Project DeRenne - a neighborhood revitalization project that is doable, or a pipe dream that could lead to a nightmare?
It depends on who you ask. The Savannah City Council recently tackled the question, with members standing firmly on both sides of the equation.
"Now we have the chance to work not just on the transportation area, but also to work on revitalization," City Manager Michael Brown said. "I envisioning DeRenne as not being an ugly arterial, but a commercial main street, with a set of places where you might go to eat dinner.
"You could sit down at a table or café, go buy something in that corridor, go to an office there," he said. "Along with the residential portion, it will be a pleasant area."
Brown said city staff has taken a whole new approach to DeRenne. "It’s labor intensive, but worth it," he said. "We can get there within the near future with residential enhancement, commercial enhancement, then work on reducing traffic."
For every day the city waits, there are more vacancies on DeRenne, Brown said. "When Captain D’s is closing, you know there’s a sign right there," he said.
Susan Broker, director of the city’s Citizen Office, showed the council a map that represents work done in Phase I, which began in May 2008 and ended in December, and upcoming work for Phase II. Representatives of Hunter Army Air Field, Savannah Technical College, the Savannah/Chatham Public Schools and both hospitals are members of the advisory committee, she said.
Everyone involved wants to improve DeRenne, Broker said. "Doing nothing is not an option," she said.
"When we started this process, we thought quality of life and transportation issues were mutually exclusive, but found that they are inextricably linked," Broker said. "We’ve learned a lot, gotten smarter, and realized we can’t build a thruway through a neighborhood."
Creating an urban corridor will increase traffic flow and address quality of life issues, Broker said. "We’re in Phase II, where the magic happens," she said. "This is where people are going to come together and find a solution, not just to traffic, but neighborhood quality. It’s exciting for the community. This is where the citizenry gets to put pencil to paper.
"We said Project DeRenne would be the most extensive public process we’d ever done," Broker said. "We brought people back to the table. I don’t want downplay the fact that we had to get the community at least to a neutral place. There was a lot of anger and distrust."
But Broker believes that the public outreach has been successful. "We’ve got them ready to move forward to Phase II," she said.
Residents will be asked for input at a week-long series of public meetings. "It’s a very intensive week but it does give everyone in the community an opportunity (to participate)," Broker said. "What we hope to get out of that is the master plan for the corridor. We’ll know what the lanes should look like, what kind of commercial activity the neighbors and business owners would like to see. Then we’ll bring it to the council for endorsement."
Phase I cost $305,000, and Phase II will cost $737,000. Funding will come from $20 million in ESPLOST funds, Brown said. "This is expensive planning, but not as expensive as some of the other corridors," he said. "The expensive part, the well-worth-it part, is the public engagement."
Mayor Otis Johnson said he’s never had a chance to do anything about the DeRenne corridor, but hopes he can before his second term ends. "Before I leave office, I want to vote on something," he said.
Broker said a master plan could be reached within 6-8 months, and Brown said ground-breaking could take place as soon as 36 months. "When we actually have the concept plan, we can proceed to engineering," Brown said.
The Hampstead corridor, a major bone of contention for DeRenne area residents in a past Connecting Savannah project, is not part of this project, Broker said. Traffic is a component of the plan, but so are beautification and preservation.
"We’ve got to get beyond the idea that there is a traffic solution," Brown said. "It’s about neighborhood vitality. We’re building a boulevard, we’re not building a freeway."
Alderman Jeff Felser questioned the plan. "To clarify to the public, when all is said and done, you’re not telling them that traffic is going to be swifter or less congested," he said.
"It’s realistic to get it less congested, but not by building some roadway that butts through a neighborhood," Brown responded. "Think Liberty and Oglethorpe. Is it possible to have an arterial people can walk along and shop along? Yes.
"Are there times DeRenne has a large volume? Yes. We’re going to work with Effingham and Bryan counties to look at the commuter and ride-share process.
"This will preserve and make the neighborhood vital, but we’re not going to say we’re going to have some big thruway," Brown said. "When we’re done, everyone will be happy to have visitors come to town. They’re not going to be embarrassed to take them down DeRenne."
The mayor said he wasn’t being pessimistic, he was being realistic. "That is one tremendous challenge in terms of traffic," he said. "We can talk about it in different languages, but part of the plan has to answer the question: What do we do about the volume of traffic? We’re here because of the volume of traffic on DeRenne."
"It’s not word play," Brown responded. "It’s possible and we have examples of how to do it without detriment to the surrounding properties. We also have vacancies and blight creeping into that corridor."
"You can twist it any way you want," the mayor said bluntly. "Blight is a result of the traffic. Maybe there’s another answer, but that’s my answer to the blight issue. Those businesses have closed and gone somewhere else."
Residents have opposed previous plans and some will undoubtedly oppose this one, the mayor said. "There was opposition to the widening of DeRenne because of a fear on the part of residents on the Southside and in Tatumville about what will it would do to their neighborhoods," he said.
"A lot of hard talking and compromising and negotiations are going to have to go on," Johnson said. "What we’ve seen in the past is that we’ve had plans and when they get presented, we have all these groups emerge because they were not involved in the beginning. Then we go back to zero and we’ve spent all that money (for nothing)."
"When opposition surfaces, folks begin to run and hide," he said. "I’m ready to vote. I want the process to be as inclusive as possible. I’m going to vote on something. I just want the opposition to be minimized. This is one of the most important things this council will do this term."
"If we have concerns, we need get people involved now," Alderwoman Mary Ellen Sprague said. "I don’t think it’s fair for people at the end of the process to say they don’t like it when they’re given opportunity after opportunity after opportunity to get involved."
Alderman Larry Stuber said the plan is a great one. "I support the project," he said. "It’s going to take a lot of will but it can be done."
Brown said the project can be done in Savannah because similar projects have been done elsewhere. "There are some wonderful boulevards in the United States that have more traffic, yet have a great environment," he said. "Today is an opportunity to get beyond this. It doesn’t mean anyone will be able to drive through at 50 miles per hour during peak traffic, but it does mean they can get through at a reasonable rate."
"I know what we went through last time," Alderwoman Edna Jackson said. "I think preservation of the neighborhood is definitely important, but until you deal with transportation and safety (it won’t happen)."
"The idea is we need to do something," Alderman Clifton Jones said. "Some of these things we have got to deal with."
"What concerns me is we’ve got $1 million in this and this is just Phase II," Alderman Tony Thomas said. "At what point do we actually put a shovel in there? When you put the crosswalks in, do you really believe the flow of traffic is actually going to allow (people to cross)?
"To me, this is another Truman Parkway," Thomas said. "I think 30 years from now, the people sitting up here will still be talking about this."
Brown held firm to his belief the project can be successful. "We’re not setting an easy goal, but it is achievable," he said. "When you look at a lot of projects, if we were pessimistic, we would never have gotten them."
The mayor said the one thing he is sure the plan will provide is intellectual exercise. "One term is gone," he said. "Half of this one is gone. I’ve not voted on the east-west corridor yet."