Thursday, February 28, 2019

City Council approves compromise plan to save portion of Seaboard Freight Station

Posted By on Thu, Feb 28, 2019 at 3:30 PM

Savannah City Council today voted 6-3 in favor of a controversial compromise plan that would save about 20 percent of the historic Seaboard Freight Station from demolition.

The so-called "head house," or office space, would be preserved and moved to one corner of the new Gateway Project at 703 Louisville Rd.

The warehouse section would be demolished as originally planned.

The plan originally called for the demolition of the entire historic train depot to be replaced by a seven-story luxury apartment complex, the first major private investment in the new "Canal District."

Alderpersons Johnson, Thomas and Shabazz voted in dissent.

Mayor DeLoach said when public outcry spread about the demolition, he called project architect Pat Shay and said, "What we had planned for here and what is planned now are two different things."

DeLoach said that after the conversation and some changes to the general development plan, "we've got a direction to go in."

Alderman Brian Foster said of developer WEDP, "They came back with a new proposal that I think is going to be positively received. We feel like they have listened."

Alderman Van Johnson, however, wanted to clarify for the public that only about 20 percent of the entire structure would be preserved under the new plan. "The rest is going to go... I think it's important for the public to be aware of that."

Developers attorney John Northup told Council that the Seaboard Freight Station "was already somewhat dilapidated" when purchased by local investors back in the mid-'80s.

He claimed "there is a lot of debate" about whether the building is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, saying that "Even if it were found to be eligible that doesn't trigger any additional protection."

There is disagreement on this point; the developer's consultant study says the building is likely ineligible. However, the Historic Savannah Foundation's study says that it is eligible.

Alderman Tony Thomas said, "There's a history lesson in what we just did. When you chop 80 percent of the building and say you protected it, I have a problem with that... it's hypocrisy."

Alderman John Hall expressed thanks to citizens who led opposition to the full demolition of the building.

"It was very vocal to us, and I admire them for doing that," Hall said.

Thomas said it was inappropriate for Mayor DeLoach to hold meetings with the developer without the input of the district alderman, Van Johnson, who concurred that he hadn't been invited to any recent meetings other than an email on Feb. 26.

"There's been an outpouring of community outreach about saving this building," Thomas said. "I'm curious when I hear about all the different aldermen that are involved in a project, and the district alderman hasn't been involved, I have to question that. I don't think that's proper protocol."

When asked if there's a reason why he waited so long to contact Johnson, Shay said, "I wasn't able to reach every single one of you... finally when I knew we were going to live with it, I sent it out... through email. If it feels like a slight, I apologize."

The general development plan approved by Council will have to go back before the Metropolitan Planning Commission.

Johnson urged Council to work with the City Manager to have a protocol in place to protect historic buildings outside the Landmark District so that "we don't have to go through this every single time."
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