Editor's Note: Selling out a Historic Landmark District

click to enlarge Editor's Note: Selling out a Historic Landmark District
Photo courtesy of City of Savannah
The Gamble Building

IT’S PROBABLY NOT entirely coincidental that the same week the National Park Service officially put the Savannah National Historic Landmark District on their "Threatened" list, an iconic historic building next to City Hall was sold to condo developers from Florida.

The National Park Service (NPS) announcement of the downgrade in status was not unexpected, but came as a gut punch nonetheless.

It said nothing new that wasn’t said months ago, when the results of the latest NPS assessment of our National Historic Landmark District were revealed.

However, the official NPS confirmation that they accepted the study's recommended downgrade forced local leaders to finally accept the truth, rather than continue dissembling and pointing the finger elsewhere, as they had previously done.

In a statement out within hours of the NPS announcement, Mayor Eddie DeLoach said:

“The City of Savannah acknowledges the report of the National Park Service released today. We agree with many of its recommendations, and appreciate their emphasis that we are not at risk of losing our Landmark designation,” he said.

“Over the past decade, the City has successfully adopted new planning policies to restore the Town Plan left to us by General Oglethorpe. Together with the private sector, millions of dollars have been invested to save historic homes, buildings and our cultural landscape,” DeLoach said.

“Most recently the City has been aggressive in its efforts to revisit outdated policies and ordinances to reflect this community’s commitment to preservation, quality of life and economic vitality,” he said.

Citing the NPS report’s line that, “No single entity can care for a historic district alone,” DeLoach said, “in this spirit of collaboration, the City will reach out to our partners to create a panel to study the recommendations and develop an action plan to upgrade our status.”

DeLoach said he is taking steps to ask the NPS to begin a bi-annual status review of Savannah’s Historic Landmark District.

“We don’t need to wait another 16 years for the Park Service’s next review to occur,” the Mayor concluded.

That’s a far cry from the City’s original reaction back in March, when the news first came out that the NPS study recommended the switch in status from “Satisfactory” to “Threatened.” 

The City’s first response then was to claim through its PR office, inadvertently but falsely nonetheless, that the status was already at the “Threatened” level.

(NPS soon confirmed that Savannah’s Historic District had been on the “Satisfactory” list since 2006, a move that received scant attention at the time.)

Then, City Manager Rob Hernandez falsely claimed in an op-ed in the daily paper that the NPS didn’t endorse its own commissioned study – an inaccuracy clarified in future statements from NPS. 

Some in the local tourism industry went ballistic over the news, in my opinion foolishly attacking the credibility of the National Park Service itself.

Shakespeare wrote, “The lady doth protest too much.” In the South we say it like this: “A hit dog hollers.”

However you phrase it, the meaning is the same: The local development and tourism industry’s hyped, angry reaction to the NPS study seemed to serve as proof of the study’s basic accuracy.

Now that the NPS has formally followed the recommendation of its study, Savannah has entered a new realm of the discussion, beyond the merely theoretical.

The fabled act of killing the goose that laid the golden egg is no longer just a fable. Turns out there are real-world consequences after all.

And here in the real world, the City of Savannah is continuing to sell off key historic assets in the name of development — even as our symbolically and economically crucial National Historic Landmark District status is threatened.

The latest example is the purchase of the historic Gamble Building next to City Hall by The Foram Group, a longtime South Florida firm which recently relocated its headquarters to Savannah.

If that name sounds familiar, it should: Foram is the same company involved in the deeply controversial and divisive Starland Village project, which seems to enjoy a hefty amount of political support from the City.

Foram’s plan is to convert the Gamble Building, which had hosted some City offices, into high-end waterfront condominiums, complete with rooftop gardens.

No word yet on who might be able to afford these condos, but one assumes they will not be affordable for the vast majority of folks in this city, which has a poverty rate closing in on 30 percent.

Meanwhile, some of the displaced City staff will now move to rental space in the Savannah Morning News building.

(A cynic might see that as a potential conflict of interest between City government and the daily paper which is supposed to serve as its watchdog — but maybe a different column for a different time.)

Aldermen Van Johnson and Tony Thomas — understandably in my view — opposed the sale on the grounds that the City will now just have to pay a landlord. (Supporters counter that tax revenue from the sale will more than make this up, however.)

Possibly even more importantly, as Thomas points out, the City will be giving up an iconic, symbolic presence in the heart of Savannah — one which it almost certainly will never get back again.

Coming on the heels of the purchase of the City’s Broughton Municipal Building at a fire-sale price by a different developer, the sale of the Gamble Building looks to many like just another sweetheart deal.

It prompts people to ask, with justification: What’s next on the auction block?

Meanwhile, the threatened status of our National Historic Landmark District — a designation of enormous civic pride for generations here — is no longer just an idle threat on the horizon.

Those who warned that this moment might come don’t have the luxury of gloating that we told you so. There’s too much work left to be done.

If you’ve been on the fence about it, now would be a great time to come down.


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