Updated: Wed, 02/06/2013 - 08:27

Savannah city leaders ready to sell Waters Avenue shopping center

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The city of Savannah is prepared to reverse course, cancel its renovation plans and put the Waters Avenue shopping center up for sale.

City Council members at Thursday’s meeting will be asked to declare the site surplus property. The city then would issue an invitation, also called a request for proposals, asking any interested buyers to submit offers.

It does so knowing it already has an interested buyer.

The city’s request would come with a number of stipulations, including:

• The minimum bid is $1.6 million, which was the city’s purchase price in May 2009.

• The city will require 2,000 square feet of community room space, built out at city expense, and made available to neighborhood groups and other organizations as determined by the city.

• Bidders will be responsible for renovating the facade and repairing or replacing the roof and all systems.

Other stipulations include presenting a plan to residents and developing a concept that is compatible with the Waters Avenue Corridor Revitalization Plan.

Another piece of the puzzle will include canceling a $1.4 million contract the city awarded in August to Pioneer Construction to renovate the shopping center. City officials believe they will be able to do that.

The decision was startling, even upsetting to the president and a founding member of the Waters Avenue Business Association, who said Tuesday the organization had no idea the city was considering selling.

Hezekiah Hudson, president of the association, said he’s been waiting to get final drawings back from the architect. The association had a meeting a few weeks ago to incorporate some final ideas into the renovation, he said.

“We’re looking for one thing, and now they’re doing another thing altogether,” he said. “This is not the first time. This is like the third or fourth time.”

The city bought the property only to learn it could not find suitable alternatives to long-term lease obligations to commercial tenants. That sidetracked plans to build two police precincts and other city offices there. Additionally, structural problems and maintenance issues drove up renovation costs.

The leases also put the city in the position of serving as landlord to private businesses, something it’s not used to doing.

In October 2011, on a vote with only about two hours’ public notice, council voted to allow then-City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney to pursue renovating the site for retail shops.

As an assistant city manager, she had pursued the Waters Avenue development project.

Sidney J. Johnson, a founding member of the association, also had been working to bring small local businesses to the shopping center.

“This is the first I’m hearing about it,” he said. “The city should have told us.”

Added Hudson: “They’re just disrespecting us. At least the association, knowing we represent the whole district around here.”

City Council members were briefed about an interested buyer during their Jan. 15 council retreat. Acting City Manager Stephanie Cutter explained to council that the buyer, whom she only identified as non-local, would have to agree to honor the existing leases and to keep community meeting space.

City staff was additionally hopeful, she said, because the buyer had expressed the chance of bringing a grocery store, an addition residents dearly want.

Cutter told council a sale would give the city the chance to recoup the money it spent — special purpose local option sales tax money that would be returned to other Waters Avenue SPLOST projects — and would get the city out of the landlord business.

Alderwoman Mary Osborne was adamant that any agreement had to be presented to the community.

Hudson and Johnson began making phone calls Tuesday and plan to be at Thursday’s meeting.

Hudson tried to evaluate whether the sale would be good for the neighborhood. He liked the idea of a grocery store; he hopes the new owners will let small business owners rent space.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess we’ll have to wait and see.”

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