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Can the Canal District's Master Plan process work?

We recently attended the City of Savannah’s highly touted opening for the Canal District Master Plan process, along with lots of other interested citizens. Held at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education in her auditorium and neighboring lobby, it was an introduction to the planners hired from Perkins & Will, the same firm that is leading the design of the proposed new Civic Arena. Although well attended, it was short on specifics, and presented no new information about the project, other than to announce that the groundbreaking for the new facility would be held on the project site on September 14. An overview of the planning process was then presented by the spokesman for Perkins & Will, who admitted that they were just beginning to absorb the complexity of their task, given the difficulties presented by the site and surrounding area.

Strangely for an opening planning session, no audience questions were allowed at the end of the presentation. Several locals spoke up anyway, and challenged how there could be a groundbreaking with so many questions about basic things like storm drainage and utilities disruption that would impact area residents. Another citizen asked why a three-year-long process, resulting in a previous plan, was not included in the research and timeline of earlier activity in the presentation. The City’s representative, Bridget Lidy, apologized for this oversight, but then ended the formal meeting and directed those that wanted to stay to visit the tables outside in the lobby to share their thoughts. These tables had lots of participatory games and maps for people to put stickers on, but little of substance.

The whole affair had the look and feel of a sales pitch, not a genuine effort at getting meaningful community input. The second of the three public meetings is proposed to be at the groundbreaking, and the final presentation not long after. Given the enormous implications of putting a giant civic arena in the middle of an environmentally and socially sensitive urban area with a long history of neglect and injustice, this seems an impossibly fast pace—especially given a team of professional planners from Atlanta, with an inherent bias toward their designs for the civic arena itself. Is this a genuine planning effort, or just an act of political expediency?

Over the past six months, our team at GMShay has produced a plan for the Canal District which carefully considered its physical, cultural and environmental history; existing and proposed land use and zoning regulations; the opportunity for employing Form Based Code to regulate elements like building height and street designs; and the use of these tools to foster the eradication of the food desert and perpetual poverty in the existing area.

This study accepted that the new civic arena was going to get built here, right or wrong. It was our learned attempt to make the rest of the Canal District Probable, Predictable, Desirable. This study was documented and furnished to City leaders, civic organizations, urban developers and many people involved in the local planning process.

We sincerely hope that the Canal District will not become a giant surface parking lot, as Andres Duany predicted in his podcast while attending the national CNU Conference last year. That would be a tragedy, but this most recent effort at master planning by the City seems to be a way of avoiding that debate, not leading it. Let’s all hope that something more thoughtful and progressive results from this process. Given Savannah’s exemplary history as a planned community, we must expect no less.


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