Savannah’s plan to destroy historic homes for new police precinct is even worse than I thought

The city of Savannah’s plan to replace relatively recently renovated historic workers’ cottages with a new police precinct is one of the worst public policy decisions I’ve seen since I’ve been writing columns about city life. (That’s 14 years and some ridiculous number of columns way beyond 1,500.)

The only good news is that the city has time to revoke the deal.

UPDATE 6/29: I have followed up with an additional post (Flawed search process propelled Savannah’s plans to raze historic cottages for a new police station), so cruise on over there after checking out the background info here.

Or maybe we will get lucky and the demolition will actually take place during the National Preservation Conference, which is being held in Savannah in November. It could be a good object lesson for attendees that even the most historic of cities can get things horribly wrong, and, at the end of the day, no matter how much lip service folks pay to the needs for historic preservation, for affordable housing, and for the honoring of long-neglected black history in America’s cities, hypocrisy and money are still the trump cards.

The city of Savannah’s plan involves an entire city block bounded by 33rd, MLK, 34th, and Montgomery, plus the adjacent half blocks of 33rd and 34th.

Click here to look at the site on Google maps. Note the nice trees in the middle of the block, the uniform simplicity of the architecture, the photos of individual properties across the bottom of the screen.

I have already written critically of the plan in my City Talk column a couple of weeks ago. I noted the historic nature of the homes, but there’s far more history than I knew about at the time.

The houses were constructed between 1882 and 1913. In other words, these are some of the oldest homes south of Forsyth Park — and they also represent one of the first significant developments in the city to provide housing for black residents less than two decades after emancipation.

From Plans for future trump historic past for Savannah’s police precinct project by Eric Curl in today’s Savannah Morning News:

Peter Wiltberger Meldrim bought the land in 1882 and began building the modest cottages to house African-American workers, Harris said, and the area became known as “Meldrim Row.”

Meldrim was a state senator and representative, as well as Savannah’s mayor for two years beginning in 1897, before serving as a Superior Court judge of the Eastern Judicial Circuit until his death in 1933.

“Meldrim’s development of Meldrim Row is significant as one of the earliest attempts to provide adequate housing for minorities in Georgia,” according to the Cuyler-Brownville’s National Register of Historic Places registration form.

Just a note on the geography: the parts of Meldrim Row on the west side of MLK are in the Cuyler-Brownsville neighborhood, but the properties slated for demolition are not, at least not according to the map designating the historic district or according to the police department’s neighborhood maps. The site is in the Metropolitan neighborhood. I don’t know that it matters much at the end of the day, but this whole business of reducing crime in Cuyler-Brownsville like everyone keeps talking about? Ridiculous. Not only is the police station across MLK, but keep in mind that we’re talking about one of the stretches of MLK with a long median. A cruiser leaving the precinct would have to go either north or south for three blocks before even being able to cross MLK into Cuyler-Brownsville.

Not only do these properties have a rich history, they were also part of an aggressive attempt to improve the area and provide affordable housing through a public-private partnership just about 20 years ago!

From Eric’s piece today:

The project included about $3 million in development financing used for acquisition and renovation of the 82 units, including a $2.6 million city loan using federal housing grant funds, according to Martin Fretty, the city’s housing department director.

So now the city is going to buy those properties, undo all those efforts, and put up a police station?

Also, in my column a couple weeks ago, I directly addressed the wrong-headedness of thinking that a police station will have such a dramatic transformative effect on the neighborhood. My house backs up to the current Central Precinct, which is right across the lane. But:

In the 18 years I’ve lived right around the corner, my block has seen drug sales, numerous burglaries, stolen bicycles, at least one auto theft, a hit-and-run accident and various other problems. You know, the usual.

By the way, the current Central Precinct location on Bull Street is dramatically, dramatically smaller than the site now being considered. I will be curious to find out why such a large parcel is even needed.

As I have said before, my opinion might be slightly different if there were anything like a land crunch in the neighborhood. There are blighted commercial buildings of no apparent historic value and empty lots throughout the area.

My next step in looking into this decision will be to ask the city for the addresses of the 28 sites that were apparently considered before this stunningly bad decision was made.

By the way, I live in a cottage that dates to the 1870s, and I’ll bet folks would be up in arms if I announced plans that I was selling to someone who planned to demolish it!

This decision seems especially disheartening in a city that has worked so diligently to find a way to save the personal collection of W.W. Law and to relocate the home of Mother Mathilda Beasley. Obviously, by the way, the city could consider putting the new precinct a few blocks north on the site of a historic black-owned pharmacy that is also scheduled for demolition.

Ironically, Mayor Edna Jackson recused herself from the recent council vote because of her friendship with Bob James, one of the principal players in the deal. At public meetings about the I-16 flyover, Jackson has spoken passionately about the wrong that was done in destroying residential properties for the project. So maybe Jackson needs to re-engage and to consider that she is now running a city that is about to destroy some pretty valuable history.

A final few words: The Metropolitan neighborhood has lost a large number of black residents over the last generation and has picked up a lot more white residents. Many longtime residents have little reason to stay — not after years of official toleration of street-level drug dealing and prostitution. Everyone knows that such activity is routine — I see it all the time in the Jefferson Street corridor, and the new precinct won’t be significantly closer to the action than the current one is. If the city moves ahead with this demolition of historic homes that are also affordable, we will almost certainly see an accelerated exit of black residents.

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