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CITY TALK: Emergent Savannah panel emphasizes proactive planning

  • Photo via https://www.facebook.com/emergentsavannah/
Emergent Savannah packed The Sentient Bean last week for the latest installment in its series Monday Means Community.
 
This month’s meeting, titled “The Politics of Place: People, Planning and Possibilities,” featured panelists Tom Thomson of the Metropolitan Planning Commission, Kevin Klinkenberg from the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority, SCAD professor Ryan Madson and attorney Harold Yellin, whom you’ve probably seen in action representing clients before various municipal bodies. 
 
Savannah Morning News reporter Mary Landers moderated the conversation.
 
Much of the session was devoted to discussion of bureaucratic processes that underlie civic planning. Klinkenberg correctly noted that those processes often seem “opaque” and “exhausting,” even to citizens who try to engage.
 
Thomson emphasized the importance of citizens being involved earlier in the planning process. In general, Thomson and the other panelists seemed to be arguing for residents to be more proactive and less reactive.
 
For example, the MPC is currently preparing an update to the Comprehensive Plan, and officials distributed survey forms at last week’s Emergent meeting. You can take a look at the current plan at http://www.thempc.org/Dept/Comp and fill out a survey at http://bit.ly/1UXknHe. 
 
That survey should yield some interesting data about residents’ visions for Savannah, but the document does not address specific neighborhoods. If you have concerns about the fate of specific properties, you should start digging into the details of the current zoning and proposed future uses.
 
Thomson also invoked a simile that I’m going to use again. He said that our current zoning ordinance is like the picture of Dorian Gray.
 
We have a vibrant city that’s full of life, but our zoning ordinance is aging terribly.
 
Longtime readers might remember that the MPC started working on an overhaul of the zoning in the city of Savannah and unincorporated Chatham County about a decade ago. 
 
As a columnist and as a citizen, I was part of a technical committee that met almost 30 times between 2007 and 2010, so I can vouch firsthand for the diligence, concern and professionalism of the planners involved.
 
The MPC staffers certainly didn’t plan on the process taking so long, but there have been myriad delays caused by various governmental bodies.
 
Thomson did note, however, that the MPC and Savannah city officials are working on another revision of the current document. Perhaps we’ll see some movement before the end of 2016.
 
You can read more about the proposed New Zoning Ordinances at http://www.newzo.org.
 
Later in the discussion, Klinkenberg echoed the Dorian Gray reference when he noted that young entrepreneurs sometimes feel especially stifled by outdated zoning ordinances.
 
As Klinkenberg spoke, I was reminded of attorney Dana Braun’s 2013 Savannah Morning News op-ed about a young businesswoman who was moving away because we did not have an ordinance under which she could successfully operate a food truck. 
 
And we still don’t have that ordinance.
 
Klinkenberg added affordability to the arguments for more streamlined bureaucratic process. If would-be entrepreneurs always have to lawyer up and weather lengthy waits, the costs of development increase and have to be passed on to tenants or buyers. 
 
Yellin also made the case for zoning ordinance updates when he discussed the likelihood of booming investment on Indian Street after recent changes to parking requirements.
 
Madson’s vision for the city is outlined in tremendous detail in his essay “Projective Preservation: A Manifesto for Savannah,” which was published recently by Strelka Magazine (http://strelka.com/en/magazine/2016/04/19/projective-preservation-a-mani...).
 
I don’t have space here to do justice to Madson’s 6,000-word piece, but he does make some straightforward arguments for a greater emphasis on affordable residential development.
 
“Residents are more important than tourists,” Madson says in his manifesto. “They live here permanently and take care of the place. A strong counter-point to mass tourism is the presence of locals.”
 
“More (affordable) housing in the Landmark District is needed to provide a critical mass of residents and to ensure Savannah does not become a museum city,” Madson writes. “If Savannah’s leadership is comfortable building large hotels for tourists — which it is — it should also be fine with new multi-family housing.”
 
We have a lot of large underutilized lots in the greater downtown area, and we have some big decisions ahead regarding our vision for the current arena site, the proposed Canal District and other swaths of land in downtown expansion areas.
 
I think we will make better decisions about future land use if concerned citizens get in the game now.
 
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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