Savannah has something Atlanta wants: a real city center

I’d encourage the Savannah’s nattering nabobs of negativity to read a piece in today’s AJC despite its slightly hyperbolic headline: Savannah’s surging downtown defies downturn by Greg Bluestein.

The article opens:

SAVANNAH — A city center that Atlanta and plenty of other cities dream about is the reality here.

Downtown Savannah teems with tourists and college students stroll past coffeehouses and restaurants in an eminently walkable urban environment. Chocolate shops sit side-by-side with art galleries, bawdy bars and boutique stores, creating the type of seamless mixed-use environment that developers dream of manufacturing.

Though long been known for walkability, downtown Savannah wasn’t always this way. Sections were plagued with empty storefronts and lagging foot traffic just a decade ago. A fresh influx of tourists, a renewed focus on the “creative class” and Savannah College of Art & Design’s unorthodox growth strategy have led to a downtown renassaince.

Atlanta certainly doesn’t have the waterfront lure or historic charm of its older cousin. But the importance of a pedestrian-friendly downtown and Savannah’s careful cultivation of a vibe that appeals to a wide swath of residents and tourists may hold lessons.

Residents turned out in droves for Fashion’s Night Out on Broughton Street

I’m briefly quoted in the piece, along with lots of other folks. One point that I made to Bluestein that he didn’t quote me on: many of downtown Savannah’s most positive traits are a direct result of the Oglethorpe plan established in 1733. I pointed the reporter to Christian Sottile — urban designer, architect, and SCAD dean — for more on that issue. Here’s one of the quotes from Christian:

“The economy has changed, but the plan doesn’t need to,” said Sottile, referencing the city squares that Gen. James Oglethorpe laid out almost 300 years ago. “It survived the American Revolution, the Civil War and the 20th Century. And now it’s defining sustainability in the 21st Century.”

For an upbeat insider’s view of how Savannah has weathered the downturn, take a look at Tommy Linstroth’s recent post on The Creative Coast blog: Here for the Long Haul.

In a recent column, I noted that by year’s end we could be close to full occupancy on Broughton Street again, despite the long hangover from the recession.

Sure, Savannah has lots of problems, but those who don’t dwell on the problems and who forge ahead trying to get stuff done are making dramatic positive changes to the city.