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Urban Design

A few years ago, we created a handsome and visually appropriate design for a mixed use development on a busy street corner in the center city Historic District of Savannah.  It did everything right from an urban design perspective, and I suspect would have earned Jane Jacob’s approval:  ground level pedestrian oriented retail and office storefronts, automobile parking below ground and out of site, and compact well designed residential on the upper three floors.  It even had a roof garden for residents to share semi-private sunlight and views of the city just above the live oak trees along the boulevard.

Because the building and zoning codes didn’t have a category called “condominiums”, we made the mistake of presenting them as “apartments”, a more generic term for multi-family dwellings assembled into a building to share elevators and other infrastructure.  These dwellings would have been perfect for an urban neighborhood where middle class folks struggle to be able to afford the comforts of Savannah Living.  But because the word “apartments” had negative connotations to the neighboring home owners (think:  Section 8 housing tenements, full of undesirable renters), they organized a very loud and proud opposition to the project.  Never mind that the zoning for the area specifically allowed multi-family housing and mixed uses exactly like what was proposed!  The MPC staff reports repeatedly referred to the dwellings as “apartments”, even after we explained that the homes would be individually owned condominiums.  Eventually the project was approved by the MPC and City Council, but encountered so much opposition at the Historic District Board of Review in the quest for “appropriateness” that the developer lost interest, and the site sits vacant and overgrown with weeds today.

Fast forward to the August 2013 meeting of the Historic District Board of Review– Gunn Meyerhoff Shay is presenting a handsome ensemble of residential buildings in a transitioning neighborhood between Montgomery Street and Martin Luther King Jr., Boulevard.  The design consists of a two story brick duplex flanked by two compact single family detached homes, and meets every single standard of the land use zoning, and every single criterion of the Historic District Zoning Ordinance standards for “visual compatibility”.  The Historic Preservation Officer’s staff report confirms that these standards are met, and that there are contributing historic structures in the adjacent ward that establish this pattern as an acceptable example of compatibility.  The Historic Savannah Foundation’s representative at the meeting offers no objections, and no one present from the public speaks against the design or the project.

Yet somehow the members of the Historic District Board of Review, after the Petitioner and public speaking portions of the meeting, debate whether or not there should ever be any more single family detached housing allowed to be constructed in our Historic District.  Never mind that General Oglethorpe’s original plan for Georgia’s first city was entirely single family detached houses, or that every house museum in Savannah was once a single family detached house!  What really matters is that historic single family detached houses were located in every ward in the National Landmark Historic District. And that in these wards, where residential is predominant, all have contributing historic structures that are single family detached homes.  The Board still votes to reject the project against their staff’s recommendation.

Cities are all about choices, not just narrow minded “beliefs”.  The majority of the Historic District Board of Review on this day did not seem interested in Savannah’s real history, or the standards in the ordinance.  The majority of them felt empowered to create new public policy and ban the most frequently desired choice of Savannah residents, and indeed most Americans, for living at home.

Just like that beautiful mixed use multi-family corner some years ago, our design was ambushed by some people whose beliefs, though mistaken, were then used to hold the project hostage to “compatibility”.  Remember, neither of these projects were judged lacking based upon their visual appearance or land use zoning.

Here is the simple truth:  if we let our city be deprived of the variety of housing “choices” that people need, eventually we will become a museum city, like Venice, with only wealthy strangers living in our National Landmark Historic District.  It would be ironic if this were the outcome of “appropriateness”, wouldn’t it?


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