Restoring the Oglethorpe Plan as much as possible: the arguments aren’t just historical

Sometimes in arguing for the full restoration of the Oglethorpe Plan, Savannah preservationists get accused of various forms of nostalgia — of arguing for preservation for the sake of preservation, of ignoring contemporary needs.

But those accusations show a fundamental lack of understanding about the grid system established by General Oglethorpe when he founded the colony of Georgia in 1733. The Oglethorpe Plan has proved amazingly resilient and has adapted itself stunningly well to the age of the automobile. In fact, the areas of downtown Savannah that see the worst traffic are those that have been most disrupted.

The other day, while perusing the draft of the Unified Zoning Ordinance (UZO), I ran across a couple of graphics that perfectly display the key principles of the Oglethorpe Plan. The one below shows how the streets are interconnected around each square. Historically, the squares played a variety of civic roles. The trust lots on the east and west sides of the squares were traditionally set aside for civic purposes, primarily houses of worship, but as the decades passed an increasing number of those lots were set aside for residential uses. Long before the advent of cars, the lanes provided parking and created housing for a variety of “lower income” residents, from slaves and domestic servants to laborers and today’s college age renters. The east-west connecting streets held a variety of housing types, while the north-south connecting streets developed in mixed use ways. The north-south service streets also developed a mix of uses, but those have proven least adaptable to cars: since so many of those streets were designed in the 20th century in ways to foster high auto speeds and poor conditions for pedestrians, property values have fallen and uses have dwindled.

Savannah is thought of as an incredibly green, beautiful, and pedestrian-friendly downtown, but look at how many streets there are. How can a city with such frequent streets work as well as Savannah does?

The frequent streets themselves are part of the magic. The many choices for drivers have the effect of quickly siphoning congestion away and dispersing traffic. As Jane Jacobs noted, those frequent streets are a characteristic of vibrant cities, providing both motorists and pedestrians with sometimes- exciting choices.

The original plan permitted a mix of commercial  and residential uses as well as a diversity of housing types and styles — and the same is true today.

But over the years, some of the original plan was chipped away, as you can see in the following map pulled from the UZO draft. Most of the changes were on the west side of the grid. There were three main culprits: the I-16 overpass, the Civic Center, and the Chatham County Courthouse. Along the way, two squares pretty much disappeared: Liberty (#9 below) and Elbert (#22).

These changes have been terrible for traffic flow. Instead of the grid dispersing traffic on the west side of downtown, we see bottlenecks as drivers are denied the historical choices. In addition to the closing of some streets, we saw the unnecessary addition of one-way traffic on Montgomery from Liberty to Broughton.

Pedestrians, too, were denied choices, and the changing traffic patterns had nightmarish results for MLK, the former West Broad Street, which would have faced tough times if the only obstacle were the razing of the old Union Station.

I routinely hear Savannahians downplay the upsides of removing the I-16 flyover — some even seem disdainful of the idea. But it’s a straightforward way to move toward a variety of goals:

  • allowing traffic to disperse more quickly in the southwest quadrant of the Historic District
  • adding acres of valuable street-front property to the tax rolls
  • permitting pedestrians and cyclists to move easily across streets that are now forbidding
I hope that the I-16 flyover removal will spur other changes that lead to the reconstruction of the Oglethorpe Plan. Once the flyover is down, Montgomery Street can be two-way for its entire length. Even if we never manage to build a new arena or leave a large building in the place of the existing one, it would be possible to open up Jefferson Street from Liberty to Oglethorpe. Even if the Courthouse stays in place, maybe one day we’ll switch out that horrid parking garage on Broughton for one that allows street frontage commercial uses on Broughton Street and opens up Broughton Lane.

All of these changes would encourage pedestrianism, give more choices to drivers and improve traffic flow, and give more inherent value to the land on neighboring blocks.

Along the way, we could restore part of Elbert and Liberty Squares in ways that effectively slow traffic and create more opportunities for the public green spaces that Savannah is so famous for.

Restoring the Oglethorpe Plan isn’t just nostalgic; it could be one key to a thriving downtown into the next century and beyond.

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