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City Talk: Downtown density debate: Boring but important

We had some big news last week in Savannah. Mayor Eddie DeLoach’s bold call for reappraisal of the Talmadge Memorial Bridge and the Confederate monument in Forsyth Park prompted a fascinating discussion among members of City Council.

Around the country, we have seen some municipalities act quickly to remove Confederate monuments from the public realm, but that is exceedingly unlikely to happen here. State law bans outright removal of any military monument, and the sheer scale of the memorial in Forsyth Park would seem to preclude an easy relocation.

State officials have the final say on the name of the bridge, so it’s possible that the structure will continue to honor Governor Eugene Talmadge (1884-1946), a staunch segregationist, no matter how strongly Savannahians push for a new name.

So don’t expect a quick resolution of either of those issues.

Of course, that wasn’t the only big news last week.

Before the most recent City Council meeting, a Charlotte developer stepped away from plans to build a large apartment building facing Forsyth Park. The proposed complex along East Bolton Street had become increasingly controversial since the mayor and aldermen green-lighted it in early August, but I have heard little public discussion of the underlying zoning issues since the project collapsed in the face of a City Council do-over.

To most folks, zoning is boring.

Whether you loved it or hated it, the proposed apartment building raised vital questions about the optimal residential density in the downtown area.

When I started writing this column in 2000, the “D word” was largely taboo, but the conversation has shifted as the benefits of increased density have become clearer.

We need more downtown residents to support more vibrant neighborhood economies that don’t rely too much on tourism.

In their original debate about the East Bolton Street project, the mayor and aldermen also talked forthrightly about giving young professionals more options for living downtown. That’s a laudable goal.

But we also need more affordable housing downtown. We have a robust hospitality industry in Savannah, and we can dramatically improve the quality of life for some of those workers if we incentivize the creation of less expensive apartments and homes.

Some of us are lucky to enjoy living in Savannah’s beautiful, walkable downtown, and many more would enjoy it if we had more diverse housing stock and fewer restrictions on density.

Downtown neighborhoods also occupy some of the highest ground in the city. In a coastal city threatened by hurricanes and sea level rise, it just makes sense to encourage more people to live on the high ground.

I look forward to a rigorous public debate about the bridge and the Confederate monument, but don’t forget about the density discussion. We are capable of talking about more than one issue at a time.

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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