In several recent City Talk columns, I detailed the progress of the Savannah Downtown Streetscape Improvement Initiative, an $8 million project to enhance the design and safety of Broughton, Bay and River streets.
You can read more about the process at savannahga.gov/streetscape.
A week ago, I devoted an entire column to the preliminary work by the Florida-based landscape architecture firm EDSA for Broughton Street. In Tuesday’s column, I tried to give an overview of the plans for Bay Street.
Today, let’s take a quick look at the preliminary plans for River Street and to the public reaction to those plans at a recent meeting at the Coastal Georgia Center.
I was struck primarily by how much uncertainty remains about the concepts that EDSA designers will present for River Street on March 23.
A few things seem clear. EDSA will likely recommend building a replacement Rousakis Plaza stage that will be on the river side of the riverwalk. There will certainly be some additional enhancements to the riverwalk itself and to the sidewalks along the street.
But how bold will EDSA be with other suggestions? Will they recommend the shrinking or even removal of existing parking lots so that the pedestrian experience can be enhanced dramatically?
Will the consulting firm follow the suggestions of some members of the public who want to ban most vehicular traffic from River Street? If we had a handful of dropoff points on River Street and guaranteed access for emergency and service vehicles, could we largely eliminate cars?
Dramatically reducing vehicular traffic on River Street would probably be contingent on other issues that might be difficult to address in the next month. We need to solve the problem of parking in the northern portion of the Historic District, especially for low-wage service industry employees, and we will likely need more visitor parking than is currently planned for the east and west ends of River Street.
We will also need to have more reliable trolley service on River Street. In a related vein, we only have one operational ferry landing right now – the one down at the east end by the Marriott.
City officials and EDSA have already been considering removing some on-street parking from Bay Street, which will make access to River Street more difficult. Creating additional barriers to access will hurt River Street’s economy and will make it even less likely that local residents will enjoy the riverfront.
To put it simply, how much do we want River Street to function as an actual street? Or is it simply a place, a destination, a plaza that plays no important role in vehicular connectivity?
Zoning crisis update
On Thursday, Savannah City Council voted 7-2 to approve an alcohol license for The Stage on Bay. That was a reversal of the previous vote to deny the large music venue a license.
After the earlier denial, the owners of The Stage on Bay planned to force the city to defend its position in court. It’s hard to see how the city could have won.
After all, The Stage on Bay worked actively with city staffers to make sure they were in compliance with the zoning for the chosen West Bay Street site.
Yes, some city officials argue that an alcohol license is a “privilege” and not a “right” – that language appears in the city ordinance – but the zoning code is much clearer. In some zoning districts, alcohol licenses are allowed by right, and in some districts the licenses are “special uses.”
It would be sensible for almost any major venue, especially one that abuts residential properties and lacks sufficient on-site parking, to follow the procedure for special uses. If such a procedure had been in place for properties on West Bay Street, members of the community would have had a chance to object to the large new venue before the owners had invested significant sums of money.
As I’ve discussed before, the battle over The Stage on Bay’s alcohol license is symptomatic of a broader bureaucratic failure. We have outdated and convoluted zoning in much of the city, and the city’s leaders – elected and unelected – have let the issues worsen for years.
City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.