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City Talk: Lean Urbanism pilot project examines MLK, Waters corridors

About a year ago, the Project for Lean Urbanism selected Savannah and four other U.S. cities for a pilot project aimed at developing viable plans for neighborhood revitalization.

Rather than focusing on large-scale neighborhood interventions, the Project for Lean Urbanism wants to find direct and immediate ways to get things done.

According to the organization’s website (http://www.leanurbanism.org), “Lean Urbanism is small-scale, incremental community-building that requires fewer resources to incubate and mature.”

The project’s goals include “working to lower the barriers to community-building, to make it easier to start businesses, and to provide more attainable housing and development.”

Renowned urban planner Hank Dittmar, one of the professionals leading the pilot project, talked about Lean Urbanism last week to an especially attentive crowd at Trinity United Methodist Church. The event was the latest installment in the Savannah Urbanism Series, an initiative of the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority.

Dittmar noted that the demand for urban living is increasing but that growing corporate power – “big is getting bigger,” he said — is making it harder for individuals to find opportunities in cities. He explained that cities need to find innovative ways to support startups, let young people get “on the ladder” to success and take advantage of the human capital of the growing number of part-time and self-employed workers.

Dittmar warned that the glut of capital in the world is in some cities leading to “large scale changes to urban form,” like the current hotel boom in Savannah.

To counter these trends, Dittmar and the Lean Urbanism team are looking at “pink zones” in the pilot cities. The pink zones are areas where red tape will be reduced as part of action plans that might include recommendations for residential development, commercial investment and improvements to the public realm, including streets and parks.

The Lean Urbanism pilot project will look at two proposed pink zones in Savannah — a portion of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard corridor south of Anderson Street and the Waters Avenue corridor near 37th Street.

The Waters Avenue pink zone includes the shopping plaza that was purchased years ago by the city of Savannah, and the MLK pink zone includes the controversial site where city officials plan to build the new Central Precinct. City officials demolished historic cottages to make room for the new police substation.

Since the pilot project is ongoing, Dittmar did not make specific recommendations about the two study areas, but he did suggest that we will see recommendations for small scale mixed-use development, for temporary events and businesses (like markets or food trucks) and for streamlined codes that “reduce risk and cost to entrepreneurs.”

At this point, I have no idea whether city leaders will embrace the work of the Lean Urbanism pilot team.

On the one hand, it seems like local leaders would be anxious to take advantage of the free expertise that is being offered. Savannah city staff and elected officials have been open to addressing zoning and other regulations with the goal of fostering residential development and economic growth.

Last week, the Metropolitan Planning Commission removed some density maximums from the zoning code. That change, which will almost certainly be approved by Savannah City Council, should encourage residential development in the downtown area.

On the other hand, city officials have made some bad decisions regarding the future Central Precinct along MLK, as I noted most recently in a column in June. The site plan for that new building suggests that city officials have simply given up on trying to follow straightforward urban design principles that have been a hallmark of revitalization efforts in the corridor. Neighbors in Thomas Square recently raised objections to the site plan, but there has so far been no indication that the building will be improved.

The pilot Lean Urbanism project comes at an especially interesting time. In May 2018, Savannah will host the next convention of the Congress for the New Urbanism (http://www.cnu.org).

The Oglethorpe Plan and other elements have long attracted the attention of urban designers, planners and theorists from around the world, but the upcoming CNU could allow for an especially productive civic dialogue about Savannah’s built environment and about our hopes for the city.

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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