Moving history to the present

Aug. 14, 2009

As one of the nation’s most charming and historic cities, Savannah, Ga., like many coastal communities in the Southeast, has experienced unprecedented growth that has strained its transportation system and infrastructure.

As one of the nation’s most charming and historic cities, Savannah, Ga., like many coastal communities in the Southeast, has experienced unprecedented growth that has strained its transportation system and infrastructure.

The challenges to accommodate its growth and development also have threatened the city’s ability to protect its unique character as expressed through one of the largest and most well-preserved historic districts in the U.S., one that dates back to its formation as the cornerstone to one of the nation’s 13 colonies. City leaders know that these historic assets fuel Savannah’s tourism industry, as well as the local economy, and are essential to the city’s long-term success.

According to Tom Thomson, executive director of the Savannah-Chatham County Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC), the joint planning agency for both city and county, much of the recent development in Savannah has been focused in the eastern edge of the city in areas north and south of President Street, one of only two major roadways linking the coastal islands with downtown.

Traffic along President Street includes commuters, local residents and visitors from the islands and beaches as well as a large amount of truck traffic, since the area is predominantly industrial. It is the only east-west arterial connecting to the Harry Truman Parkway, the region’s major access-controlled north-south facility, and as it approaches downtown, President Street eventually leads into the historic district, becoming part of the internal street network.

Reworking the land

Thomson said the MPC initially examined traditional solutions for addressing the future capacity needs of the corridor, such as widening the roadway to a high-speed, eight-lane arterial. At the same time, the city also was considering extending Savannah’s downtown grid network eastward to these new expansion areas. Thus, the project became an opportunity to “set a new model for development,” he said, one that would not only preserve, but also enhance Savannah’s distinct historic character.

“We started looking at President Street as the eastern gateway to the city—an entirely different kind of street,” said Thomson

Beverly Davis of RS&H, the MPC’s general planning consultant tasked with developing the new President Street concept, said the project involved a balancing act between capacity needs and context sensitivity.

Extending history

Savannah is one of the first planned cities in the nation, and much of the original grid configuration, laid out by General James Oglethorp in 1733, can still be seen today in the city’s downtown historic district, said Davis. The network of city blocks, known as wards, are connected by public green spaces and collector streets as well as larger boulevards shaded by live oak trees, giving Savannah its distinct flavor and laying the context for the areas north and south of President Street.

“By restoring the grid pattern,” said Davis, “we continue the flavor of Savannah seen in large-canopy tree-lined roads and a highly pedestrian-friendly network.”

Reaching this goal meant convincing developers eyeing the areas along President Street.

According to Chris Morrill, assistant city manager, the city was not too receptive to one developer’s planned mixed-use development on the north side of the street. The development included a range of high-end homes and condos as well as retail and office space, and it was viewed as a threat to the city’s historic heritage. The development on the south side of the corridor included a large shopping district with either big-box stores or more lifestyle-themed local shops.

Morrill said in 2004 the city helped fund an urban designer, Christian Sotille, to work on its civic master plan for public spaces with the intent of extending Oglethorpe’s plan to the area adjacent to the historic district and thus maintaining the spirit of Savannah, which is connectedness, short blocks and parks.

After negotiating with the city, the original developer agreed to sell out to adjacent landowners, who were willing to work with the city’s master plan. As a result, of the 54 acres annexed by the landowners, 40% is public space, streets, public parks and sidewalk.

Morrill said funds to finance the Riverwalk and the infrastructure and roads around it and the extended city grid were obtained through tax instrument financing (TIF). As the value of the property increases, the city will generate additional revenue to pay off the bonds.

A place for President St.

Morrill and Davis said the team held several planning sessions with the new developers, Ambling Corp. of Valdosta, Ga., to get them on board with the civic master plan that followed General Oglethorpe’s model. To improve transportation connectivity, the developments were refined to include an internal street pattern that could be linked to the adjacent downtown grid network. Open public spaces, similar to downtown’s historic public squares, also were integrated throughout the developments.

Thomson said the $16 million grant the city received from the state will extend the downtown Riverwalk corridor through the end of the northern development, providing a pedestrian link to the popular riverfront area, which is a major tourism draw featuring retail shops, restaurants and boating activities.

“The new walkway connects to the development’s public open spaces,” said Thomson. “It provides public access to this valuable cultural resource for those who don’t own expensive riverfront property.”

President Street itself was redesigned in phases, transitioning from a high-speed, six-lane roadway at its easternmost end down to a low-speed, four-lane roadway as it approaches the historic district. The extended grid network offers traveling options for drivers, thus relieving some of the traffic along the street, said Davis. The city also plans to extend Liberty Boulevard, located in the southern end of downtown, to the Harry Truman Parkway, which will provide another connecting east-west arterial to remove traffic from President Street.

“A different color paving along the outside lanes will signal the drop from six to four lanes where there will be on-street parking, crosswalks and other pedestrian accommodations,” said Davis.

Near the historic district, President Street also will include accommodations for a future streetcar system along a city-owned, underused railroad track that runs parallel to the corridor. According to Thomson, the city is considering restoring its streetcar system to provide more connectivity between the downtown, mid-city and riverfront areas.

Solutions that satisfy

Overall, Thomson considers the President Street plan an “interim design,” which put the grid system in place so future developments will be designed within the context of Savannah.

Since the completion of the plan, more developers are using the President Street and east expansion models. For instance, one developer plans to restore President Street’s west end former historic grid pattern, which was destroyed for a housing complex built in the 1940s. The city also is working with a developer on Hutchinson Island, across the river, on a similar civic master plan, complete with open public spaces and an internal transportation grid network.

Thomson said the city has received numerous honors both locally and internationally for recognizing Savannah’s historic grid pattern and taking strides to extend it to other areas of the city. Last year, the team received the Historic Preservation Award from the Historic Savannah Foundation for the East Riverfront Extension, which followed General Oglethorpe’s model. The East Riverfront Extension also was one of 12 projects throughout the world honored with a Charter Award from the Congress for the New Urbanism, which promotes walkable, neighborhood-type developments to curb urban sprawl.

Thomson said the significance to Savannah is huge, because it sets a tone for future expansion.

“But the real significance of the project,” said Davis, “is far more reaching, for it demonstrates that when transportation is studied in conjunction with context, development does not have to cannibalize a city’s historic character.”

About The Author: Bernos is the director of corporate communications for RS&H. Stutts is a communications specialist in RS&H’s transportation and public infrastructure programs.

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