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CITY TALK: Bay Street redesign removes some parking spaces, widens sidewalks

During the current economic expansion, we are getting glimpses of Savannah’s future.

Hotel projects are already transforming the west end of River Street, and we’re likely to see more investment in the area north of Bay Street and west of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.

Savannah River Landing, the massive parcel at the east end of River Street, also appears poised for activity. Potential buyers of the privately owned land have presented a plan that seems certain to be approved by Savannah’s elected leaders.

Given the collapse of the previous proposals for Savannah River Landing, it’s natural to have doubts about the new plan, but the developer’s long-term goals seem achievable.

We also remain on a slow track to replace the existing Civic Center arena. That project will eventually transform the proposed Canal District just west of downtown and the valuable Historic District land that holds the current arena.

Also, we have been following the Savannah Downtown Streetscape Improvement Initiative (http://www.savannahga.gov/streetscape), an ongoing city effort in conjunction with the Florida-based design firm EDSA to make Broughton, Bay and River streets more attractive and easier to enjoy, especially for pedestrians.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the changes on tap for Broughton Street. The curb extensions at the intersections, the new landscaping, the new hardscape and the widened sidewalks should make the street more beautiful and pedestrian-friendly.

We should see tangible results on Broughton Street in 2018.

Given the cost constraints and given the fact that we live in, you know, Savannah, I don’t feel certain that EDSA’s plans for Bay and River streets will ever be fully implemented, no matter how determined the current city council members may be to push the projects forward.

But those plans are still worth a deeper look. For the rest of this column, I’ll focus on EDSA’s final conceptual design for Bay Street.

As you probably know, we have a lot of issues on Bay Street — heavy vehicular use, high speeds, significant parking demand, narrow travel lanes, narrow sidewalks, mature trees constrained by curbs, a lack of bicycle access and varying street widths. As I’ve argued here before, there is simply no way to solve all of the problems at once.

EDSA’s final conceptual design for Bay Street addresses some of the problems fairly well, but their final concept represents a series of compromises. On balance, those compromises might be pretty good ones.

In preliminary design phases, EDSA presented the idea of a narrow median on much of Bay Street. The plan attracted favorable feedback from workshop attendees, but, as I suspected, the street just isn’t wide enough to accommodate medians unless we completely eliminate on-street parking or eliminate turn lanes.

In the final design, EDSA is proposing the removal of dozens of on-street parking spots on Bay Street, primarily from the north side. That is going to hurt some businesses, probably more than the business owners realize, and the lack of easy, inexpensive evening parking is really going to hurt some hospitality industry workers.

But by eliminating some on-street parking, we will have room to widen the sidewalk on the south side of Bay Street. We can also extend the curbs on the north side of the street to give more room for the root systems of mature trees.

The plan calls for the enhancement of the pedestrian path on the north side of Bay Street to make room for bicycles. I don’t know if that plan will work very well, but we will find out.

There are other notable details in EDSA’s Bay Street redesign, including new trees in the widened sidewalk on the south side of the street, but we’re basically just trading parking spaces for a significantly better pedestrian experience. The driving patterns will remain much as they are now.

At the presentation of the final concepts for the streets, EDSA’s Kona Gray also presented a “long-term approach” to Bay Street — a radically different vision for the street.

According to Gray, Bay Street through the Historic District sees 24,000 to 27,000 cars per day. If daily traffic could be reduced to 20,000 or fewer cars per day, we could implement a “road diet.”

For the long-term, EDSA imagines Bay Street with three vehicular lanes – one eastbound, one westbound and a dedicated center turn lane. We could then retain parking on one side of the street and add dedicated bike lanes on both sides.

With that configuration, some intersections would also have room for pedestrian islands that could also serve as landscaped medians. The pedestrian experience would also be enhanced by moving cars farther from the sidewalk.

Is there any prospect that daily traffic would decline by 25 percent on Bay Street?

When traffic engineers allow northbound drivers on East Broad Street to turn west onto Broughton Street again, that might divert some cars from Bay Street, but the reopening of General McIntosh Boulevard will likely put more cars onto Bay.

A second bridge to Hutchinson Island or some other dedicated truck route might divert a significant amount of traffic from Bay Street, but there are no easy or inexpensive solutions.

Perhaps over time — maybe decades — we might see changes in commuting patterns. Maybe future leaders will set different priorities for Bay Street.

For now, however, we’re just going to have to do the best we can on Bay Street, which means balancing conflicting needs.

An upcoming City Talk will be devoted to EDSA’s provocative designs for River Street.

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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