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CITY TALK: Broughton streetscape debate centers on trees, lighting

On three evenings last week, planners from the Florida-based firm EDSA publicly unveiled their preliminary streetscape designs for Broughton, Bay and River streets.

About 80 community members, including many with expertise in architecture, landscape architecture and urban planning, showed up at the Coastal Georgia Center for the meeting about Broughton Street. The meetings to discuss Bay and River streets on the following nights didn’t attract quite as many people, but all three gatherings were notable for passionate citizen engagement.

Kona Gray of EDSA led the discussions, which began each night with reminders about the process and the general goals.

Given the complexity of the issues for each street, I can’t adequately cover all three meetings in a single column. So today I’ll just share some background and commentary about EDSA’s preliminary designs for Broughton Street.

I think most Savannahians would find a lot to like in the Broughton Street plans, which would improve the pedestrian experience, create opportunities for small businesses, and have no negative impact on vehicular traffic.

Under EDSA’s current design, the vehicular lane widths on Broughton Street would be slightly reduced, which would allow for a couple more feet of sidewalk width. That change would create more room for café seating or other amenities between the street trees.

New curb extensions at each intersection would enhance pedestrian mobility and reduce the distance required to cross the street. The semi-circular bumpouts, which Gray said would also serve as one way of controlling water runoff, present opportunities for beautification and would not require the removal of any parking spaces.

In all three sessions, Gray discussed various design details that EDSA would be considering, and he emphasized lighting should not only be consistent with Savannah’s history and architecture but also be “fun,” “festive” and “romantic.”

I have long advocated for fewer restrictions on lighting on Broughton Street – frankly, I’d love to go back to the gaudy neon of the mid-20th century – so I’m especially curious to see if the design firm makes bold recommendations.

The final design will likely include the extensive use of bricks at intersections and native hardscape materials to make the sidewalks more attractive. Gray talked about additional use of signs and markers and removal of some of the tired streetscape elements now in use.

Gray suggested that EDSA’s final plans for Broughton Street would treat the stretch from Drayton to Whitaker streets somewhat differently and make it easier to close those two blocks to vehicular traffic for special events.

As I’ve noted in columns over the years, we have traditionally made improvements to Broughton only as far east as Lincoln Street. EDSA’s study area extends to East Broad Street.

I’ve detailed some significant changes – all improvements in my opinion – but the bulk of last week’s meeting was devoted to the proposed trees.

Savannah city officials have for many years planted Bosque elms on Broughton Street. The shape of the elms provides decent shade in an urban corridor, and the trees are relatively tolerant to drought and heat.

But Bosque elms aren’t native to the area, aren’t especially notable for any reason, and fared poorly during the high winds of Hurricane Matthew.

At last week’s public meeting, there was not one defender of the choice of Bosque elms, and a series of articulate, knowledgeable and passionate local citizens criticized their use in the Broughton streetscape.

One attendee called the Bosque elms “trash trees.” Another referred to the years of public meetings, at which residents routinely criticize the use of elms, as “public participation theater.”

The city’s continued insistence on using so many Bosque elms seems puzzling in light of the resistance to the species. Other options exist, and, especially given EDSA’s plans for extra sidewalk width and for capturing rainwater, we might even be able to consider species that might have seemed impractical in the past.

There was also considerable disagreement about the potential use of native palmettos on Broughton. EDSA’s plan called for limited use on north-south streets of the so-called “palm trees” as a way to indicate the direction of the river, but some residents would like to see many more palms on Broughton itself.

Other residents clearly favor the liberal use of shade trees.

EDSA’s preliminary recommendations call for shade trees on Broughton, but such large trees will obscure some of the street’s final architectural details and reduce visibility of individual businesses. Also, it’s worth adding that the south side of the street has some degree of shade year-round because of the height of the buildings.

There was also disagreement among attendees about the uniformity from block to block. At least a few in attendance favored consistency for the entire length of Broughton, while others called for some variation, especially in trees, from block to block.

One attendee cogently argued against a “cookie cutter” approach that would risk losing the “genuine nature of Savannah scatteredness.”

Speaking for myself, I like the idea of consistency between, say, Drayton and Whitaker streets, but it strikes me as folly to rely for block after block on a single non-native deciduous species.

In upcoming columns, I’ll take a detailed look at the plans for Bay and River streets. You can read more about the streetscape project at http://savannahga.gov/streetscape.

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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