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CITY TALK: Neighborhood vitality should be part of Savannah vision

Savannah City Manager Rob Hernandez has been talking often about vision.

As Katie Nussbaum reported in a recent story for this newspaper, Hernandez told the Savannah Downtown Business Association this his “number one priority is to bring (City Council) together and create a long-term vision for what this community is going to look like in five years and in 25 years.”

“Everything, every activity, every dollar and every person must be connected to that long-term strategic outcome,” Hernandez said. “Tell me where you want to be and what success looks like, and then it’s my job to hopefully get us there.”

As Hernandez steers the conversation toward the bigger picture, I hope citizens will take the opportunity to weigh in.

As a columnist who has been writing about civic issues for many years, I think we need a much clearer focus on neighborhood vitality and quality of life.

Many of our neighborhoods face similar challenges, so it’s worth acknowledging the common ground.

Crime, for example, impacts all of us to some degree. Those of us who live in areas with prevalent street crime face different issues than those who live in places where criminal activity is less visible, but we would all likely lead richer lives if we lived in a city with low or at least declining crime rates.

Many neighborhoods are also hobbled by arcane and problematic zoning regulations. Many neighborhoods would benefit from more forward-looking uses of technology.

Beyond broad issues like those, however, different Savannah neighborhoods need different things to make them more vital and more likely to thrive throughout the 21st century.

I have often discussed the surging commercial investment in my neighborhood south of Forsyth Park, but the long-term health of the neighborhood requires greater residential density, with a serious emphasis on affordable housing.

We also need traffic calming and a better environment for pedestrians.

There are lots of young families with kids in my neighborhood these days, and I cringe every time I see them crossing streets like Drayton and Whitaker, which many drivers treat like urban speedways.

But that’s my neighborhood, not yours.

Many Savannah neighborhoods, especially those built in the automobile area, have more or less the population density for which they were designed.

In those areas, drainage might be a major issue. Or perhaps a key problem is the lack of recreational and sports facilities, which might be significantly remedied by the current proposal to make better use of existing fields and gyms. That proposal seems like a no-brainer.

Some neighborhoods struggle with blight and with absentee landlords, but other neighborhoods have no such problems. Residents of the Landmark Historic District are especially focused right now on tourism growth, and I suspect that issue will rise to the fore in a few other historic neighborhoods, but that won’t be a major concern in most parts of the city.

The quality-of-life issues might vary from one neighborhood to the next, but we could nevertheless have similar processes for addressing the problems.

Identify the issues. Identify ways of addressing them, both short-term and long-term. Establish an action plan.

As we strengthen individual neighborhoods, we also need a clearer vision of neighborhood connectivity.

The balkanization of Savannah’s neighborhoods has roots in segregation, and the existing divisions aren’t going to evaporate overnight, but some of our physical and psychological barriers can be dismantled.

Given the importance of the Bull Street corridor, for example, it seems crazy that from Park Avenue to DeRenne Avenue the street has served as a dividing line between neighborhoods.

On streets like Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard south of Anderson Street, we have a median that discourages residents from simply crossing the street.

One of the reasons that I’ve supported the westside site for a new arena is that the project gives us an opportunity to make physical stronger connections between the western portion of the Landmark Historic District and West Savannah.

Yes, we need to be careful about making quick changes, and residents within neighborhoods won’t always agree on proposed outcomes.

But I think we’ll find more areas of agreement than disagreement, especially if Hernandez can make city government more nimble and responsive.

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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