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CITY TALK: Savannah hotel moratorium’s lasting impact unclear

  • Bill Dawers
Savannah City Council pulled the trigger last week on a 90-day moratorium on large hotels across a broad swath of the downtown area.
 
The resolution says the reason for the moratorium is to give city officials some time “to study the interaction of such hotels with the surrounding neighborhoods.”
 
When I started writing this column in 2000, it was hard to imagine we would ever have a need for such an aggressive move. We already had a burgeoning hospitality industry at the turn of the century, and River Street was increasingly the domain of tourists. But you could have safely rolled a bowling ball down the middle of Broughton Street on an average evening.
 
During the housing boom more than a decade ago, market forces spurred some ambitious residential investment, but you know what happened next. We experienced slow sales, falling prices, a high rate of foreclosures and a dramatic decline in new construction.
 
The current economic expansion began in 2009, but demand for new housing lagged even as Savannah became ever more popular as a tourist destination.
 
For many years, there has also been a strong local bias against increased residential density in historic neighborhoods. For various reasons — some logical, some not — longtime residents were resistant to any significant population increase.
 
And so the market was determined.
 
I’m especially glad to see that the hotel moratorium extends as far south as Victory Drive between East Broad Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. We haven’t yet seen significant hotel development extend beyond the Landmark Historic District, but it seems inevitable that major hoteliers will look into the Victorian, Thomas Square and Metropolitan neighborhoods.
 
There are large, underutilized parcels in those neighborhoods, especially in the Montgomery Street corridor, and many of us hope that we can reestablish the historical fabric of homes and small businesses.
 
The moratorium has significant limitations. The temporary delay doesn’t apply to hotel projects already well underway or those with fewer than 55 rooms. Even though some excellent proposals to encourage residential investment have been put forward, it is unclear how much city officials will be able to do in 90 days.
 
Still, a moratorium like this is a strong political statement.
 
In addition to incentives for residential development, I hope Savannah officials will consider a permanent ban on additional large hotels in almost all of the area covered by the moratorium. In the limited areas where such hotels make sense, we should mandate ground level retail and restaurant uses with dedicated entrances.
 
If, after a few years, such restrictions prove too onerous, we can always adjust.
 
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City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.

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