SAVANNAH IS becoming sadly accustomed to losing cultural icons and community gathering spaces in the name of economic development.
As with any endangered species, the loss of just one more member has outsized impact.
The latest blow came this weekend, when Kevin Barry’s Irish Pub on River Street announced that longtime owner Vic Powers will be retiring, and the pub will pour its last pint this New Year’s Eve.
The backstory, as is so often the case these days, is that the portion of the building that houses Kevin Barry’s is apparently set to be repurposed into yet more hotel-affiliated space.
KB’s is one of the last vestiges of truly multi-generational, homegrown social life remaining in the Historic District, and one of the main East Coast stops on the Traditional Irish music circuit for decades.
Another iconic Savannah watering hole, Abe’s on Lincoln, faces a proposal to literally move the entire historic building it’s in to make room for, you guessed it, another hotel.
Abe’s has just as vital a local history as Kevin Barry’s — arguably more since it claims to be the oldest continuously used bar in Savannah.
Before Abe’s, the space hosted J.B.s, and Faces, one of Savannah’s first gay bars. Before that, it was the original location of the legendary Jim Collins — the prototype of the Savannah dive bar, long since closed.
That particular agenda item, if it will still be pursued, will likely come before the MPC this February. We’ll keep you posted.
All this comes on the heels of City Council’s decision to move the Waving Girl monument into a designated space at the Plant Riverside hotel development at the other end of River Street.
The November petition to the Metropolitan Planning Commission to move the Waving Girl, submitted by architect Christian Sottile, says, “The installation of the monument is proposed to enhance the overall design of the site. The monument was included within the design for the new development.” (Emphasis mine.)
This would seem to be the smoking gun that from the beginning Plant Riverside always intended to have this City Council move the Waving Girl there, any arguments about “visibility” aside.
Meanwhile, set to move adjacent to the Waving Girl’s soon-to-be old location are another three hotels, basically surrounding the current Homewood Suites.
While outgoing Mayor Eddie DeLoach likes to claim that the current hotel boom predates his administration, it stretches the bounds of believability that they couldn’t have done more — a lot more — over the last four years to limit the impact of out-of-control hotel development.
As we’ve seen, Savannah City Council will routinely threaten to revoke the liquor licenses of small businesses with too much advertising in the windows, or too many scratch-off tickets littering the parking lot.
So they certainly could have found the power to limit big hotel development if they really wanted to.
In many cases, they have literally overruled the recommendations of the MPC in order to make various developments that much easier to accomplish.
If there ever was a tail that wagged the dog, it’s hotel development running Savannah, instead of the other way around.
Since the recession lifted around 2010 or so, the big investment money found Savannah, and the last decade has been one of unprecedented rapid change here.
This same play is being acted out in destination cities all over the U.S., including Nashville and Charleston.
As always, anyone opposing development will be labeled as anti-progress, or anti-capitalism, or old-fashioned, or just plain old.
This is a false dichotomy, as what people are asking for has never been zero development, but simply more responsible and regulated development, in character with Savannah’s history and civic culture.
Of course, there will be new City Council in power this January, one elected in part due to the public’s disgust with rampant overdevelopment and gentrification.
While the new Council will likely focus more intensely and effectively on defending community interests at the neighborhood level, they probably can only do so much about what’s happening downtown — since there are almost no actual neighborhoods left in the Historic District.
Working people were priced out of downtown long ago, but now even affluent homeowners have been priced out by commercial investors turning residential property into Airbnbs and other short term vacation rentals.
As far as the many high-rise apartment buildings being built on the immediate outskirts of the Historic District, they’re supposedly to attract young professionals, but I have my doubts.
Where are all the jobs going to come from to pay $1500-$2000 a month rents? My hunch is that many of the units are not just destined, but indeed expressly designed to serve as Airbnbs.
The mandate of Mayor-Elect Van Johnson and the rest of the new City Council is a wide and strong one, and they will be busy on a number of fronts.
My guess is that limiting hotel development is on the list, but probably not at the top of the list.
It will likely, and correctly, be seen within the larger context of returning control of Savannah to the people who actually live and work here, rather than wealthy investors, many of them from out of town, who always manage to find a way around existing rules and guidelines.
City Council will be under pressure to deliver jobs, and while working in the hospitality industry is certainly honorable work in an honorable profession, our entire economy can’t be based on it. They seem aware of this.
The best way for our new City Council to start a new decade would be to change our default position.
Instead of “How can we better help investors,” we should be asking, “How can investors better help us?”