Just when you thought it was safe to walk down the block again, those monstrous midtown dwellings erected last spring by Atlanta-based developers Chance Partners are baaaaack.
So many of you have expressed interest in the colossal student rooming houses planted like carnivorous beanstalks in Habersham Village, I felt compelled to share an update.
'Cause like any horror movie worth its bloody salt, there's always a sequel.
Since we last saw our heroic midtown residents and business owners, they were pitted against the ghoulish developers in a gory showdown that resulted in the city kowtowing to the powerful invaders. In the ensuing months, Godzilla's construction crews finished their diabolical mission, packed up their possessed hammers and presumably scurried back to the fourth circle of Hell.
We now find the good people of the neighborhood beaten but not broken, trying to return whatever semblance of normalcy they can, considering the four-story shadow looming over many of their backyards.
You may recall that Poltergeist II opens much the same way. And like that stupid Carol Anne, I can't help digging up demons.
At first, all seemed Stepford-fine. Chance's lawyers performed the necessary voodoo to turn their leasing practices into a wholesome act that satisfied the city's zoning ordinance, and certificates of occupancy were discreetly issued in time for the fall semester. Lights came on in the windows and plastic chairs appeared on the balconies. The Avenues on 61st became inhabited. Though instead of the feared feral werewolves partying into the night, the units appear to be populated with quiet apparitions who study all the time.
To be honest, few of the imagined terrors have come to pass thus far: No strange cars have plagued the night streets due to the development's lack of parking, and traffic issues involve the same few speeding zombies who have always roared through like brains are on sale at Red & White.
Habersham Village merchants haven't felt much pain, nor have they reaped the devil's rewards.
"The parking really hasn't been a problem, and we haven't really been busier," says TailsSpin co-owner Jeff Manley, adding that he has noticed an increased amount of dog poop in the yard across the street from the complex.
Paula Letcher of bar.food and coffee.deli has not observed the parking lot packed with anticipated overnight overflow, and spots in front of the commercial strip can still be found during the peak hours.
"We're the first ones here in the morning and the last ones to leave at night, and it's been fine," says Letcher.
Her business partner, Johnny Baker, popped over to the apartments to pass out flyers a few weeks ago and describes the residents as "serious," mostly SCADdies and medical students from Mercer University Medical School.
Still, like any characters who survives the serial killer through the first movie, the merchants remain wary.
"We're going to wait and see," speculates Linda Karpf of Punch and Judy. "I don't think they're at full capacity yet."
I confirmed that with a visit of my own. After months of avoiding the block like it would snare me into its hideous jaws, I've resumed my habit of walking the pug along 61st street like I used to back when this lot held a couple of crumbling crack houses and one majestic 400 year-old live oak. (Yes, I always pick up after my own damn dog.)
Now that it's built, I'm happy to report this architectural nightmare doesn't look nearly as heinous as it did when it was a towering skeleton of plywood bones. From afar, you can't even see the bad sod job. I was heartened to see that few tenants have added Halloween decorations.
Upon closer inspection, however, the quality of the construction is unimpressive. Not surprising — it took barely six months to assemble 32 four-bedroom residences, and with the exception of the four apartments facing Abercorn, the actuality looks nothing like the pen-and-ink renderings on the website. A couple of the fake brick façades sport a sloppy "weeping mortar style"— a cool effect when done right but in this case looking like what happens when a three-year-old tries to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, I mustered the courage to face my fright head on. I knocked on the door of the business office, one of the actual units now designated a "model" at the behest of the City Manager Stephanie Cutter. During a brief tour of the small bedrooms and nice-enough kitchen, the sales associate told me that all but four of the units are occupied but there are "still 30 to 40 beds left."
Ruh-roh. Renting "by the bed" violates the zoning code and has been a point of contention with Chance ever since some nosy person pointed it out to the city. It technically makes the property a rooming house, and it doesn't have the parking for that. But no amount of sharp words about it at June's public meeting could slay that beast, and Chance has apparently continued to operate with the moral depth of Hannibal Lechter.
The saleswoman also cheerily disclosed that some tenants are "doubling up" in bedrooms, another potential violation if the unit exceeds six residents. And rather than that agreed-upon live-in property manager, the development has decided to designate a "community assistant" from the current pool of tenants.
All of this should tell you that all may seem well but evil can still lurk within, like the aliens in They Live.
Let me be clear that I have nothing against the friendly ghost-like people who have moved in. The traffic and parking issues can't be assessed until all the beds are rented (is that how we're doing it now?)
This is about the future of the genre: It's fairly likely that SCAD will not renew its lease on the tasteful two-story brick bungalows on the adjacent land. It will take its security and bus line with it, and three more blocks will be up for grabs for developmental predators.
The precedent set by the nightmare on 61st puts all of Savannah's post-WWII neighborhoods and small commercial districts in danger of a War of the Worlds-type scenario.
I brought my concerns back to coffee.deli, where District 4 Alderperson Mary Ellen Sprague hosts the weekly salon "Muffins with Mary Ellen" on Wednesday mornings. She reiterated her position that the Metropolitan Planning Commission never should have approved this Frankenstein in the first place.
She says that even if residents and business owners were able to create a Habersham Village Historic District, the current power on the MPC board is tipped to developers and contractors. Residents are finding themselves stranded in the witch-infested woods.
"The landmark designation makes people feel good, but I don't know that it would prevent something like this from happening again," warns Sprague. "The real protection has to be at the MPC level."
Though the first Scream revealed that the authorities are useless in slasher flicks, Citizen Office representative Joe Shearhouse, Jr. assured me that complaints about this property are "being taken very seriously" because its developers may have established themselves as super shady villains. City officials are conducting an investigation as of this writing.
For now, the suspense holds Habersham Village in an eerie calm. It also might just be those medical students trying to memorize all the body parts in Grey's Anatomy.
I'll admit that all the scary movies may have made me a tad melodramatic about the Avenues on 61st. Maybe it won't haunt the neighborhood forever, and the situation is actually more Scooby Doo than American Horror Story.
But I'm still too scared to trick or treat over there.
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"And you deserve better."
Thanks, Jim, for my new campaign slogan.