SO MANY INCREDIBLE events this weekend: Slideluck, Geekend, the Telfair Art Fair, the Children's Book Festival, the Savannah Food and Wine Festival, all covered in this issue.
But with apologies to all those fine efforts, in the big picture probably the most significant event is the annual convention of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, at the Trade Center through Friday.
Despite Savannah’s key role as national trendsetter in preserving historic downtowns, the Hostess City has only, well, hosted the nation’s premier preservation group twice before, in 1968 and 1998.
It’s a big deal. Daniel Carey, president of the Historic Savannah Foundation, explains the significance and effort behind it:
“All things relative, it’s sort of like landing the Olympics, or a Democratic or Republican National Convention,” Carey tells me.
“We really hustled to get it here. The gestation period of making it happen was probably close to two years.”
(SCAD is also a collaborative partner in the conference.)
It’s either ironic or appropriate—or both—that the National Trust is coming here just as we’re faced with the most contentious period of downtown development since Merritt Dixon plonked the modernist cube of the Hyatt Regency down onto River Street, effectively splitting it in two.
From Richard Kessler’s expansive West River Street hotel project... to Ben Carter’s Broughton Street makeover... to the gargantuan Homewood Suites By Hilton rising at the east end of River Street... to the new Westside arena/Canal District...to a possible new ballpark downtown... to the crackpipe-crazy idea of a video lottery casino on Hutchinson Island... downtown is in a development frenzy, with longstanding guidelines thrown out with the bathwater in the service of the almighty dollar.
Or in the case of many of these projects, more like seven dollars and 25 cents—the minimum wage that is the sweet reward awaiting many of the new hires.
Even if you support the rampant development, it’s enough to make your head spin.
“So you’ve got the stadium issue, the canal district, Broughton Street, River Street,” Carey muses.
“Individually they’re all very interesting, but we’re most interested in what this puzzle’s going to look like so we’ll know where the pieces fit. If you don’t have a vision of what the puzzle picture is going to be, you can’t put the puzzle together,” he says.
“Historic Savannah Foundation actually considers itself more of a planning organization than a preservation organization. When you talk about a plan or vision for the future, or a partnership for the future, we want to be a vital and relevant part of that conversation.”
(A lot of locals who should know better continue to get the Historic Savannah Foundation confused with the Historic Review Board, a completely separate entity.)
With all that in mind, Carey makes it clear that some trends are positive.
“We’re seeing real progress and breakthroughs with respect to tourism management. We’re encouraged by the City’s response to resident’s concerns. They’ve taken significant steps toward developing that plan,” he says. “That’s part of the larger overarching vision of what we all might want the city to look like 10 years from now, 20 years, 40 years.”
Other things, Carey says, are frankly not as encouraging.
“The human and pedestrian scale of the city is something that’s really at risk. It literally starts with buildings being built too high and out of scale.”
A wise man intimate with downtown development recently pointed out to me that unlike many other Southern river cities—such as Columbus and Augusta in Georgia and Columbia, S.C.—which are choosing to maximize their waterfront vistas and make them more accessible and visible, Savannah in 2014 is choosing to literally wall her river in, with higher and higher buildings.
Indeed, the Trustees Garden renovation undertaken by Connect Savannah owner Charles H. Morris is arguably the only large-scale downtown development going out of its way to ensure as natural and open a vista as possible.
“When in a two-story zone that has been agreed upon and in place and worked effectively for decades, we cast that aside in favor of projects that allow buildings three times that height, that’s disconcerting,” says Carey.
“I understand there always needs to be room for exceptions and room for variances. But when variances become the norm or rule, and the rule becomes the exception, then something is out of whack.”
The newest tactic to justify pushing the height envelope is to cite tall buildings which existed before the local preservation movement began—for example, the Kessler project on top of the old powerplant, and a six-story infill project proposed for West Broughton, designed by Christian Sottile.
That tactic doesn’t wash with Carey.
“That’s cherry-picking history to find what suits your argument,” he says.
“Cities do evolve, and buildings and scales can evolve. But these controls are in place not to inhibit development, but so we can hang on to our defining features.”
Despite all the undeniably positive things happening around Savannah, the Hostess City still hasn’t let go of her old habit of forgetting the rules when a suitor waves some money around. It’s an age-old inferiority complex that’s the lesser-known flip side of the celebrated local swagger.
“It reveals so little faith in ourselves that we always think we need someone else as a savior,” says Carey. “Let’s not be so desperate. We’ve been here 300 years, we’ve done pretty darn good so far. Why compromise decades of work that have distinguished this city internationally?”
To reinforce the importance of planning for preservation—and sticking with the plan —Carey says an important new study sponsored by Historic Savannah Foundation will be unveiled at the conference this Friday.
“We’re doing a study on preservation’s impacts on the economy. And by that I mean not including tourism,” Carey says.
“It’s a really important distinction. Plenty of preservation studies have been done, but they almost always include the heritage tourism dollar, which skews things,” he says.
“We’ll be talking about just preservation, and how it creates jobs, increases the tax base, solidifies property values, and thwarts foreclosures. That’s data we’ll be sharing during the conference.”