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CITY TALK: New apartments bring essential downtown density

  • Rendering of The Bowery apartments, which are currently under construction at 515 Montgomery St. (Special photo rendering by Beacham Bunce and Manley Architects)
Earlier this month, the Metropolitan Planning Commission approved a 70-unit apartment complex for 1020 E. Broad St. 
 
That huge empty lot at the northeast corner of East Broad Street and Park Avenue had been vacant for many years. At one point, city officials were even negotiating to buy the property for a new Central Precinct, but that deal fell through.
 
Plans are also moving ahead for The Bowery, a 59-unit apartment complex at 515 Montgomery St., near the corner of Huntingdon Street.
 
The Bowery is within the Landmark Historic District, so its design had to be approved by the Savannah Historic District Board of Review. The developers of the East Broad Street complex voluntarily conformed to design standards for the neighboring Victorian District.
 
Despite those approvals, some neighbors of the complexes are unhappy with the designs. I have every reason to believe that those objections are sincere. 
 
But it’s worth noting that large residential developments, especially multi-family apartments, are often flashpoints of controversy in Savannah.
 
Heck, large apartment buildings often generate controversy in cities across American. Many residents just don’t want the added density with the potential for additional noise and traffic. 
 
It’s also common to hear Americans speak derisively of “renters,” with the implication that those people won’t care about their neighborhoods.
 
But I hope it’s clear at this point that the downtown area needs increased residential density, and apartment buildings give us one path to that goal.
 
I’ve written often about this subject over the years, so regular readers might want to skip the next few paragraphs detailing some of the reasons to promote greater density.
 
If we are truly concerned about maintaining a degree of residential character in the face of increasing tourism, we simply have to get more residents into the greater downtown area.
 
Even if these new apartments are relatively high priced, they will add supply to downtown’s rental market. As more units come online, we will almost certainly see lower prices for units that are somewhat older or in need of repairs. 
 
Also, it’s easy to forget that the downtown area has some of the highest ground in the city. If or when Savannah is hit by a major hurricane, the civic recovery effort will be much easier if more people are living in units that haven’t flooded.
 
Residents who both live and work in the downtown area have a variety of commuting options. They won’t necessarily contribute to street congestion by driving everywhere or occupy precious parking spaces in high demand areas. 
 
In other words, we have ample reason to incentivize denser residential development on the large under utilized lots that dot the greater downtown area. 
 
Yes, of course, we should continue to care about design details, and we need to reassure neighbors that new buildings won’t unnecessarily tax limited neighborhood resources.
 
But, in recent decades, the threat to the residential character of downtown has been too few residents, not too many. 
 
In the early 20th century, Savannah’s oldest neighborhoods had two to three times the number of residents that they have today. The core of the city has been far below its residential capacity for decades, and the 2010 Census showed continued erosion of the population in some historic neighborhoods. 
 
In that context, these new apartments are good news.
 
Savannah employment boom continues
According to data released last week by the Georgia Department of Labor, the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) added 7,100 payroll jobs between March 2015 and March 2016. That’s an impressive annual growth rate of 4.2 percent, which is much faster than the rate of population growth.
 
Honestly, I keep expecting to see a lull in our year-over-year job gains, but the numbers continue to be upbeat month after month. Such growth rates cannot be sustained forever.
 
According to the estimates, some of the biggest gains over the past year were in leisure and hospitality (7.7 percent), professional and business services (7.3 percent) and manufacturing (5.2 percent).
 
However, we still have not seen any growth in payroll construction jobs, although it seems a fair bet that self-employed workers are much busier today than a few years ago. 
 
Statewide, payroll employment showed an annual gain of 3.1 percent in March. Savannah outpaced most of Georgia’s metro areas. 
 
We’ll have more data soon on the local unemployment rate in March. 
 
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.

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