Savannah is a city in a unique position. It has an amazing historic core than lines a river and has traditionally grown south, due to having been somewhat hemmed in by the canals, railroads (later I-16 & I-17) and industrial sights. Now with many of those factors able to be mitigated or transformed, Savannah has the amazing opportunity to grow it’s very desirable downtown walkable historic core on both sides, east and west. Virtually no places have that type of growth ability.
We were asked to help look at one of the growth areas, the west side or canal zone. Getting started was about looking how to grow the urban fabric of Savannah, develop civic spaces, develop a public realm and allow growth that is compatible with the character of the city. Nothing is worse than letting growth come for the sake of growth. People come to Savannah to live, work and visit because it is an amazing walkable, human scale, traditional city. Building projects just like parts of Atlanta or Charlotte really take away from what makes this city special and you end up with the sameness or genericness of Anywhere, USA. Growth has to be civic based as the creation of real value for the private sector and the private sector has to support the public realm with appropriate scales, proportions and patterns.
-Broughton Street: Mixed Use
We were asked to join a process to review what might be done on the West side. As a charrette was conducted; part one of the two meetings, we declared a focus as to what would be good to put over on the west side. What would hold the key elements of the city that maintained the character. If you were to be blind-folded and placed in a randomly chosen area in Savannah, you would know where you are as soon as the blindfold was removed. Whether it is downtown, a neighborhood, or one of the squares; Savannah has a special character in its Civic realm, urban fabric and architecture. This is what makes the city authentic.
-Johnson Square as Civic Art
Part one of the Charrette had a focused geared towards developing the land on the west-end of the city and the redevelopment of areas downtown. Specific amenities were given to us, and what we had to do was figure out the placement and what else would go around it. Our general concept was to develop the public civic realm, and then create the block patterns for the develop of the private sector that would keep the scale and character of Savannah. We looked to make east west connections that are complete streets and would connect several different neighborhoods and we formed new neighborhoods on the time tested concept of the 15 minute walk. Savannah needs more walkable neighborhoods, not parking decks.
Part two, started off with us reflecting on part one and going down to a block level vs. a larger scale. As we evaluated the layout of what we ideally want the west-side to look like, we then had to figure out how we would make it work. We divided into two different groups, one had north of Liberty Street, the other south of Liberty Street.
As both groups had their plans mapped out, it was apparent that we had different takes on how this could be developed. The discussion centered a lot on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard being the road that creates the barrier of downtown coming to an end instantly. It not only “boxes in” the city, but it quickly transitions from safe and pedestrian friendly, to heavy incoming traffic dispersing from the I-16 ramp to Montgomery Street. The way for Savannah to have the west-side expansion be successful, is to remove the I-16 ramp. Luckily, we aren’t the only ones who feel this could be a good, and necessary change. The Ramp Removal Study from reclaimingoldwestbroad.org, has made clear indications that more good will come about if the I-16 ramp is removed.
-I-16 Montgomery Exit
North of this exit has been advancing, yet south of the ramp hasn’t had the same growth. The exit-ramp has created physical limitations to pedestrian activity, neighborhood revitalization along the corridor, and the economic development. While mapping out the idea of simply removing this exit ramp, it allowed us to see what opportunities this could bring the city. We were able to extend and connect streets such as Jones, and Gaston that would be able to feed into the west-side development. With Montgomery Street, becoming a consistent two-way street, traffic flow is highly improved. Along with that, the city would have about 9 acres of developable land at their use. How much would 9 acres of urban walkable mixed use bring to the city? A lot if you follow Joe Minicozzi’s formula from our Spring Savannah Speaker Series.
The “what ifs?” are now brought into the equation. What if doing this, meant that MLK now becomes as safe and pedestrian friendly as Broughton Street? What if MLK is obtained as the gateway to city and used as a vital mixed-use corridor? Since Montgomery Street’s traffic flow would be improved, what if we were able to repair squares, add plazas, and/or parks along the street? What if we built Civic art, spaces and value with design? How much more valuable does that make the 9 acres rather than just building generic Atlanta apartments?
-Atlanta New Development
This has been an exciting look into how the future of Savannah could go. Having worked in Charleston for almost 20 years, we know how this general trend works. Clearly with the current real estate trends, something is going to happen. Should that something be something that feels like it has always be here or should it feel like mid-town Atlanta? One makes Savannah stronger and one makes it weaker. Civic planning must take place, most of the growth will be from larger corporate companies that have no real understanding, appreciation of the nuances of Savannah. These companies can built great things but they are always happy with repeating their last big Atlanta project, not doing something new. Savannah needs a Civic Plan for this district.