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  • Writer's pictureGM Shay

A Greater Force

“There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.”

Words spoken by Margaret J. Wheatley and a core idea that seems fodder when exerting pressures of change are bearing down upon a community. We know from science that physical and chemical changes can breakdown to a point of instability, and sometimes irreversible, but even when an atom is split not all links are broken, and the combination of different types of particles can regroup and form new particles. This is the way of many things on our planet, including the development of a city.

If you have ever participated or even listened to the audio tapes of Savannah’s Metropolitan Planning Commission especially the Historic District Board of Review, you are witnessing a common day experience of Particle Theory. Sometimes made opaque by Robert’s Rules of Order, but the sparks are flying and the adaptations are made visible by the diligence of petitioning applicants and the tireless efforts of staff and its board members. Urban planning in Savannah is a didactic experience and represents the process of parallel worlds of engaged citizens simply trying to re-arrange bonds and regroup for the betterment of Savannah’s physical environment.

Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to participate in a studio-driven GMShay study of Savannah’s Westside or sometimes known as “The Canal District”. Many who live in Savannah are aware that changes are coming to this section of our city. The City of Savannah has committed to building a new Civic Arena, as well as signaled an interest in district rezoning by possible adoption of NewZO. Again, the image of atom splitting seems appropriate.

An impending requirement exists to better understand the Canal District’s infrastructure as does the need to make the zoning process more predictable. Complexities such as historic preservation, environmental conservation, social justice, economic feasibility and sustainability are all issues of significance. In fact, the energy rotating around the city’s improvement plan has motivated the GMShay team to take a deeper plunge into a comprehensive study.

For my part, I was tasked with historic research. As I dove into the archives with the goal to identify historic and cultural assets in the area, it became evident that “The Canal District” is perilously under-documented. Why is this important? On a practical level in the field of preservation especially in an area destined for change, a Historic Resource Survey is the first level of defense to safeguarding and promoting an area’s historic buildings, landscapes and even its contemporary way of life.

Through a survey, not only are the assets recorded for time immemorial, but this tool becomes an important aid for current land-use planning and architectural aspirations. Perhaps more pressing especially if the community is underserved, the process of a Historic Resource Survey can strengthen a community by raising awareness and sensitivity to their story. By investing in a comprehensive study, one is investing in the narrative of a place. A survey becomes an important tool for local government to communicate to its citizens that their history, and their memories are of value. It’s important to consider that there are notable structures in the Canal District that uniquely express historical context, but also provide a useful and cultural framework for today’s residential and working community.

In my research, I’ve been glad to learn more regarding the early settlers and their relationship with Savannah’s coastal marsh land, also to make the mental connection between the era-defining edifices including two canals in ruin with the railroad structures, a network of tracks and their relationship to the port. It has also been rewarding to discover that several of the existing open spaces date back to 18th century plantations as cultivated fields, or to recognize that visible clay beds in the area were manned by the enslaved or other local laborers producing Savannah’s brick structures from the Westside brickyards, but also the lumber mills and foundries. The Westside has long been an economic engine for Savannah as it has a history of leveraging its natural landscape, developing its industrial might, and creating architectural works that utter volumes well after their heyday.

Neighborhoods like Springfield Terrace, Collat’s Quarters, Carver Heights and Brickyard plus their associated community institutions will emerge as important partners and should become the focus of preservationists. There is much about these residential communities that need to be recorded and that will aid community advocates and planners with a broader understanding of development patterns, contemporary needs and real time opportunities.

Again, if the City were to pursue a comprehensive study of the area, historic and cultural resources like the railyard warehouses, depot offices, area churches, open spaces and other community assets could become an essential part of an overall district plan. Ultimately, a District Conservation Overlay is needed. Now is the time to lay a stabilizing ground plane and provide the means for Savannah’s Westside community to define what is most valued, and possible to sustain in this state of change.




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