More thoughts on population loss in older neighborhoods, the clustering of services, and supporting existing neighborhoods

In my City Talk column last Sunday, “How public policy can fight population loss in Savannah”, I continued my ongoing discussion about some of the demographic issues evident in the 2010 census data, especially the population loss in many of the oldest, most centrally located neighborhoods:

As I noted Tuesday, while Savannah added population modestly, most of the core neighborhoods bordering Abercorn Street lost residents between 2000 and 2010.

During the boom years of the last decade, despite the slow growth or even population loss estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau, Savannah’s leaders worked under the assumption the city was adding population at a steady pace.

The much-touted 2006 report on coastal area growth compiled by the Center of Quality Growth and Regional Development at Georgia Tech claimed the city had a population of 140,598 in 2005 and that the population would be 148,563 in 2010.

Dedicated readers will remember my criticisms of that blithe assumption. If one throws out the hard data and assumes the population is booming, it’s easy to conclude that public policies are effective.

I try to make the case that there are vital reasons to be concerned about this trend:

I believe cities matter.

Savannah, in particular, is the economic driver for the metropolitan area even though fewer than half the metro residents live within the city limits.

Also, there are far more costs to sprawl than most Americans seem to realize.

Denser neighborhoods in the core of a city require less infrastructure spending. And studies have shown that people living in proximity to jobs and services might spend about 10 percent of their incomes on transportation, while those in the most inefficient locations spend about three times as much.

It’s also worth noting that Savannah’s oldest neighborhoods were built on some of the highest ground in the county. In the event of storm surge from a major hurricane, it makes sense to have as many residents as possible living at the highest possible elevation.

So how can public policy encourage population gains in some of these core neighborhoods? What types of policies should the city implement to compete more effectively against newer neighborhoods such as those in West Chatham?

I then move on to discuss the effects of property taxes, crime, zoning, and disproportionate infrastructure spending on prospective — possibly completely unneeded — neighborhoods. I also note the federal incentives that have encouraged sprawl in recent years: “One example would be the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s home loan program that gave guaranteed 100 percent loans for home purchases west of Interstate 95. Ostensibly, the program was to support the population of rural areas. It’s laughable that it applied to suburban areas of west Chatham.”

In that same issue of the Savannah Morning News, Adam Van Brimmer had an excellent piece about the relative resilience of those west Chatham neighborhoods in the Godley Station area:

The area is popular with young families and those who work on the westside at places such as Georgia Ports Authority, Gulfstream and Crossroads Business Park.

The Godley neighborhoods offer a wide range of home types, from townhouses and small starter homes to 5,000-square-foot mini-mansions, most of them in planned communities that include amenities such as pools, fitness centers and walking trails. The neighborhoods feature city services from either Pooler (South Godley) or Savannah (North Godley).

Pooler Parkway has become a bustling commercial corridor with big-box retailers, restaurants, grocery stores and two movie theaters. Godley Station School, which serves kindergarten through eighth grade students, opened last fall and West Chatham High School is scheduled to be ready in the fall of 2012.

I would argue one key point there: that new West Chatham high school is going to be built six miles or more away from those existing neighborhoods. I fear that when area residents realize just how far away it is, just how poorly sited, they will be up in arms — but then it will be too late. The decision to put that school way out in the unpopulated neighborhood of New Hampstead is the worst public policy decision I’ve seen in a long time.

As Van Brimmer notes, the resilient Godley neighborhoods have room for as many as 8,000 additional homes. Why in the world wouldn’t we want to encourage and build upon the kind of clustering of residents, employers, and services that is already taking place?

And I think there’s a real danger of overconfidence about the current and future stability of those new suburban enclaves. As data in Van Brimmer’s article details, average sale prices per square foot are off about 17% over the last couple of years, clearly indicating that many mortgages are underwater. Since large numbers of those homes were built more or less simultaneously, there’s an obvious danger years from now that repair and maintenance issues will strike more or less simultaneously. For buyers in West Chatham who have to make daily commutes into the core of Savannah, gas prices and road congestion would both seem likely to impact quality of life more and more with each passing year.

As I’ve noted before, we’ve seen a spike in vacant units over the last decade in just about every neighborhood in the Savannah metro area.

We need to focus our resources on creating prosperity and encouraging full occupancy of existing neighborhoods, whether they be in the core of the city in my usual beat, or in suburban areas that offer residents a variety of conveniences and generally high quality of life.

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