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The next hurdle for Johnny Harris

Subheadline: 
Savannah council will vote on right-of-way that could clear path for new development site

Meetings have been running relatively quickly since the new Savannah City Council was sworn in early this year, usually lasting about an hour. However, a bit of nostalgia and fear topped with some spicy barbecue sauce could slow things down a bit Thursday.

That’s when the mayor and aldermen will consider the sale of an unopened right-of-way for the pending commercial development at 1675 East Victory Drive. The plan has been facing pushback because of traffic worries, fear of a potential cookie-cutter building project and opposition to the planned demolition of the brick building that has housed the Johnny Harris restaurant for 80 years.

Atlanta-based ARS Ventures is seeking to acquire city property that runs through the middle portion of the 11-acre development from Victory to Kerry Street for the planned Shops at Wicklow Farms project.

The partially paved right-of-way, Munster Street, is used as part of a former restaurant’s off-street parking lot, in addition to providing access to a commercial site to the south and would be declared “surplus” property for the sale.

Savannah Alderman John Hall said he will support the development that is expected to consist of retailers, restaurants and a specialty grocer.

“That will be a great economic boost to my district,” Hall said. “It will create some much needed jobs, and if you look at it right now, it’s not very attractive.”

The only opposition he has heard has come from residents in the adjacent district represented by Alderman Julian Miller, Hall said.

“You have families that have been there for generations who have not said one word against that property,” he said. “At least not to this alderman.”

Miller said he thinks the loss of the Johnny Harris building is a forgone issue, but he does plan to ask a lot of questions to make sure concerns about design, access, traffic flow and landscaping have been addressed. If those matters have been satisfactorily dealt with, Miller said, he plans to support the request.

“Then there is no reason to hold up the process,” he said.

The potential sale is going before the council with staff’s recommendation for approval, contingent on the developer meeting certain conditions.

The developer would have to maintain two roadways connecting Dixie Avenue to Wicklow Street, in addition to being responsible for rerouting utilities and acquiring all adjacent properties to prevent any land-locking. The sale of the street would be based on an appraisal of its market value that is acceptable to the city manager.

The Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission approved the general development site plan for the project on Feb. 23 in an 11-1 vote, after more than an hour and a half of discussion among the board, the developer’s attorney and opponents to the plan.

City Manager Stephanie Cutter cast the vote opposing the motion.

City spokesman Bret Bell said the city manager was voting against a recommendation that required a specific site plan to go back to the commission.

“So she was opposed to the procedural inclusion,” Bell said. “She wasn’t against the project.”

Opponents of the plan have launched Facebook pages and a petition that has garnered more than 2,600 supporters to save the Johnny Harris building, arguing for the structure to be incorporated into the retail center.

That level of opposition wasn’t seen even when the city moved forward with its plan last year to demolish cottages dating back to the late 19th and early 20th century for a new Savannah-Chatham police station.

The restaurant’s president, Norman Heidt, has opposed the calls to save the building and has voiced support on behalf of the owners for the development plan that includes the structure’s demolition.

Heidt cited the use of the building’s branded image on barbecue sauce the company will continue to sell as one of the reasons the structure could not be saved, in addition to being costly to operate compared to more modern layouts.

 

IF YOU GO

What: Savannah City Council meeting

When: 2 p.m. Thursday

Where: City Hall, 2 E. Bay St.

Online: Watch the meeting streamed live at savannahnow.com and follow reporter @EricCurlSMN on Twitter. 

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