On March 14, the Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission will consider new plans and possibilities for the Savannah River Landing site at the east end of River Street.
According to reporting by Eric Curl last week, Savannah River Landing Land JV, LLC, plans to purchase the 56-acre property if the prospective buyers can get approval for a new master plan for residential, retail, hotel and office development.
It’s been about a decade since the original plans for Savannah River Landing collapsed, and the prospect of major private development on the site might seem exciting for a variety of reasons.
With development at Savannah River Landing, we can generate additional property tax revenue to fund infrastructure improvements in the area and boost government coffers generally. If the site is truly developed for mixed uses and doesn’t become a sea of hotels, SRL might bring some much-needed diversity to the downtown economy, which has become increasingly dependent on tourism.
Given the economic potential, it’s possible that some officials with the MPC and the city of Savannah will be anxious to approve any development at the long dormant site.
But this isn’t a sprint. We need to take the time to ask hard questions.
Savannah River Landing is one of the most important parcels of land in the city. It has extensive river frontage and is immediately adjacent to our gorgeous Landmark Historic District. The site was platted by Savannah founder General James Oglethorpe.
When development of the acreage was considered over a decade ago, urban planner Christian Sottile was hired to extend our existing network of streets and squares so that Savannah River Landing would be a logical and potentially beautiful extension of the Oglethorpe plan.
In preparation for major development, the riverwalk was extended, fill dirt from the Ellis Square project was used to raise the elevation and major work on nearby roads began.
The impending development of Savannah River Landing caught the attention of planners and architects from around the world.
“With a conventional master plan, which often foresees all of the buildings from Day 1,” Sottile told the New York Times in 2007, “you freeze in time the mix of uses. This is the opposite. It’s town-building. The streets come first, public spaces come first, and the blocks become spaces for building, which are not prescribed. It’s highly unusual for American cities.”
Sottile’s plan included design elements generally consistent with the existing Historic District fabric – the pacing of squares, the frequency of streets and the sizes of lots. We would have seen more commercial development near the west side of the site, with more residential development farther east.
The master plan that will be considered next week by the MPC utilizes much of Sottile’s planned street grid, but there would be fewer and smaller squares. The blocks would be configured for larger scale development.
The new master plan for the privately owned site probably makes more economic sense, at least in the short run, than the Sottile plan. The potential developers will likely see a higher return on investment if less space is devoted to the public realm and the parcels are more suitable for intense development.
Readers of this column know that I have long advocated for greater density in the downtown area, and significant residential development at Savannah River Landing could be great news for the economy of River Street and of the Historic District generally.
Still, local officials should scrutinize the proposed master plan, ask some hard questions and listen to voices from the community.
If our civic goal is rapid development over the relatively short term, the new plan might sail through the upcoming bureaucratic approval processes.
But maybe our civic goal is for Savannah River Landing to be a clear extension of the Oglethorpe’s incredibly resilient city plan. In that case, government officials and members of the public need to push the developers to align their vision more closely with the Sottile plan.
Again, I should emphasize that the site is privately owned, which obviously limits public control over Savannah River Landing’s future.
On the other hand, massive public resources have already been invested in and around the site. We are making decisions that will impact the city’s economy and culture for generations.
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.