Savannah River Landing: will Oglethorpe plan be part of its future?

Amidst all the chatter about the possibility of an open air stadium taking up some of the acreage at the Savannah River Landing site, it’s becoming clearer than ever that the current owners are prepared to abandon pretty much all the plans in place before the massive mixed-use development collapsed.

First, let’s recall the excellent New York Times piece from 2007 about the Savannah River Landing site (that big tract of land east of the Marriott along the riverfront): Savannah Adds to the Master Plan of 1733 Many of us already had doubts about the project when that piece was published in spring 2007, but I and some other doubters were too quiet in raising them (not that it would have made much difference one way or the other).

From that NYT piece, which was published about 7 months before the country entered the deepest recession since the Great Depression:

As one of the oldest planned cities in the country, Savannah is known for compact, walkable streets and beautifully landscaped historic squares. Designed by the city’s founder, James Oglethorpe, in 1733, it has remained largely intact even as electricity and cars were introduced, though buildings have changed uses over time.

It is precisely this longevity that the Ambling Companies hopes to build on with the largest expansion of the historic downtown since Oglethorpe first envisioned it. Savannah River Landing, an $800 million mixed-use development currently under way, will extend the city east along the Savannah River on land that Oglethorpe platted but never made use of.

More than four years ago, the city’s economic development agency hired Christian Sottile, a Savannah-based urban planner, to update the Oglethorpe plan, which is now guiding the development of Ambling’s 54-acre site. Mr. Sottile will be continuing a pattern of development that last had a major addition in 1856.

“What’s so unique about Savannah River Landing, we were able to reach back 150 years and continue a history of urbanism native to this place,” said Mr. Sottile, who teaches urban planning and design at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Savannah River Landing would have created six new squares, and — as noted in the piece — would have been connected to downtown through likely changes to the current street pattern at the northeast end of downtown. That over time probably would have meant the elimination of the diagonal General McIntosh Boulevard and the recreation of gridded north-south and east-west blocks. (I guarantee if would have worked on many levels better than what we have now.)

Savannah River Landing as an extension of the Oglethorpe plan and street grid

When a Canadian investment group took over the site in 2010 after immediate development plans had completely collapsed, there were assurances that the plan seen here — and for which infrastructure has already been created to the tune of millions of dollars — would be the model for future development. See Investment group takes over Savannah River Landing in the SMN. From that piece:

PSP Investments has hired a local consultant to work with those partners and others to plan the development’s future.

City of Savannah officials said they look forward to those talks. The city government never feared the project would collapse, said Assistant City Manager Chris Morrill.

“We always knew this was a unique development on the East Coast,” Morrill said. “We’re in this for the long term.”

The city’s concern going forward is in the project remaining true to its master plan. Designed to be an extension of Savannah’s historic district, the Savannah River Landing was to incorporate parks, squares and tree-lined streets. Of the site’s 54 acres, 25 were to be public space.

The city wants the “new players” to keep “the public realm connected,” Morrill said.

“And we don’t see that changing,” he said.

I never shared Morrill’s optimism from two years ago that the plan would be or even could be preserved. (Morrill is of course now city manager in Roanoke.)

From this week’s New stadium could spur development on Savannah River Landing, property manager says:

The Savannah River Landing project, which broke ground in 2008, stalled when the economy did. The original concept, developed by Ambling Companies, called for an $800 million investment that would bring a mix of two hotels, 600 condominiums, 110 town homes, 17 million-dollar waterfront homes and about 50 shops and retail stores.

That plan, and the design meant to mimic the Oglethorpe grid pattern of historic downtown, may be revised in the current economy.

“The vision looked beautiful on paper, but I’ve never seen any feasibility study that supported the amount of retail and residential on it,” Burgstiner said.

Given that, the look of the project could change, too.

“Probably a lot of the plan that is there will stay, but a lot of it will change,” he said.

These are interesting discussions.

I’m particularly interested to know from that piece quoted directly above that the Savannah River Landing owners seem willing to be flexible about land use and even land acquisition. Since an open air stadium would need only about 20% of the site, there’s reason to think a deal could be worked out despite the fact that the owners likely have tens of millions of dollars tied up in the site.

And it’s always been tantalizing to consider various uses that would be suitable for a site in such close proximity to downtown — a movie theater, for example.

But there will definitely be something lost if all or even part of the existing plan to extend the Oglethorpe grid is altered.

At the end of the day, as I keep noting, Savannah River Landing is privately owned, but we can certainly help guide its use and future development — something will happen there sometime — through close attention and informed discussion. And perhaps through direct investment.

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