The Savannah College of Art and Design’s recent purchase of the former St. Paul’s Academy is a game-changer for the Metropolitan neighborhood.
The grand St. Paul’s Academy building is on 38th Street between Jefferson and Montgomery streets. I’m guessing that most readers of this column have never seen the building, but, trust me, I’m not throwing the word “grand” around loosely here.
Just from the standpoint of preservation, SCAD’s acquisition of St. Paul’s, which has been closed for about a year, is great news. There is little doubt that the college will do an excellent job preserving and renovating the structure.
For what it’s worth, I hope the SCAD team will consider having a little fun with the exterior, which is currently solid white. Brightly painted homes and businesses dot the immediate neighborhood, and it would be interesting to see SCAD experiment with the vernacular colors and designs.
SCAD already has classroom buildings in the general area of St. Paul’s, including Arnold Hall on Bull Street and Eckburg Hall on Henry Street. Those buildings are a few blocks away, but they are also a world away.
I’ve been writing about the dramatic changes in the Metropolitan Neighborhood for many years, but some things haven’t changed. Maybe we’ve seen a little progress on crime in the area, but the Jefferson Street corridor is still home to street prostitution and drug dealing.
Decades ago, Savannahians made the collective decision to allow blatant street crime on Jefferson and nearby streets, and that decision has been tacitly reaffirmed with every change in city administration.
It turns out that if you want to decimate property values and drive law-abiding residents out of a neighborhood, all you have to do is turn the streets over to criminals for a few decades.
The new SCAD building is not only along Jefferson Street, but also across the street from Wells Park, which has lately been the focus of crime concerns.
Hello SCAD. The college has its own security force, and there will likely be guards and security cameras working round the clock.
Perhaps even more importantly, the new classroom building will bring dramatically more foot and bicycle traffic to the neighborhood. That additional activity will almost certainly disrupt some of the criminal activity.
Also, the neighborhood has been undergoing a dramatic turnover in population over the last quarter century. To put it coarsely, the white population has increased dramatically and the black population has declined dramatically, but the dynamics are more complex than the straightforward displacement often connoted by the word “gentrification.”
Those population trends seem to have accelerated since the 2010 Census, in part because the city demolished three dozen affordable apartments in Meldrim Row to make room for a new police precinct. That site is just four blocks north of SCAD’s new building.
SCAD’s presence in the midst of the Metropolitan Neighborhood will also impact the commercial character of the area, but the changes are hard to predict.
Some businesses will try to appeal directly to the nearby students, but SCAD’s quarter system presents challenges for retailers. The college is only in full session for 30 weeks each year, and regular classes are scheduled only Monday through Thursday.
Still, the infusion of students in fall 2016 should bring new customers to a number of existing businesses on Montgomery Street, and we’ll likely see new businesses crop up.
Noise ordinance to be revised
In last week’s column, I expressed a little hope that something positive might come out of Emergent Savannah’s discussion at The Sentient Bean about the city’s noise ordinance.
Well, right at the beginning of last week’s forum, city spokesperson Bret Bell announced he had started assembling a group of knowledgeable citizens to help revise the ordinance. He said Kevin Rose, a sound engineer and architect who was also on the panel, had already agreed to be part of the process.
In a nutshell, Savannah’s current sound ordinance is so restrictive that dozens of downtown establishments are in violation of it every single day. A more finely crafted ordinance can be enforced more predictably and sensibly. Business owners will know what to expect, and residents will know what to expect too.
The noise ordinance discussion wasn’t limited to the current conflicts between residents and nearby establishments with amplified music. For example, the panelists noted there have also been conflicts about decibel levels in Forsyth Park during major events, and it seems police officers have not always been thoroughly trained on the technical details of current law.
I expected Emergent Savannah’s forum to be fairly contentious at times – there is a lot of anger in the local music community right now – but Bell’s announcement of an impending ordinance revision allowed the participants to focus on relevant details.
The positive developments at last week’s meeting certainly reflect well on the work of the relatively new Emergent Savannah.
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.