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CITY TALK: Proposals could better balance downtown residents, tourists

The need for greater residential density in Savannah’s downtown area has been a recurring theme of this column for 17 years, so I’m thrilled that the current city administration seems prepared to take substantive action on this long-standing problem.

City officials are currently weighing proposals from the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority and from city staffers that would spur additional residential investment, but let’s consider some background before looking at a few details.

The arguments for more residents in the greater downtown area have seemed straightforward for many years, but the issue has become more urgent as tourism has boomed and hotels have proliferated.

In the first half of the 20th century, the neighborhoods bounded by East Broad Street, Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Victory Drive had at least three times more residents than they have today.

As the downtown area declined over a period of decades, residential properties were converted to commercial and institutional ones, including a plethora of underutilized parking lots. As blight spread, the number of vacant houses and properties grew.

The downtown area economy, which was hit hard over the years by this population decline, would clearly be boosted by a more vibrant residential presence.

But I don’t want to focus solely on the economic arguments. Savannah’s oldest neighborhoods are walkable, beautiful and capable of providing a high quality of life. Many Savannahians’ lives could be enriched if we had additional housing options downtown.

And General Oglethorpe knew what he was doing when he founded Savannah on the bluff. In a fragile coastal environment where hurricanes are possible, it is simply common sense to get as many folks living on high ground as possible.

Those arguments for greater residential density in the downtown area have been valid for a long time, but the current exploration of ways to incentivize residential construction largely resulted from our ongoing tourism boom.

I love that people want to come from around the country and around the world to experience Savannah, but the city’s cultural fabric is being strained by the growth in the number of visitors.

As I’ve argued many times here in recent years, Savannahians will be increasingly met with a stark choice. The downtown area is dotted with large, undeveloped lots, and many of them will be used for hotels if we keep doing things as we’ve done them in the past.

Alderman Bill Durrence has been especially articulate in discussing the problem, but other members of Savannah City Council, City Manager Rob Hernandez and key city staffers seem to understand the issues, too.

For example, when city officials decided to sell a large lot at Habersham Street and Oglethorpe Avenue, they solicited bids for mixed use residential and commercial development.

It’s imperative that officials continue to prioritize residential uses for surplus city property, especially when the existing arena on Liberty Street has become obsolete.

The SDRA’s recent proposals to enhance the residential character of downtown are all worthy of consideration, but the devil will be in the details.

Right now, our zoning code favors hotel construction over residential investment in a variety of ways. There will certainly be objections to new policies that will allow for greater density of housing units or that will relax off-street parking requirements, but such steps are likely necessary.

In recent years, new apartment buildings in the downtown area have been geared toward college students or have been marketed as high-end rentals. With relatively minor changes to the zoning, we could see less expensive rental options and even spur the creation of affordable housing options that would be ideal for workers in the hospitality industry.

The SDRA has recommended that residential developers be allowed to contribute to a parking fund — money that would go toward a public garage or other infrastructure — rather than provide on-site parking. If we could implement a system like that, a developer might be able to build more units at a lower cost.

The SDRA also recently suggested that we consider allowing taller buildings in some portions of the downtown area, including on certain blocks of Liberty Street. As SDRA executive director Kevin Klinkenberg said recently, we already have three 10-story buildings on Liberty.

Over the years, downtown area residents have been wary of proposals that would increase residential density, but the tide seems to have turned. If we want vibrant downtown neighborhoods with large numbers of year-round residents, we need to take substantive steps now.

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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