual finale of the festival’s Acoustic Music Seminar, an educational initiative that brings about 16 young string players for a week of workshops with world class musicians like mandolin master Mike Marshall and the brilliant guitarist Julian Lage.

During a brief interlude between songs during the AMS finale, 20-year-old banjo player George Wagman called the weeklong experience “life-changing.” Wagman will no doubt join many previous seminar students as a de facto ambassador for the SMF and for Savannah itself.

And we’ll see many of those talented performers again. With so much young talent coming to Savannah each year for the AMS and for the festival’s Swing Central Jazz, the city has certainly hosted stars of the future.

There was strong support for nearly every SMF show I attended this year, but I was especially impressed by the turnout at the Lucas Theatre for the festival’s two major dance programs – the New York City-based BalletCollective and the Argentinian company Che Malambo.

Over the years, I’ve written occasionally about the general lack of professional dance in Savannah. Dance might have the lowest local profile of any of the major art forms, despite the fact that we have numerous schools and programs devoted to dance education.

The SMF’s primary mission is obviously music, but maybe this year’s successful forays into dance have opened new doors.

It’s fine to view the Savannah Music Festival as an annual series of stellar concerts, but the festival is more than that. The festival has had and continues to have a profound impact on the city’s cultural fabric and identity.

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
  • Scott Avett sings into his mic during The Avett Brothers’ performance at opening night concert of the Savannah Music Festival Thursday at the Johnny Mercer Theater. (Josh Galemore/Savannah Morning News) Scott Avett sings into his mic during The Avett Brothers’ performance at opening night concert of the Savannah Music Festival Thursday at the Johnny Mercer Theater. (Josh Galemore/Savannah Morning News) Scott Avett sings into his mic during The Avett Brothers’ performance at opening night concert of the Savannah Music Festival Thursday at the Johnny Mercer Theater. (Josh Galemore/Savannah Morning News)
  • Bill Dawers
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Bay Street redesign removes some parking spaces, widens sidewalks

Sat, 04/08/2017 - 8:10pm

During the current economic expansion, we are getting glimpses of Savannah’s future.

Hotel projects are already transforming the west end of River Street, and we’re likely to see more investment in the area north of Bay Street and west of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.

Savannah River Landing, the massive parcel at the east end of River Street, also appears poised for activity. Potential buyers of the privately owned land have presented a plan that seems certain to be approved by Savannah’s elected leaders.

Given the collapse of the previous proposals for Savannah River Landing, it’s natural to have doubts about the new plan, but the developer’s long-term goals seem achievable.

We also remain on a slow track to replace the existing Civic Center arena. That project will eventually transform the proposed Canal District just west of downtown and the valuable Historic District land that holds the current arena.

Also, we have been following the Savannah Downtown Streetscape Improvement Initiative (http://www.savannahga.gov/streetscape), an ongoing city effort in conjunction with the Florida-based design firm EDSA to make Broughton, Bay and River streets more attractive and easier to enjoy, especially for pedestrians.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the changes on tap for Broughton Street. The curb extensions at the intersections, the new landscaping, the new hardscape and the widened sidewalks should make the street more beautiful and pedestrian-friendly.

We should see tangible results on Broughton Street in 2018.

Given the cost constraints and given the fact that we live in, you know, Savannah, I don’t feel certain that EDSA’s plans for Bay and River streets will ever be fully implemented, no matter how determined the current city council members may be to push the projects forward.

But those plans are still worth a deeper look. For the rest of this column, I’ll focus on EDSA’s final conceptual design for Bay Street.

As you probably know, we have a lot of issues on Bay Street — heavy vehicular use, high speeds, significant parking demand, narrow travel lanes, narrow sidewalks, mature trees constrained by curbs, a lack of bicycle access and varying street widths. As I’ve argued here before, there is simply no way to solve all of the problems at once.

EDSA’s final conceptual design for Bay Street addresses some of the problems fairly well, but their final concept represents a series of compromises. On balance, those compromises might be pretty good ones.

In preliminary design phases, EDSA presented the idea of a narrow median on much of Bay Street. The plan attracted favorable feedback from workshop attendees, but, as I suspected, the street just isn’t wide enough to accommodate medians unless we completely eliminate on-street parking or eliminate turn lanes.

In the final design, EDSA is proposing the removal of dozens of on-street parking spots on Bay Street, primarily from the north side. That is going to hurt some businesses, probably more than the business owners realize, and the lack of easy, inexpensive evening parking is really going to hurt some hospitality industry workers.

But by eliminating some on-street parking, we will have room to widen the sidewalk on the south side of Bay Street. We can also extend the curbs on the north side of the street to give more room for the root systems of mature trees.

The plan calls for the enhancement of the pedestrian path on the north side of Bay Street to make room for bicycles. I don’t know if that plan will work very well, but we will find out.

There are other notable details in EDSA’s Bay Street redesign, including new trees in the widened sidewalk on the south side of the street, but we’re basically just trading parking spaces for a significantly better pedestrian experience. The driving patterns will remain much as they are now.

At the presentation of the final concepts for the streets, EDSA’s Kona Gray also presented a “long-term approach” to Bay Street — a radically different vision for the street.

According to Gray, Bay Street through the Historic District sees 24,000 to 27,000 cars per day. If daily traffic could be reduced to 20,000 or fewer cars per day, we could implement a “road diet.”

For the long-term, EDSA imagines Bay Street with three vehicular lanes – one eastbound, one westbound and a dedicated center turn lane. We could then retain parking on one side of the street and add dedicated bike lanes on both sides.

With that configuration, some intersections would also have room for pedestrian islands that could also serve as landscaped medians. The pedestrian experience would also be enhanced by moving cars farther from the sidewalk.

Is there any prospect that daily traffic would decline by 25 percent on Bay Street?

When traffic engineers allow northbound drivers on East Broad Street to turn west onto Broughton Street again, that might divert some cars from Bay Street, but the reopening of General McIntosh Boulevard will likely put more cars onto Bay.

A second bridge to Hutchinson Island or some other dedicated truck route might divert a significant amount of traffic from Bay Street, but there are no easy or inexpensive solutions.

Perhaps over time — maybe decades — we might see changes in commuting patterns. Maybe future leaders will set different priorities for Bay Street.

For now, however, we’re just going to have to do the best we can on Bay Street, which means balancing conflicting needs.

An upcoming City Talk will be devoted to EDSA’s provocative designs for River Street.

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