IT WOULD have been just a minor transgression of Robert’s Rules of Order, if it hadn’t been so cruelly symbolic of the current state of things in Savannah.
More than half an hour after City Council had already approved a controversial plan to demolish 80 percent of the Seaboard Freight Station and relocate the remaining 20 percent, then Council reopened the matter for public comment, as a formality.
By then, most concerned citizens had left in disgust.
Many people had taken time off work to come to City Council that day to speak out about the plan by WEDP developers for that corner of Louisville Road. And Council can’t plead ignorance, as speakers have to register with notecards prior to speaking.
But the registered speakers — along with most of the Seaboard Freight Station soon — got bulldozed.
The pathetic episode, while probably done more out of negligence than malice, encapsulated everything wrong with how Savannah considers, or doesn’t consider, new development.
It also graphically showed the continuing two-tier economy here: one fast track for deep-pocket developers on a first-name basis with elected officials, and a slow track for everyone else.
Word had leaked of the compromise plan earlier in the week. The developer offered to save a small portion of the historic train depot and move it to a corner of the canal-side parcel to serve as a rental office for upscale apartments.
I don’t have a problem with the repurposing itself; the depot, after all, was born of commerce. It’s not improper at all that it serve a commercial purpose.
The compromise, however, seemed a bit miserly and even insulting.
Alderman Tony Thomas, one of three dissenting votes, aptly said, “There’s a history lesson in what we just did. When you chop 80 percent off of a building and say you protected it, I have to question that... it’s hypocrisy.”
But other members of Council were effusive in their praise for the developer’s “restraint.”
Alderman Brian Foster, in a gracious, almost obsequious introduction of the developer’s attorney of the type we’ve become accustomed to hearing from this particular Council, said:
“We contacted the developer to express our concerns, and... To the credit of those folks they came back to us within a relatively short period of time with a proposal that included the primary Seaboard office building... they are coming back with a new proposal that I think is going to be positively received... We feel like they have listened,” Foster said.
Almost completely left out of the discussion was the fact that the only reason this came up at all was because of enormous citizen opposition to demolishing the Seaboard entirely, including a petition that had nearly 4,000 signatures.
I’m confident that the 20 percent solution in no way satisfied even a single one of the people who signed that petition.
The developer’s attorney was then allowed to pontificate rather lengthily, in the typical red-carpet treatment they tend to get from City Council.
Members of the public of course, are usually limited to two or three minutes of commentary, and in this case they didn’t even get that.
Mayor DeLoach, however, did acknowledge the speaker cards he’d received — and would later disregard — by making a sarcastic comment about designs that had been drawn on some.
“There’s really some spectacular work on some of them, and some of them, you don’t want to read,” he said.
Alderman Bill Durrence continued the victim-blaming of concerned citizens:
“A lot of the correspondence I’ve gotten shows a misunderstanding of the way this works,” Durrence said. “We’ve got a lot of people saying we don’t want this building torn down. We don’t have that prerogative. The owner could go out tomorrow and get the permit to demolish that building,” he said.
Alderman Julian Miller echoed this gratitude for the developer’s compromise.
“You didn’t have to do this. You could have torn it down and that’s where we would have been... I appreciate that,” Miller said.
Alderman John Hall also thanked the developer, but at least acknowledged the efforts of concerned citizens who prompted the outcry: “I admire them for doing that.”
Here’s why their gratitude to the developer is misguided:
If City Council were completely powerless — as they often claim when they don’t want to rock the boat for a developer — why does the matter come before them for a vote at all, after going through other bodies, such as the MPC, prior to that?
City Council is the highest elected body in the City. To say that they have no power whatsoever to stop a controversial demolition is patently absurd on its face.
City Council can without question put at least a temporary stop to any project they want to.
They might end up in court, and lose, of course. But that’s no reason to abdicate their responsibilities as elected officials.
Even project architect Pat Shay acknowledged as much, saying if any other changes were made to the plan, he’d have to come before Council for approval.
Still unaddressed is the larger issue of how once a development plan is approved, it is essentially grandfathered into that property, no matter how controversial.
“We need a process,” urged Alderman Van Johnson, one of the three no votes along with Thomas and Alderwoman Estella Shabazz. “If not then we’ll have to go through this every single time.”
If there’s one silver lining that came out of this, it’s that City Manager Rob Hernandez was engaged to come up with a protocol to protect historic properties outside of the Landmark Historic District, with the full support of the Historic Savannah Foundation.
But it’s also shocking that this seems to be such a hard-to-reach goal, after all this time.