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  • Writer's pictureGM Shay

Working Vision for Savannah's Canal District

The City of Savannah decided to locate her long-awaited Civic Arena project on our west side five years ago in an effort to expand our urban center and to connect it with an area that contains Savannah’s largest food desert. The Canal District began with a water-colored vision plan that was beautiful to look at and very difficult to realize. While armchair urbanists will long debate whether the new arena should be located here, we have chosen to embrace it as an opportunity.

Unfortunately, there has not been any coherent feasibility study for the area’s potential. In fact there are not even well understood boundaries for this Canal District, or clear measures for its success. This may be because none of our local institutions have much of any experience at urban development.

For this reason my creative team volunteered to have a charrette about the area’s real potential in November 2017, and shared the results with the City of Savannah’s administrative leaders. After lots of study we determined that the appropriate theme was “Nourishment” on many levels: food, community, art, culture, history and workforce development. By exploring the potential for integrating park land, urban development sites, complete streets and many mobility choices, we helped show that the Canal District has enormous potential for everyone. Jane Jacobs’ urban values of civic space, human scale and diversity guided our thought processes and became the measures of success.

Meanwhile, for the past 4 years we have been trying to help overcome the multiple barriers to successful development in the Canal District on its first major private development. The Gateway at Louisville Road and Boundary Street was forced to overcome outdated zoning, poor infrastructure, regional hydrology failures, and a sadly lacking legal protection for its historic asset, the Seaboard Railway Depot. This process was needlessly painful and controversial due to the lack of any consensus vision for the Canal District and its antiquated zoning regulations. In many ways this project was the perfect storm that showed how badly we need the “NewZO” (proposed new zoning ordinance) to allow the Tri-Centennial Comprehensive Plan’s recommended “Downtown Expansion” to happen. Lots of drama and ink that wasted years of precious time.

Again my creative team stepped up and persuaded me to provide a second chapter to our previous Working Vision for Savannah’s Canal District. This time we took a much deeper look at the area’s history, culture, hydrology, development patterns and economics. The goal was to propose something that would foster outcomes that were Probable, Predictable and Desirable. Probable because these outcomes were financially and physically feasible, not just pipe dreams. Predictable because this area, under present and proposed zoning as heavy industrial (at least 50 years outdated) makes any process for private investment a total crap shoot’s roll of the dice. Desirable, because the cycle of dis-investment in this area won’t be broken by just a big Civic Arena. It will have to become a desirable place full of acceptable choices for a diverse community. This includes more affordable housing and small scale economic development integrated into the surrounding residential areas. We know this because we interviewed area residents and they said so.

The results of this study are comprehensive and careful. We are sharing the study with community leaders now, and will be presenting it to everyone through this blog during this Summer. It is our donation to this community that we love.

Please keep in touch and let us know your thoughts!

Patrick Shay, AIA, LEED AP


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