FOR THE PAST few years, Savannah has engaged in a debate about the need for a true strategic plan, what such a plan will look like, and how we could get there.
That discussion played a large part in electing a new mayor, Eddie DeLoach, and a slate of new alderpersons who ran on change platforms – Carol Bell, Bill Durrence, Brian Foster, and Julian Miller.
Their election in turn enabled the hiring of Rob Hernandez, a competent and experienced new city manager free of local cronyism and well-versed in the concept of strategic planning for results.
There have indeed been steps taken toward such a strategic plan. There hasn’t been much practical application of it so far, however.
Until last Thursday’s Council meeting — when Savannah residents found out that one of the first concrete steps toward a new strategic plan would be to create a brand-new zoning classification over the objections of the Metropolitan Planning Commission and the neighborhood, solely in order to allow a high-rise residential development in the Victorian District near Forsyth Park, half the size of a football field.
In discussion prior to the vote, Mayor DeLoach and other members of council spoke — accurately I believe — of the need to promote more residential density downtown.
“The future is smaller properties, smaller units for people to live downtown,” the Mayor said. “It’s going to be different, it’s going to be unusual for awhile. But it is what’s coming if we’re going to be a community that welcomes people.”
On this, the Mayor is essentially on point. If you’ve been to Atlanta lately, you know they literally cannot build new high-rise residential buildings fast enough to house the relentless influx of young professionals to the rapidly redeveloping Midtown/Old Fourth Ward area.
But the devil of density is in the details. Atlanta isn’t the same as Savannah.
“What this is really about is do you really want a Victorian neighborhood or not,” said one concerned citizen at last week’s Council meeting. “It’s as simple as that.”
And Atlanta has more jobs that generally pay much better than Savannah currently offers, despite Council’s glib pitch that the new building in and of itself would have mystical power to attract young professionals and millennials downtown.
Andree Patterson, head of the Victorian Neighborhood Association, followed all the rules expected of involved citizens, but still lost the battle against the project, which she says is “nothing more than spot zoning,” accomplished in “a very devious way.”
I don’t know about that. But I do know that the developer employed the same attorney who has successfully spearheaded many controversial building projects in Savannah. He happens to be from the same firm as the current City Attorney, Brooks Stillwell.
As it takes shape, we now have a bit of an inkling of Savannah’s strategic plan: Virtually the identical plan that any politically well-connected, large-scale developer here would have.
How about that. What a coincidence.
Always keep this in mind moving forward: A majority of this City Council thinks part of Savannah’s strategic plan should include fast-tracking large high-rise apartment buildings in protected historic areas over the MPC’s objections.
A look at the Council agenda made it painfully obvious that the intention was to ram the project through in one shot as a package deal.
Item 9 on the agenda was to vote to create the new 4-R zoning classification, designed specifically to accommodate this one construction project.
Item 10 was to vote to allow the apartment project to go forward in the new 4-R zoning classification, spawned by voice vote moments before.
The Council split along similar lines on both items. Alderman Van Johnson took the lead in speaking — rather eloquently, I thought — against the project, as well as the process:
“It’s hard for me to separate the zoning from the project, because they’re interlinked,” Johnson said. “Ultimately we have to decide what it is Savannah is going to be in terms of its character. Part of what makes Savannah Savannah is you can look up and see the sky.”
In the end, Johnson was joined by Alderwoman Estella Shabazz and Alderman Bill Durrence in opposing the project.
(Alderwoman Bell, who apparently lives very near the proposed site, effectively recused herself by leaving the meeting before the vote. Mayor DeLoach said it was because she had to “catch a flight.”)
Concerned citizens were limited to two minutes each in voicing their opinions, and were often rushed along when they approached the time limit.
However, after Council voted to pass the project, the developer himself was allowed to make a roughly ten-minute victory speech continuing to extol the virtues of the project, completely uninterrupted.
Public reaction against the vote was swift, incredulous, and intense.
So intense that one of the “yes” votes — Alderman Tony Thomas – sought to overturn the result the next day, “After careful reflection on the proceedings and additional information I have learned regarding the development,” as he posted on Facebook.
(As of this writing, it isn’t 100 percent clear that Thomas will be able to force such a vote under the rules of debate.)
At the meeting, steps were taken to tweak the new zoning to enable Council to control the type of retail on the ground floor. There were also assurances that tenants won’t be allowed to use units as Short Term Vacation Rentals.
But these stipulations generally have little to no teeth, and I have found few people who even half-heartedly make the case that they can be adequately enforced.
In the end, all you can really say is that one of Savannah’s first real steps toward realizing a strategic plan:
1) Got a bare majority on City Council;
2) Is opposed by the MPC;
3) Is opposed by the neighborhood; and
4) Is apparently overwhelmingly opposed by the public at large.
Not a very good plan, is it?