Savannah’s Victorian District chosen one of 2014’s great neighborhoods by the American Planning Association

Savannah’s Victorian District is among 10 neighborhoods recently chosen by the American Planning Association’s for recognition in its Great Places series.

Other neighborhoods on the list are in Oakland; Denver; Washington, D.C.; Dorchester, Mass.; Jackson, Miss.; St. Louis; Albany, N.Y.; Richmond, Va.; and Seattle.

I know some people who live in the Victorian District who would scoff at this designation in the wake of a recent surge in crime on the east side of Forsyth Park, but the APA’s description of the neighborhood and its amenities is hard to ignore.

From the APA:

Savannah’s Victorian District lies immediately to the south of the well-known National Landmark Historic District. The Victorian District encompasses the West Victorian, East Victorian, and Dixon Park neighborhoods. This downtown neighborhood was developed in the second half of the 19th century as a streetcar suburb of the original city. It was designed in a compact, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use development pattern with a modified ward structure and street grid from the original James Oglethorpe 1733 plan.

The APA description focuses heavily on the importance of Forsyth Park — the active south half of Forsyth is bounded by the Victorian District. This list of “Community Engagement and Amenities” is also interesting:

  • Savannah Landmark Rehabilitation Project was founded to provide safe, affordable housing to low-income residents in the Victorian District (1974) and subsequently built 300 apartments for low-income renters in the neighborhood (1982)
  • Park Place Outreach Youth Emergency Shelter, a 24-hour facility on the district’s east side, was renovated in 2008 through the collaboration of the Cowart Group, J.T. Turner, and SCAD students; one of the first LEED-certified nonprofit buildings in Savannah
  • The neighborhood is home to the new headquarters of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign (SBC), a local bicycle advocacy group, which shares its space with its statewide counterpart, Georgia Bikes, along with Healthy Savannah — a local initiative dedicated to making Savannah a healthier place to live
  • SBC and Healthy Savannah are working with the City of Savannah to encourage the adoption of a Complete Streets ordinance — in addition, SBC’s new facility will rehabilitate donated bikes for distribution to underserved populations to use as a dependable transportation option
  • The American Legion complex serves as an excellent example of adaptive reuse; as a local neighborhood hangout it draws a diverse crowd with local shops, bars, and a variety of restaurant options

When I moved to Savannah in 1995, I rented a sprawling parlor floor apartment on the first block of East Gwinnett Street for, I think, $625/month. I think pretty much everyone in town would have laughed at the idea of such a glowing designation for the Victorian District, but less than 20 years later, here we are. Times change and neighborhoods change, sometimes quickly.

The designation does not mention Kroger, but the new store opened in 1995 on East Gwinnett. Nor does the APA mention businesses like Brighter Day Natural Foods and The Sentient Bean by name, but those have been critical to the sense of place. SCAD’s Eckburg and Anderson halls are also mentioned — they both lie at the southern edge of the Victorian District.

By the way, the historic cottages of Meldrim Row that the city plans to demolish are just three very short blocks south of the Victorian District. Along its eastern and western boundaries, the neighborhood has some real  blight, in part because of poor street design and inappropriate zoning.

In my City Talk column today, by the way, I consider the growing number of public uses along Bull Street from Victory Drive northward. I like to think of the Victorian neighborhood as more or less continuous with the Thomas Square Historic Streetcar District where I live.

For all the positive changes in the Victorian District in recent years, I think the prevailing sense around the neighborhood is that things can still improve dramatically from here. Imagine a productive use of the old Sears/DFACS building, which is simply priced too high for investors who are interested. Imagine the boon for the neighborhood if/when there is appropriate development at the southwest corner of Bull Street and Park Avenue. Imagine the advantages in terms of business investment when Montgomery Street through the Historic District is converted back to two-way traffic. There are also underutilized lots and buildings that are scattered throughout the neighborhood.

So, this is really nice news from the APA, but there is plenty of work ahead.