AT FIRST GLANCE, last week’s City Council meeting was like an answer to our prayers.
They actually took a stand against out-of-control downtown development, terminating two rezoning requests by hotel projects “with extreme prejudice,” like the line from Apocalypse Now.
At some points it was almost a surreal pinch-yourself moment to see City Council members at long last take turns giving voice to public concerns about the pace and scale of development downtown.
A City Council which has previously meekly acquiesced to almost every whim of every big-box developer suddenly morphed into the cast of The Avengers.
A City Council which had previously allowed developer’s lawyers to arrogantly pontificate indefinitely but which would also impatiently shut down any citizen with the temerity to voice opposition suddenly went all Les Miz.
A clearly focused Alderman Bill Durrence led the charge, saying of one of the hotel projects, “You knew what the rules were when you wanted to get into this... follow the rules.”
About one project, where the hotelier was apparently trying to fudge on parking spaces, Durrence said, “Every parking garage we’ve got basically already has more permits than spaces.”
I cannot begin to tell you the seismic ramifications of a local elected official openly telling Harold Yellin — the highly effective, go-to attorney for most high-profile developers here — that “We need more workforce housing, not more hotels,” as Durrence said at one point.
It’s just not done, as we say down South. But this time.... done it was.
(In what must be a first on Savannah City Council, Durrence even brought up the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle!)
Much more important than the individual projects was a deceptively harmless sounding item on the agenda which essentially would have allowed any developer to flout height and mass guidelines with a simple rezoning request.
“This is an innocuous entry that has tremendous ramifications,” Alderman Julian Miller accurately summed up.
The discussion of this text amendment – actually a full-on ordinance change – was where the real gems came out.
Alderman Van Johnson got a round of spontaneous applause during comments in which he said that City Council are “gatekeepers in maintaining balance between residential living and commercial encroachments.... I’m concerned that we’re becoming Disneyland.”
(Hint to future politicians: The Disneyland line is a huge crowd-pleaser. Though as one Facebook commenter wryly noted, “Disneyland is planned much better than Savannah.”)
Speaking of seismic shifts, Alderman Johnson and Alderman Tony Thomas both brought up a previously taboo subject in Savannah: The idea of a moratorium on hotel development.
(By way of contrast, such an idea was prominent in last year’s mayoral election in Charleston and was a bona fide election issue there.)
“We might need to look at moratoriums on development,” Johnson said.
Thomas even made a motion for a six-month moratorium, but apparently there was already a different motion on the floor and so it didn’t come up for a vote.
The enthusiast in me would really like to see the results of a moratorium vote, but the cynic in me says there was a reason the idea wasn’t followed through.
It’s telling that City Attorney Brooks Stillwell immediately tried to put the kibosh on the moratorium idea with his highly questionable ruling that such a thing might be illegal.
In any case, I try to be a give-credit-where-it’s-due person. So kudos to City Council for this seeming display of backbone. After all, it’s certainly better than the alternative of maintaining the status quo.
Clearly, these gentlemen had a good idea where they were going with this. I don’t for a second believe all this newfound alarm over development sprang up organically just after Mayor DeLoach started the meeting. The lines and speeches were just a bit too good.
So what is the practical result of City Council’s votes last week?
Were they a roadmap for smart growth moving forward?
Or more tantamount to closing the barn door after the horse is already gone?
Fewer new hotels downtown will drive up the price per room of all the boutique projects which already got approval from Council, often with extraordinary variances.
The skyline of Savannah has already changed dramatically. River Street is essentially walled off from the rest of downtown, and those buildings aren’t coming down anytime soon.
A moratorium on new hotels at this point, while very much worth considering, is sort of like a football fan saying “Wait ‘til next year” after a bad loss.
You still lost.
Perhaps more to the point, every minute City Council spends getting brownie points from the public by talking tough on development is one more minute they don’t have to talk about crime.
Every headline that mentions a moratorium on new hotels is one headline that won’t read, “City Council Struggles as Murders Continue.”
Am I being needlessly cynical? No, I’m happy about what City Council showed and did last week. No two ways about it — the people won this round.
But it’s not a one-round fight, and the other side hasn’t thrown in the towel yet.
Stay vigilant, and stay tuned.