AS IN CHINA, our leaders in Savannah these days also like to use Marxist arguments to promote brazenly capitalist projects.
So I wasn’t surprised at all when City Council voted last week to allow an unprecedented amendment to height guidelines so that a new high–rise hotel could be built on the east end of River Street.
The edifice, an $80-100 million project of Atlanta’s North Point Hospitality, will from foundation to roofline be roughly the size of the Marriott further east (which sits just outside the Historic District’s guidelines).
However, from its spot on the bluff now occupied by the old Savannah Electric building, the new building will for practical purposes likely be higher, wider, and have greater impact, blocking the view of the river from what is (was?) the highest point in Chatham County, Trustees Garden.
Keep in mind this happened in a city where putting tables on the sidewalk outside your cafe without permission will nearly get you shut down.
This happened in a city whose leaders spent literally months deliberating not whether, but how heavily to regulate the Savannah Slow Ride tourist vehicle.
City Council’s explanation of why — in a place which claims to be so proud of the history that draws millions of visitors a year — they’d allow a move which laughs in the face of a half century of carefully monitored downtown growth was that those new hotel jobs are needed to relieve Savannah’s high poverty level.
Everyone wants to fight poverty. But if you look closer at their decision you see how screwed up it really was, and why it will have profoundly negative ramifications which go well beyond the question of who can see the river from where.
Leaving aside the argument of how many more jobs will be created by the added floor that the height amendment allows — not to mention the low wages of said service jobs — City Council’s argument relies on a fallacy.
In this case, that the developer’s preferred plan must be accepted for any local job gain to take place.
Anyone who’s done even a small amount of negotiating — like, oh say, a child — knows you don’t take the other guy’s first offer. Yet this City Council, often heavy–handed in its regulation of small business, largely abdicated its power to compel a big business to conform to clear-cut, longstanding local regulation.
Indeed, despite their dubious assurance that this was one–time only spot–zoning, City Council pretty much allowed North Point to make a new local height map — as we’ll no doubt see when the next developer comes before Council using the North Point case (and likely the same local attorney) as precedent for their own request.
To grease the skids of this hypocritical turn of events, some sleight of hand was needed. Someone had to be blamed.
Enter that notorious local villain, that nefarious criminal organization... Historic Savannah Foundation?!?
Yes, according to Tony Thomas and some of the other folks we elected to City Council, the organization which helped lay the groundwork for Savannah’s tourism boom in the first place — the tourism boom which attracts all these hotel developers — is Public Enemy Number One!
If this is as lucrative a market as North Point seems to think it is (they already run five properties here) and the Chamber of Commerce is constantly telling us it is, the developer would have dialed back their plans in order to gain approval if asked firmly to do so.
But the only firm questions City Council asked were about the integrity of those opposed to the height variance! Shameful.
To be fair, Historic Savannah Foundation can make it easy to accuse them of elitism. They’re a convenient and easily-caricatured target for skilled demagogues.
In this case, pretending that everyone who is against allowing the height variance is against the entire hotel suited the purposes of some on City Council quite well.
They could blame someone else for their own disregard for established guidelines.
They could ignore the fact that a hotel’s design can be changed to conform to clearly stated existing local regulations.
And they could grandstand about how much they care about “the people.”
Case in point was Alderman John Hall, who without apparent irony made the explicit Marxist case for the $80 million dollar development.
Referring to the citizens who took the time to speak before Council against the new height map, Hall said, “some of these people seem to be doing quite well for themselves.”
Got that? If you look or act well–to–do, you’re obviously against “the people” — and you shouldn’t speak out against the plans of a huge out-of-town hotel developer!
A huge hotel developer who, let’s be frank, probably writes off more money in a year than the local people who are “doing quite well for themselves” make in income.
It’s a neat trick, but it’s not the first time the people have been used as an excuse for politicians to sell out to the highest bidder.
So, North Point will get their big–ass hotel. City Council can say they helped “the people” by bringing some more minimum wage jobs to town. The Chamber can continue to tout the hotel/motel tax.
And the local crony-corporate community will have their suspicions confirmed that the politicians who talk the most about helping the little people are often the ones most easily swayed by big money.
Meanwhile, thanks to the precedent City Council set, another high–rise will come in the new hotel’s wake. And another after that.
They will get taller and taller, and they will cast long shadows over this place that once drew so many visitors to see its vanishing, one–of–a–kind history.