A Renaissance on Broughton Street
Just thirty-three years ago, you could walk down Broughton Street at sunset the week before Christmas, and not find a single store open. Everyone shopped that week at Oglethorpe Mall, and Adler’s Department Store was long gone. The street’s few stubborn surviving businesses, like Globe Shoe Company and Levy Jewelers, all closed at 5 pm when the office workers went home. The idea of coming downtown to shop would have been unthinkable to most Savannah women, and there were only a few hotels, so tourism was just an infant industry.
Today Broughton Street has risen from those ashes, but still has hundreds of thousands of square feet of empty space gathering dust and fleas above the storefronts. Thanks to SCAD, there are some great boutiques, with imaginative windows, run by creative young entrepreneurs, but the street still looks down and out. The City of Savannah has made several attempts at revitalization, but can’t seem to make the sustained commitment to maintenance that it takes to have a great retail street, like the ones in Charleston and Richmond.
The future of Broughton Street could be a real Renaissance if we can get past the tendency we have to keep looking the gift horse of success in the mouth for signs of imperfection. Ben Carter has made several fortunes in successful retail, and luckily for Savannah, he has fallen in love. Ben wants our street to be one of the great urban shopping streets in the world, and he has already purchased over two-thirds of the street level retail and restaurant buildings to prove it. Unlike many of the former owners, he has committed to reinvesting millions of dollars in renovating and preserving those old building gems. Ben also wants to bring art to Broughton Street in a big way. Fine art, not just kitsch. He also wants all that empty space above the shops full of lofts and urban apartments for young and creative people.
Whether or not this can happen is really up to those of us that claim to be progressives. Sure, there will be brands involved, but there will also be places for local artists and fashion designers that now have to go to New York to sell their creations. More importantly, there will be competition for the customers, and plenty of events that draw people back to Savannah to enjoy shopping and dining out again. If we let it happen. There will be ample opportunity for us to argue about its merit, and debate the form that it takes in all of the usual places–Historic Review Board, Sites and Monuments Commission, and City Council. Perhaps the most amazing part of this is that the added real estate value that Ben Carter has already created will generate most of the cash that it takes to make the improvements! Also, the retailers themselves would pay the cost of maintaining the improvements, so that they don’t get down and out again. And since most of the retail sales on Broughton will be from people who don’t live here, it would be a tax on visitors to pay for us to have a Renaissance. Some of the existing tenants will surely complain, but if they step up their offerings, they will be winners too.
Cities don’t get second chances like this often. We hope that Savannah says yes to making our historic shopping street as good as it was almost a century ago– and maybe even better!