I LOVE PROGRESS. Progress is great. Progress is life.
I've seen Savannah when it was a place no one had heard of, where downtown was the last place people wanted to set foot. I see Savannah today, a vibrant and entirely unique city the whole world knows, and apparently loves.
I like it much, much better now.
Savannah has progressed. Savannah is progressing. Savannah will continue to progress. The question has never been if we should progress or are we showing progress. The question is how best to do it.
Savannah City Manager Stephanie Cutter last week unveiled an ambitious, inspiring plan to bring progressive, bike-and-pedestrian-friendly Complete Streets development to an impoverished portion of the Westside close — but not really that close — to downtown.
Designed to connect to a new arena, this "Canal District" would incorporate the old rail bridge over Boundary Street and remnants of the Ogeechee River Canal into a multi-use network. Most ambitious to my mind is its complete reimagining of the bleak urban environment at Stiles and Gwinnett near Carver Heights.
On paper, it looks great. It looks like progress. And progress is good.
Often, people who question the newest and most imaginative plans are called reactionaries, or conservatives, or sticks-in-the-mud who are afraid of change.
I'm none of those. But I'm still not sold.
I've written about my objections before: the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) which would fund the arena is an unsustainably and inescapably political process; the scope seems too large given previous unrealized promises of economic development; build-it-and-they-will-come isn't enough to overcome crime and blight and deeply ingrained poverty.
I'm not saying we should never think big, or act big. Greenville, S.C., has quietly accomplished one of the most bold and user-friendly downtown redevelopments in the nation.
Columbia, S.C., has reimagined its built and natural environment on both banks of the Congaree River in a progressive, green, family-friendly fashion which promotes connectivity and healthy outdoor activity.
New York City has done amazing things with its High Line project, which the local Westside plans by Sottile & Sottile Urban Design clearly echo.
Then again, Greenville is in a million-person metro area. Columbia is nearly as big, with the institutional advantages of hosting not only an enormous state university but also the state government.
And New York City is ... New York City.
Savannah remains a very small market, with a quarter of its residents under or near the poverty level, a city which funds major projects like this through a sales tax structure which disproportionately impacts precisely those people under or near the poverty level.
It's no accident the Westside plan was unveiled a few weeks before the public will vote whether to extend the SPLOST penny tax, chiefly to fund the arena. Dangling the sexy carrot of a new green project is part and parcel of the government PR campaigns often used to promote sales taxes.
Aside from my DNA-level distaste for any tax which needs a PR campaign, my problem with the Canal District is twofold:
First, I'd like to see the City successfully pull off more and smaller projects before I trust them to pull off this very large project. To be fair, for every debacle such as the Savannah River Landing and the weird moat in front of the Forsyth Park bandshell, there's a success story, like the Price Street bike path or drainage improvements.
But I'd like to see the record improve before signing onto an extension of a penny tax which, to put it mildly, has so far been managed in a haphazard manner.
Secondly: Have you heard of the Coastal Transition Center? I have. Where over 200 male felons at a time reside before attempting to reenter society, that minimum security facility is mentioned in what seems like every other news release we receive from Savannah/Chatham Metro Police.
The Coastal Transition Center is mentioned because so many of its inmates "escape" — i.e, walk away — and again commence the shooting and robbing and raping which landed them in jail in the first place.
At Louisville Road and Stiles Avenue, the Center is mere blocks from downtown and a short stroll from every site in the beautiful artist's renderings of the new Canal District.
That's connectivity, too.
Recidivism is a real problem in Chatham County, and the Coastal Transition Center is ground zero. If there's a plan to address this problem, then by all means dangle that carrot in front of me, and we'll talk. I like dangling carrots as much as the next guy.
Progress is good. But paying more for one step forward, two steps backward, isn't what progress looks like.