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Old Sears Building is a potential answer to several problems 

Pet ideas abound for the conspicuous vacant structure, but here’s one that just might work

ALDIN LEE has some interesting ideas. Like many people, he doesn’t think we have any real need for the boondoggle Cultural Arts Center (CAC).

First, there’s no evidence that current facilities are over-taxed. Second, the City already wants to cuts arts funding, so what’s the point of a new CAC?

However, if the City insists on going forward with the plan, Mr. Lee has a much better proposal for doing so—put it in the Old Sears Building (OSB).

The OSB is one of those conspicuous structures that everyone in Savannah knows, and since it’s been empty and unused for many years, everyone in Savannah has a pet idea for it.

click to enlarge A new grand entrance could reorient the building towards Bull Street, and commercial tenants could flank this entry, as with the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. - RENDERING BY JASON COMBS
  • Rendering by Jason Combs
  • A new grand entrance could reorient the building towards Bull Street, and commercial tenants could flank this entry, as with the Fox Theatre in Atlanta.

I actually helped a would-be developer look into it several years ago, and in the course of doing so found out that the current owner of the OSB is apparently very unmotivated to sell. From every appearance, he just sits on the building and happily pays the meager (for its size) property taxes each year.

This is obviously an obstacle, but not an insurmountable one, so let’s talk possibilities.

The first plus of using the OSB is the most obvious: It re-activates a beast of a building, in the very heart of the burgeoning South of Forsyth neighborhoods.

If the CAC is meant primarily for locals anyway, it makes much more sense to put it south of the park, away from the congestion of the downtown core.

Also, the OSB has lots of parking, something conspicuously missing from the current CAC plan. Further, the OSB is adjacent to the current Department of Cultural Affairs office, classrooms, and black box theater.

The use of these spaces could continue, leaving room in the new OSB/CAC to consolidate some other City offices (and sell off more redundant properties), something that new City Manager Rob Hernandez has indicated he’s very eager to do.

The other side of the location coin is that we avoid putting a low-density, architecturally controversial new building on prime downtown real estate. Style preferences are of course subjective, but I think most observers agree that the proposed CAC design does not mesh with downtown’s traditional architecture.

Let’s put that land back in private hands instead. Alderman Bill Durrence, for one, has expressed interest in seeing more workforce housing constructed downtown —perhaps the City could do something to incentivize that at this location.

Anything but another hotel, right?

Other advantages of the OSB are plenty of square footage and a very adaptable floor-plan. It can house everything intended for the downtown CAC, as well as having room left over for street-level commercial tenants.

A new grand entrance can easily be created to reorient the building towards Bull Street, and commercial tenants could flank this entry, as with the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. This would help to fill the gap in sidewalk activity on Bull Street between Forsyth Park and Starland.

Finally, the OSB even has a loading bay off Drayton Street to accommodate the comings and goings of troupes with their sets, equipment, and whatnot.

Mr. Lee also suggests some re-programming of the proposed OSB/CAC. This venue could also act as a theatre for the showing of art house and foreign films, for which he argues there is a market, but not enough revenue generated for a standalone private venture dedicated to the genres.

He further suggests that it be named for Florence Martus, better known as “The Waving Girl,” its purpose in welcoming foreign films echoing her greeting of ships from all the ports of the world.

Not a bad idea, if you ask me.

Aldin Lee asserts that this alternative plan could save the City as much as $8 million dollars over the current plan, and would avoid making a mistake that would have negative externalities that cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

Also, it would put valuable downtown real estate back into private hands—to pay property taxes to the City, County, and School Board. These new property taxes would far outweigh what is currently paid year-to-year by the fallow OSB.

One might ask, but hasn’t a lot of money been spent on the design? Hasn’t site preparation already begun? Yes and yes.

Is this justification for continuing with a flawed plan? Absolutely not.

Thinking that previous investment is sufficient justification for action is known as the “Sunk Cost Fallacy.” Of all the logical fallacies (and I love them all) it is probably the one that we all talk ourselves into the most often, on decisions both large and small.

It is also the first thing officials will cite when presented with the alternative plan—“we’ve spent too much time and money on the current plan. We must carry on.”

Not true. Besides, Mr. Lee’s alternative could reap savings over and above what has already been spent, AND result in a Cultural Arts Center that is far more useful to the community, and to the City.

The Cultural Arts Center does not fill an essential need. Pausing to consider a better alternative hurts no one, though it may frustrate those with the contracts to build it.

If we are going to build it (and I’m still not convinced we need to), let’s put it where it makes the most sense.

cs

For more info about this plan, visit Aldin Lee's site at SavannahAmbitions.wordpress.com

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About The Author

Jason Combs

Jason Combs

Bio:
Jason Combs is a consultant, entrepreneur, and writer with masters degrees in City Planning & Urban Design from the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is a long-time resident of the Thomas Square Streetcar Historic District.

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