Where should Savannah’s new arena be built? (If we get one)

In a relatively long post earlier this summer — The need for a new arena in Savannah and the next SPLOST vote — I wrote (with emphasis added):

Despite the relatively clear explanations for the lack of money to build the arena or the police headquarters, we’re going to keep hearing people ask, “What happened to the money for the arena?”

It’s pretty simple: because of the deep recession and the way that the SPLOST monies were divided up via the agreement in 2006, we never came even close to raising enough money to pay for a new arena and all the other promised projects.

From Eric Curl’s Savannah arena site consideration spurs outcry in today’s Savannah Morning News:

[Chester] Ellis, the Carver Heights neighborhood leader, said he did not expect the revenue raised from the current sales tax to cover the total cost of the arena’s construction, but he thought it would be enough to get 50 percent done or at least start construction.

“What happened to the money?” he asked.

See above.

Eric’s article is frustrating on a number of levels, but it sure isn’t his fault.

In the article, officials try to downplay the political reality that many urbanites and residents of West Savannah voted for the last SPLOST (the 1 percent sales tax for infrastructure approved in 2006) largely because the city planned to build the new arena off West Gwinnett Street.

Now, years later, with the city not having acquired enough land for that site, there’s still a question about the new arena’s location. A few comments:

  • In part this delay is to blame on the turmoil of the failed experiment of Rochelle Small-Toney’s tenure as Savannah City Manager. Under any sort of organized leadership, a proposed site would have been selected at least two years ago.
  • The city is doing itself no favors to be debating and still studying various sites in the months before the next SPLOST vote.
  • The article notes that city officials would like to see a deal for dividing revenues from the next round of SPLOST to favor the new arena project in the same way that the current, about-to-end SPLOST collection favored the new county jail. This seems like a fair approach, but it might not be the most politically expedient one.

A few thoughts that I’ve shared before about various sites that are apparently still under consideration:

  • The West Gwinnett site: This is still the best option, by far, as far as I’m concerned. The parcels are undeveloped and accessible via several significant roadways. With appropriate paths the site would be accessible to pedestrians and cyclists coming from or going to downtown hotels, restaurants, etc. I doubt that we’ll see the surge in West Savannah investment that some anticipate, but we will likely see some. Also — and this is critical — many voters were led to believe that the Gwinnett site was a done deal; choosing another site will be seen by some as a breach of trust and make it harder for SPLOST to be reapproved this fall. Of course, we have to get the rest of the land somehow.
  • Savannah River Landing: This is obviously a site that could work for a lot of similar reasons to the Gwinnett site: proximity to downtown, the presence of roadways, the chance to spur development, etc. But don’t we want to have as much private development as possible at SRL? Won’t the cost of land acquisition be prohibitive given how much money the current owners have tied up in the site?
  • Rebuilding in place: This is not a lousy idea, but there are a couple of major negatives. First, if the current arena site is demolished, we could see a massive return of valuable land to the private sector and to the tax rolls. We could also recreate some of the destroyed street grid, add to the downtown population, and improve commerce and access in the southwest quadrant of the Landmark Historic District. Also, if we rebuild a new arena on the footprint of the old one, we’ll likely have two years when we will have no arena at all for community events, concerts, etc. Even if Johnny Mercer Theatre is left intact, it’s hard to imagine that major construction right next door would not severely limit its use.
  • A site north of Bay Street on the west side of MLK: Given the current owners in the area (SCAD, the USPS, a hotelier, etc.) and the likelihood of dramatically more development on the west end of River Street when several nearby hotels are completed (including the one at the old Plant Riverside), this seems like a poor and expensive choice that would displace tens of millions in private development.