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CITY TALK: Existing processes pit developers, residents against each other

In recent months, we’ve seen several high-profile examples of residents trying to limit commercial development in their neighborhoods.

Neighborhood residents have opposed attempts by hoteliers to reduce restrictions for specific projects on Liberty and Drayton streets. Parkside residents have been increasingly vocal about proposed developments along East Victory Drive.

In recent weeks, residents of Hudson Hill and other West Savannah neighborhoods have spoken out against a 1,000-capacity music venue, The Stage on Bay, which is poised to open next week.

The details are obviously different in all these cases, and I am not equating them.

But these three examples reflect the ongoing tension between private property rights, zoning restrictions and residential quality of life.

I wish I had a nickel — or maybe $10? – for every time I’ve heard someone say that owners should be able to do whatever they want with their privately owned property, but that argument breaks down fast when neighbors are suddenly confronted with new uses that clearly reduce their quality of life.

Savannah seems to have more than its fair share of public debates that involve this fundamental tension between commercial developers and neighborhood residents.

I think the neighbors have some valid concerns in all three of the issues that I cited at the beginning of this column, but we also have a history of indulging spurious complaints from residents who don’t understand the issues at hand or have radically different definitions of “quality of life” than their neighbors do.

A number of readers objected to a recent column in which I suggested that the planned West Elm Hotel on Drayton Street might be a better building if it were allowed a fifth floor. The disagreements, the bureaucratic delays and the lawsuit threats could likely have been avoided if we simply had a clearer zoning code.

In his excellent talk a few months back in the Savannah Urbanism Series, longtime Charleston mayor Joe Riley emphasized that cities can “curate” the experiences of their visitors. Regarding future hotel construction, we can update our ordinances so that neighborhoods are more protected and developers have a clearer idea what to expect.

Perhaps we should get rid of the whole policy of allowing so-called bonus floors for hotels that incorporate street-level retail and restaurant uses. We could simply set a fixed height and also require engagement at the street level.

We could also limit the size of future hotels in certain parts of the city. Maybe hotels south of Liberty Street should have a strict limit set on the number of rooms or on the building footprint.

Yes, such restrictions would impact property rights and potentially reduce commercial investment, but more restrictive policies could be paired with less restrictive policies for other types of projects.

In particular, we could offer those bonus floors for residential development, and we could reduce other restrictions so that new construction would still be profitable.

Of course, some readers might not want any of those things. Some of you might oppose any development that might result in more traffic or noise – that might have any negative impacts at all.

Urban theorist Jane Jacobs used the word “squelchers” to describe the people and the bureaucratic systems that stifle all innovation. If cities are going to thrive, we have to accept and maybe even embrace some of the changes.

At some point, we are going to see additional commercial development in areas that right now are underutilized, including portions of Victory Drive, West Bay Street and Montgomery Street. It looks like that seemingly inevitable surge in investment is coming sooner rather than later.

While the development pressures are mounting, our local bureaucracies have been spinning their wheels with arcane regulations that don’t align with current development trends and also don’t align with neighborhood needs.

In the coming months, City Manager Rob Hernandez will likely propose some new guidelines for hotel development. The long-planned overhaul of the zoning codes for Savannah and Chatham County might finally be moving ahead.

Those changes to public policy seem necessary but by no means sufficient to address the issues ahead.

I devoted a recent column to the need for more focus on the needs of individual neighborhoods. Those needs won’t be addressed simply by changing the zoning code or creating an overlay map for hotel development.

Just as we need more predictable processes from the top down, we need more avenues for grassroots neighborhood efforts to be manifested in policy.

If we don’t find better ways to handle these current tensions between commercial investors and neighborhood residents, we are going to see an endless series of conflicts.

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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