Savannah River Landing: How much should we care if developers don’t extend Oglethorpe plan?

I guess I should begin by saying that Savannah city officials and the public generally don’t have a whole lot of control over what happens next at Savannah River Landing, the large expanse of land at the west east end of River Street once envisioned as a major expansion of downtown.

It looks like public money will be spent to improve drainage along President Street and offer access to the site. But what will be there? That’s really not our decision.

Over the last couple of years, SRL has been floated as the site for a cruise ship terminal (not happening), a new stadium for the Sand Gnats (not likely anytime soon), and a possible site for a new civic arena (very unlikely, I’d say).

Since the site is not publicly owned, any civic use would likely come at a very high cost.

The likeliest outcome probably is the incremental development of the site for a variety of private uses.

But it’s worth remembering and emphasizing that the original ambitions for the site included an extension of General Oglethorpe’s grid system. The Oglethorpe Plan has served Savannah well for 280 years.

There have been various signals over the last couple of years that the current owners have all but scrapped the idea of expanding the grid.

Consider this from Eric Curl’s Cost to finish, repair Savannah River Landing site: $2.3M:

Court documents indicate the new owner may not be planning to develop the property as it was originally envisioned.

In response to a request for a $2.3 million payment in January, attorney David Lotz, who represented ALR, said the company is not responsible for sewer work that may not be needed due to the potential modification of the property’s proposed use.

“It is our understanding that, in prior conversations between ALR and Purchaser, Purchaser representatives indicated that the site would not be utilized in the current configuration,” Lotz said.

The “current configuration” is one that attracted worldwide praise before the financial crisis and housing bust.

Consider this New York Times article from 2007: Savannah Adds to the Master Plan of 1733. From that piece:

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.

“With a conventional master plan, which often foresees all of the buildings from Day 1,” he said, “you freeze in time the mix of uses. This is the opposite. It’s town-building. The streets come first, public spaces come first, and the blocks become spaces for building, which are not prescribed. It’s highly unusual for American cities.”

The developer is planning to build more than two million square feet of new space, including 2 hotels; 150,000 square feet of prime office space; 200,000 square feet of retail space; 4 condo buildings; 17 riverfront estates; and 110 town homes. The city is also extending the historic river walk by 2,000 feet.

The public spaces — the new streets and squares — were to have been deeded back to the city.

As recently as 2010, the owners indicated in a Savannah Morning News article that they were committed to the Sottile’s extension of the Oglethorpe Plan, but there were reasons to doubt that commitment even at the time. Further doubts prompted my spring 2012 post Savannah River Landing: will Oglethorpe plan be part of its future?

A reminder of what that would have looked like (General McIntosh Boulevard is on the far left of this small map, with President Street Extension at the bottom):


The original developers envisioned an absurdly quick timeline for this development. The ambition, which seems absurd in retrospect, and the utter collapse of the plans were both results of the nuttiness of the bubble years.

But the failure doesn’t mean that the basic configuration isn’t a good one — one that could serve the city well for decades, maybe even centuries.

Perhaps a few elements could be tweaked to allow a couple of larger buildings on the fringes of the site, but the core idea — the extension of the squares and of mixed use development — is sound.

A new vision of incremental city-building is unlikely to satisfy the profit motive of the current owners, however.

Nor will it address public concerns about wasted tax money. It seems at times that public officials and taxpayers would settle for any development on the site, as long as property tax revenue increased to help pay for costly improvements that have already been made or are about to be made.

I don’t know if it would be worth the time and effort, but I hope that city officials, the Downtown Neighborhood Association, Historic Savannah Foundation, local preservationists, and others will exert whatever pressure they can to make sure that some semblance of the Oglethorpe plan, as extended in the original vision for SRL, survives.