One neighborhood's nightmare is another's wake-up call

I know some of y'all are just itching to know what drama transpired at last week's public meeting with Chance Partners, the Atlanta-based developers responsible for the blocky behemoth rising up from midtown Savannah like the Kraken in Clash of the Titans.

To the rest of you who couldn't care less, I promise this will be the last column that I will devote to the evil Avenues on 61st. Unless, of course, it grows tentacles and starts attacking. But every therapist agrees that closure is healthy, so thank you for your patience.

The purpose of Wednesday evening's meeting was to address citizens' concerns about the three-story-and-change student housing project that went up practically overnight with nary a whisper from city officials. The good Reverend Grover Bell had kindly offered up the Whitefield Methodist Church as the setting, though personally, I would have preferred to meet someplace that served beer. Then again, there's something to be said for a clean, well-lighted sanctuary to keep things civil. 'Cause this one was a pressure cooker, folks.

Citizens Office director Susan Broker and Lee Olin Heights Neighborhood Association president Richard Bartels presided; as vice-president of the NA, I took copious notes. Broker's cordial colleague Joe Shearhouse set up the Powerpoint as the pews filled with neighbors and Habersham Village businessowners.

Everyone shook hands and exchanged "how's your mommas" like the small community we are. An audible hiss could be heard as Chance Partners CEO Judd Bobilin and project manager Bill Newell filed in with their attorney, Phillip McCorkle.

At issue here was not only the development's eyeball-searing affront to reasonable aesthetic sensibility but also how its 128 new residents will affect nearby parking, traffic, noise levels and crime. Oh, and how the damn thing got approved in the first place.

Some may roll their eyes, but I believe it is a testament to transparency that City Manager Stephanie Cutter brought representatives from every relevant department to account for their part in the process. Charlotte Moore of the Metropolitan Planning Commission displayed a timeline of the site plan review, which did not require public notice because it was submitted under already existing zoning allowances.

Engineering director Julie McClean earnestly explained the complex route of how a bill becomes a law — er, how a site plan becomes a construction zone — as it moves along from each department. (How the violent murder of one of the largest live oaks in the city passed Park & Tree is beyond me.) Public Works director John Sawyer patiently defended the necessity of relocating a storm water line to the lane and the rigorous research involved to prevent any increased flooding in this low plain that has long been deemed a "special flood hazard zone."

Of course, any of this information would have been far more helpful before five buildings sprouted up like giant poisonous mushrooms. But the upshot of it all is that this lot has been all dressed up for multi-family development since the '60s, and Chance Partners' submitted plan fit like an Ann Taylor suit. All i's were dotted, all t's crossed, the legalities buttoned up.

Yet somehow, after the city's rigorous process designed to protect the neighborhood and enforce the zoning laws, we've still ended up with way too tall and way too ugly.

I doodled the words "EPIC FAIL" in the margins of my notebook.

Others expressed their disappointment more vocally.

"So basically, you've just made us sit here for two hours telling us how you messed up," someone scoffed.

I don't think it's fair to blame these hardworking folks. Though anyone could have asked better questions along the way, they really were doing their jobs. This perfect storm of ineptitude appears more as the result of vague wording within the codes: Subjectivity is for art and your favorite ice cream flavor. There should not be room for interpretation in permissable height limits.

"We've obviously got a lot of work to do to make changes in those zoning ordinances," said District 4 Alderwoman Mary Ellen Sprague, shaking her finger at the pew holding city staff and reiterating her commitment to residents.

That point driven home like a wearisome prom date, there were still a few more matters to discuss. Punch & Judy owner Eric Karpf asked when Chance's construction trailer would clear out so trucks could resume delivering baby furniture to the back door Karpf has used for over 40 years, only to be informed it will remain private property. Karpf left angry, and Ms. Cutter admonished the partners to work with one of Savannah's most beloved businesses.

Bikram Yoga Savannah owner Leslie Tucker Carey wondered how the development's dearth of parking spaces would affect the Habersham Village shopping strip, already overcrowded during peak hours. Mr. McCorkle presented a glossy parking study meant to allay such worries. Though the other student housing facilities in the study contain an even smaller tenant-to-parking ratio, residents and proprietors resented McCorkle's "apples to apples" comparison and argued that extra cars will clog residential streets and spots reserved for customers.

"That's just speculation," said McCorkle.

Tailspin owner Jeffrey Manley shot back, "It's not speculation, it's a likelihood."

Lastly, there are the leasing issues. From the very beginning, Avenues on 61st has been marketed on its website as rent-by-the-bed student housing. After mentioning granite countertops several times to illustrate the Avenues' "luxurious" quality, Bobilin insisted that the units were intended to be for families, and that the whole "miscommunication" was the fault of an overaggressive property manager.

Except his leasing company was called Asset Campus Housing until a few weeks ago — renamed Asset Plus only after city officials contacted Chance about accompanying zoning violations.

Therein lay the only possible snag in the whole dealio. But Chance's legion of lawyers remedied it easily by massaging the leasing agreements. Everyone patted themselves on the back, even though the newfangled leases do absolutely nothing to address the aforementioned parking and traffic issues. City attorney Brooks Stillwell remained silent.

I personally had gotten over my craving for a public flogging after my husband and I had a cathartic shaming session all over Bill Newell's sushi a few weeks ago. But here in the Methodist church, others began calling for a demo crew. And possibly Bobilin's head.

Ms. Cutter stood up amidst the clamoring. "The building can't come down," she said sternly. "Mr. Bobilin is here to address the issues of the neighbors. Give him a chance to share his plans."

I always like to remind people that "mitigation" is not a synonym for "solution," it merely means to make a problem "less bad." Regarding the nightmare on 61st street, mitigation will mean an as-yet-undetermined tree buffer, permanent shades on the third floor windows and the designation of one of the units for an on-site property manager, who will ostensibly monitor party noise and drug use. Bobilin got snickers at the mention of a 6-foot fence to protect residents from pass-throughs; Broker quickly suggested it be moved up to eight feet, maybe 12. (Fifty would suffice.)

As far as parking goes, the existing laws absolve Chance from responsibility.

"Then it's a done deal," said Bartels, shaking his head.

"It is what it is," echoed another neighbor.

The truth is, us mere mortals were never any match for the Kraken. But a monster like Avenues on 61st doesn't — and shouldn't — ever happen again. Hopefully after this cautionary tale, property owners are now aware of the vulnerability of their neighborhoods (Fairway Oaks and Kensington Park have already begun applying for historic status) and all those poor city employees forced to sit through this very long meeting will surely have their ears pricked towards future developments.

And if Chance Partners ever has the nerve to bring their bulldozers back to Savannah, we'll see if Medusa's head is available to stop them in their tracks.


About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.
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