DEVELOPERS DEVELOP. That’s what they do for a living.
The news that developer Ben Carter is putting the bulk of his now mostly renovated Broughton Street properties up for sale en masse, i.e. “restructuring,” should come as a shock to no one.
That was part of the plan from the beginning, and anyone who didn’t see this coming wasn’t paying attention. That’s how Carter makes his living.
The simple truth is that a huge amount of capital was sitting on the sidelines during the Great Recession just waiting for the whistle to get back in the game.
Most of the playing fields and game plans were already determined.
Ben Carter was always just one part of that story. Because he was a smidge ahead of the curve — the hallmark of a savvy investor — as well as somewhat personally ostentatious, he received the lion’s share of attention and local opprobrium.
But as they say, or used to say before it became really lame: Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
Following Carter – actually beginning before him, but it just seemed like the reverse – was a tsunami of hotel projects in the downtown area, a veritable forest of cranes rising above the low Savannah skylines in ways more reminiscent of Carter’s old stomping grounds of Atlanta.
The bloom of hotel construction is far from over; we’re still living through it. There is at least one huge project set for the area just south of President Street, on the other side of the road from Savannah River Landing.
Several smaller projects have popped up just within the last few months, nearly always testing the limits of building guidelines for the Historic District.
As symbolic an investment as Carter’s has been for supporters and detractors alike since the day he set foot here, in sheer dollar terms his Broughton Street project is dwarfed by the level of hotel investment in Savannah.
Yes, I’m waxing nostalgic about the good ol’ days way back in 2014, when Ben Carter was the biggest investment news in town. That’s the world we find ourselves in.
What’s interesting is not how much hotel development is here, but why.
As the late 20th Century phenomenon of ‘White Flight’ reverses itself all over the country, investors and developers are setting their sights on once-neglected city centers like Savannah’s and Atlanta’s.
(The larger ramifications of this trend are obviously beyond the scope of this one column.)
The difference? In Atlanta, most of the boom in infill development that’s now going on full-swing in the Midtown/Downtown area is for residential apartments and lofts, built for the huge influx of young professionals, mostly millennials.
Here in Savannah, the boom isn’t residences for locals, but hotels for visitors.
The elephant in the room isn’t so much the number of tourists coming here, but the dwindling number of actual residents in Savannah’s Historic District.
With the rise of Vacation Rentals By Owner, Airbnb, SCAD dorms, and retail/hotel development targeted almost solely to tourists — a la Carter’s Broughton Street — the simple truth is that the full-time, year-round resident of downtown Savannah, owner or renter, is increasingly more like a unicorn.
I know several people who live downtown who are literally the only full-time residents on their whole block. It’s not a good situation.
The battle for the soul of downtown has already been fought and lost. You can’t win without an army, and there just aren’t that many foot soldiers left to fight.
There’s another elephant in the room next door, and that is the stupendous growth in West Chatham, driven not by tourism but by the residential sector.
Recently in my readings and research, I happened to come across the old Tricentennial Plan, a joint project of Savannah-Chatham County put together under the auspices of the Metropolitan Planning Commission in 2005. It forms the basis for the current Comprehensive Plan.
It was fitting not only because this time of year is when we celebrate Savannah’s founding (and Georgia’s as well of course), but because of the Plan’s almost eerie prescience.
It’s a very interesting and sadly underreported document which I heartily encourage you to Google and check out.
One of the most interesting parts is about projected population growth:
Most of the population growth in the next 25 years is expected to be in the western areas of the County. Stable neighborhoods in the City and County will experience very little growth, and the population of many of the built-out neighborhoods will show a decline.
The Tricentennial Plan projects only a 4,000 person increase in population of the City of Savannah proper from 2015-2030! Essentially stagnant.
However, it projects roughly an 18,000 person increase in all the other areas of Chatham County outside City limits. That may not sound like much, but percentagewise it’s huge.
(Another interesting tidbit that deserves its own treatment: “Approximately 25 percent of the population of Chatham County at any given time is not included in any official population count. The uncounted population includes commuters.... second-home owners.... students at local universities.... military personnel... and tourists.” That’s a significant percentage, and should have been playing into all kinds of policy efforts, such as staffing of the Police Department.)
Many of the great cultural and culinary success stories here recently are a function of actual residents living, working, and playing further and further south from the Historic District in places like the Starland District, and further west, in Pooler.
To an extent it’s almost a moot point to debate how to “save” the Historic District from unchecked tourist development. That fat lady is almost finished singing.
Perhaps we should be taking a cue from Ben Carter himself, and just move on from the old, and unfortunately mostly settled, debate.