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CITY TALK: District 2 stakeholders share visions for city

Last Wednesday evening, about 100 Savannah residents participated in the District 2 meeting at the Savannah Civic Center to gather input for Savannah Forward, a strategic planning process that is one of the most important initiatives launched since the hiring of City Manager Rob Hernandez.

At the recent Johnson Square press conference announcing Savannah Forward, Mayor Eddie DeLoach invited residents to engage in the process and then turned the mic over to Hernandez.

Hernandez noted some strengths of our city government, but he also said, “Our government is not near where it should be, and it is not prepared to meet the high expectations and aggressive goals that have been set forth by this mayor and the city council.”

Hernandez explained that a key goal of Savannah Forward is to align city spending and services with citizen priorities. He said that our city government needs to be “more targeted and more focused.”

For what it’s worth, I’m optimistic that we will see some real results from Savannah Forward, assuming city staff and consultant Jeremy Stephens of Managing Results LLC can find clear themes amid the flood of suggestions from residents.

There were dozens of ideas discussed at the session for District 2, which includes a number of Savannah’s oldest neighborhoods. I can’t possibly recap the entire meeting in a single column, but a few themes emerged.

Slower traffic, improved streetscapes

The first speaker noted the high-speed traffic on the one-way Henry and Anderson streets. The second speaker echoed that comment with an emphasis on Drayton and Whitaker streets. Numerous other comments during the session also focused on the need for traffic-calming in those corridors.

One resident noted, as I did in a recent column, that an extended lane closure on Whitaker Street has had positive results and has not produced the gridlock predicted by city staff.

This one issue gets right to the heart of the challenge facing Hernandez and his team. Clearly, the residents of District 2 and alderman Bill Durrence recognize the need for calmer traffic on key corridors, but city staffers have repeatedly dismissed those concerns. How will Hernandez and company solve that disconnect?

A number of downtown stakeholders also objected to various elements of the recently approved parking overhaul. City officials may have worked on the plan for two years or more, but they clearly didn’t do the necessary work to secure broad public support.

Several speakers talked about the need for general streetscape upgrades, including better sidewalks. Considerable work has already been done on Waters Avenue, but nearby streets need improvement, and one attendee made a compelling case for more attention to Abercorn Street between 37th Street and Victory Drive.

Out-of-control tourism

Attendees expressed great frustration about issues related to tourism.

Downtown property values and rental costs have been inflated because of the lucrative short-term vacation rental market. Some types of tours are disruptive to residential quality of life. The hospitality industry needs to pay higher wages, and we need city policies that support the workforce rather than make their lives more difficult, as the extended hours of meter enforcement will.

One of the most interesting suggestions was that we revisit the approach to regulation of STVRs. We should discourage their proliferation in the Historic District, where the residential fabric is being threatened, but encourage STVRs in east-side neighborhoods that are begging for investment.

Better planning

A number of stakeholders expressed the need for better decisions regarding planning, zoning and related areas.

The gist of the comments was that there are good plans out there, especially those coming from organizations like the Metropolitan Planning Commission and the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority, but city officials aren’t taking advantage of the available expertise.

More opportunities

Crime was discussed by a few attendees, but the topic got less attention than I expected. Attendees focused instead on finding more ways to enrich the lives of young people through education, job opportunities and community services.

It’s worth noting that Savannah city officials have no direct control over public schools, but residents suggested a number of ideas that the city could explore.

A few residents noted the need for additional services for seniors in downtown neighborhoods.

Also, there seemed to be a sense in the room that many residents simply don’t know about existing programs that could benefit them. We need to find better methods of communication.

A daunting task

Many other issues were raised, including corruption, the need for stronger city support of the arts, the alcohol ordinance, problems related to suburban sprawl and the need for healthy food options, but I simply don’t have the space to detail them all.

Now, the consulting firm and city staff have to make sense of the priorities expressed by residents throughout the city. That means some real scrutiny of the disconnects between city policies and residents’ priorities.

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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