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New Savannah hotel district to mix pterodactyls, France and science

  • This rendering shows the proposed Plant Riverside development being planned for an abandoned industrial zone on West River Street. (Courtesy The Kessler Collection)

Pterodactyls, a pipe organ and Leopold’s Ice Cream are a few things you can expect when hotelier Richard Kessler’s upscale 670,000 square-feet, $270 million development opens on the west end of River Street in a couple of years.

A groundbreaking for The Plant Riverside District, a mixed use development will take place at 3 p.m. Wednesday. The development will be anchored by a locally owned and operated 419-room JW Marriott hotel, which will be encompassed in five separate themed buildings.

“In all of our properties we try to have a thread of education that tells a story that’s meaningful to guests and through that we’re going to tell the story of the origin of power … Then that takes you into the whole dinosaur period and we can talk about the dinosaurs of the southeast,” he said of the power plant building’s concept, which he describes as having the feel of a natural science museum.

Carrying the natural science theme all the way to the top, Kessler said pterodactyls will grace the ceilings of the building’s rooftop bar.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun and very dramatic rooftop bar,” he said, adding that an African Safari-themed bar will be located on the ground floor.

Other features of the building include, a space for monthly wine tastings, a large art gallery, restaurants, meeting rooms, a 3,500 square-foot ballroom and a concert venue that will seat over 100 people, unique to that space will be a grand piano and pipe organ.

“We will be playing pipe organ music every day at lunchtime on the plaza, which is 1,100 feet long, so you’ll be able to sit outside and enjoy your lunch and every day for a couple hours we’ll have live pipe organ music,” he said.

The Plant Riverside West building will be nautically themed to accompany the views of the Savannah River. The building will also feature a 7,500 square-foot ballroom, a 484-space parking deck and a 4,000-square-foot live entertainment venue, that can hold about 250 people.

“Hopefully, and we believe the community will really enjoy that,” he said.

“It makes parking easy, come in, walk downstairs and right into the live entertainment.”

The three other buildings, which will also feature a rooftop lounge and bar area, will be French-inspired. The rooms in those buildings, Kessler said, will be very plush and romantic.

Retail space will be featured on each of the building’s ground floors and will include Leopold’s Ice Cream, a jewelry store and La Cava del Tequila restaurant, which currently operates at Epcot theme park in Florida.

“They have a very large tequila bar, so that’s going to be a lot of fun. They have great food and do a wonderful job at Epcot and we’re really excited about them coming in,” he said.

There are several other retail spaces, including a large 6,500 square-foot parcel, that will be leased out before the grand opening, he said.

Kessler acquired the property in 2012, but his entry into the local market began in the late 1970s. Other notable projects include the Mansion on Forsyth Park and the Bohemian Hotel on Bay Street.

“I realized the power of the river and what it means, so I had always had my eyes on this property,” Kessler said, adding that plans for a hotel had been his intention from the start.

Gathering ideas

After closing on the property, Kessler pulled together a large group of community members, business leaders and City of Savannah officials to gather ideas about what would be best for the property.

“We talked about what Savannah needs, what would be unique, what we could do with it that would respect the location and quality of Savannah and bring River Street to a whole new level, which it needs to be,” he said.

“… Virtually, most of the people that come to Savannah go to River Street while they’re here, so it’s obviously the big, huge potential, I think, for Savannah to improve its image and grow revenue for the city.”

Kessler said he feels the Savannah market is in need of higher-end hotels that will draw in visitors with higher spendable incomes and when this happens everyone benefits, he said.

“… It really brings in a person with a very high spendable income into the market and when they fall in love with Savannah, whether they end up buying real estate here or they’re buying products and services they obviously have the means of spending money and they will,” he said.

The development will create upwards of 700 jobs and Kessler estimates it will generate about $30 million in taxes for the City of Savannah over the first 10 years of operation.

“That’s direct from the project and city planners will tell you, when you generate that type of volume the ripple effect in the community is usually two to three times that,” he said.

“… You could interpolate that there could be another $60 million plus, that would probably be generated throughout the city due to our project, so that could be as much as $90 million of revenue generated for the city over a 10 year period. It will definitely have huge, positive impact economically on the city and for the county.”

More investment to come?

Plant Riverside will be the seventh Savannah-area development for Kessler, but there’s more to come. Earlier this year he acquired the historic Armstrong House on the north end of Forsyth Park, but Kessler said he’s still looking at his options for the building and his overall future investments in Savannah.

“We’re thinking about some other things, but I want to get (Plant Riverside) well underway before we go to the next step in Savannah,” he said.

“We’ll soon began the process of going forward with (the Armstrong House project), but we’re deciding what we want to do with it. In any case we’ll be doing a major improvement on it… It needs a major investment in it to upgrade it and re-install it to the quality of building it was at one time.”

Celebrating the start

Wednesday’s Plant Riverside groundbreaking is open to the public and after four years of planning, Kessler said he’s extremely pleased and relived to have the project under construction. The project is expected to take about two years to complete, according to Kessler.

“This is a very exciting event to be there and to share with the local people what we’ve done and to share with the people who have made it happen, just the excitement of really finally having a party to celebrate the four years of intense work that everybody has accomplished,” he said.

Kessler also praised the current and prior City of Savannah administration for their support in the development, which included a $33 million bonding agreement with the city that allows the him to construct a garage for hotel guests and public use.

Kessler will retain all the parking revenue but be responsible for paying the bond debt, as well as the garage’s maintenance and operating costs. In addition, Kessler will pay the city $100,000 per year for 30 years and then $50,000 per year for 20 years after. He is also paying the cost of issuing the bonds, which amounts to about $1.5 million.

“They’re excited about it, they’ve been supportive and helpful, so it’s been a great partnership.” he said.

“We wanted to have a big party and celebrate this and let every body finally say, ‘wow, we made it.’”

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