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NPS Assessment of Savannah’s Landmark status

May 11, 2018

RE: NPS Assessment of Savannah’s Landmark status

To Whom It May Concern:

It is an old truism: There are lies, damn lies, and statistics! The implication of that statement is that while facts may be immutable, there can be numerous and even conflicting interpretations of the same facts based on a point of view.

The tone of this assessment suggests there is an immediate threat to the City’s Landmark status, yet that notion has been clearly refuted by Saudia Muwwakkil, of the National Park Service, Southeast Region, Assistant Regional Director of Communications and Legislative Affairs, in her correspondence with City staff:

Our goal in addressing the miscommunication with reporters has been to 1) Convey that the district is not in danger of losing its NHL designation, 2) Clarify that the National Park Service has not yet made a final determination regarding the condition status, and 3) Express that additional factors -- including public conunent(sic) -- will help inform the agency's final determination about the condition category.

That correspondence also confirmed (from Cynthia Walton, National Historic Landmarks Program Manager, NPS, Southeast Region) that the current status, since 2006, has been Priority 3, Satisfactory, an important point never mentioned in the assessment.

The thorough research work of New South Associates Inc. and Lominack, Kolman, Smith Architects is to be commended. They were tasked with assessing the integrity of Savannah’s Landmark Historic District using its condition in 1966 at listing for a baseline. Presenting the differences between then and now certainly does show some real loss. What is apparent in the details of the report, but missing in the analysis, is the trend toward better stewardship over the 50 years.

Examining the changes chronologically instead of in toto, the report seems to me to be very positive if looked at as a time line of events:.

On the graphic showing demolitions (Chapter 2, page 10), there are 27 events listed suggested as degrading of the status, 23 of them demolitions. Of the 27 events, 23 of them happened in the first 15 years of the 50 year evaluated period, between 1966 and 1980. Only 3 events are listed since 2000, in the last 17-18 years of the study time. Those 3 are a “Building” in 2016 (apparently not significant enough to have a name), the Savannah Electric building (not particularly contributing and outside the Landmark District anyway) in 2016, and the parking deck on Ellis Square, 2006 (why would we complain about the demolition of that?);

In Chapter 4, page 44, the chart of the existing 22 squares, the problematic ones are 7 with either diminished Plan or Architectural Integrity, and 1 with Incompatible Infill. Four of those 8 were damaged prior to the Landmark status designation, and 1 (Telfair) is the result of Federal construction. One (Orleans) will be recovered after the new planned arena is built and we can take down the current Civic Center, recovering Elbert Square at the same time also recovering some of the missing street grid of the Oglethorpe Plan.

On page 23 of Chapter 4 the report states. “Overall the core of the district appears fairly intact….” If you combine that point with a number of changes City government has instituted in the last two years, or is in the process of adding now, the prognosis seems to me to be good:

The Landmark Historic District zoning ordinance has been updated on a regular basis and is currently going through another update, along with the fact that the City’s entire Zoning Ordinance is being updated, a draft has been published and we are currently going through a public comment period;

We are in the process of instituting a Tourism Management Plan that will work on spreading out the impact of a heavy tourism footprint beyond the Landmark District;

We have recently completed a Hotel Overlay Map that created a small hotel category and restricted the areas where larger hotels (and smaller) can be build, protecting much of the residential area of the district;

We finished an Ordinance limiting the growth of Vacation Rentals in the City earlier this year;

We are developing an Archeology Ordinance;

We are beginning the development of a new Arena complex on the west side of town which will allow us to remove the current Civic Center and recover Elbert Square and several blocks of street grid in the next 3-5 years;

Some time back one of the squares lost to Highway 17, Franklin, was restored, and in 2006-2008 Ellis Square was restored;

We have removed some onerous density restrictions on residential development which will make residential development competitive with hotel use of infill land;

And finally, the most positive recent development is a growing, activist citizenry which is demanding sensitivity to our heritage and to quality of life issues for residents, which also makes for a better visitor experience.

One thing we must keep in mind as we consider any changes is the inevitable contradictions of human thought and behavior over time.


“Various infrastructure developments often proved more intrusive and considerably degraded portions of the plan, most notably: the construction of the first City Market on Ellis Square…in the 1850s….” (Chapter 2, page 5 of the report)

Yet the demolition of the City Market in 1954 was one of the seminal events that catalyzed the preservation movement in Savannah and helped lead to the creation of Historic Savannah Foundation in 1955.

The graphic on page 10, Chapter 2 shows the closure of the 0 block of W. Macon St. as a potential negative act, yet that is the courtyard joining St. John’s Episcopal Church and the Green-Meldrim House which was awarded an individual NHL designation in 1976.

In addition to how changing attitudes may influence perceptions, there are details listed of changes that impact the Landmark status which the City may oppose, but has no authority to prevent:

In the 1930’s the Federal government essentially eliminated three squares to accommodate traffic convenience for Highway 17;

In 1978, Chatham County built the current courthouse, limiting options to recover Liberty Square;

In 1995, GSA put three entirely inappropriate buildings on Telfair Square;

In 2002, Chatham County was insistent on putting an inappropriate transit terminal in the Landmark, but fortunately, ultimately, did not;

Currently, members of the Georgia State Legislature are proposing gambling casinos.

If the Park Service can find a way for us to restrict these kinds of impacts, please do so.

There is some misleading information in the report:

Twice the report talks about the status being moved to threatened (Chapter 2, page 14 and Chapter 6, page 62), but it fails to point out that we have been at Priority 3, Satisfactory, since 2006;

Chapter 5, page 51 states that the construction of the new Cultural Arts Center will impinge on the footprint of Elbert Square, but looking at the street map, Turner Blvd. on the southside of the facility lines up with Hull St. to the east, the street that would have been the northern boundary of the square (a more useful criticism of the new Center would be the loss of Oglethorpe Lane, but at least the design of the building tries to mimic that aspect of the street grid):

The presentation of comments from a selected group of 40 people gives no indication of who those people were, nor what their knowledge, expertise, or experience might be.

There are some serious issues concerning the future of the District detailed in the report:

The impact of commercial growth on the western boundary, although there was some question of why West Broad was included in the original boundaries anyway (Chapter 2, page 9);

Commercial truck traffic; the City is looking at some restrictions on delivery vehicles in the Landmark District, but that will not completely address the issue of commercial traffic which needs to transit the City to service the eastside and the islands. Until there is a second bridge over the river on the east side that will continue to be a problem;

Getting “affordable” or “workforce” housing in the urban core; we have changed some density restrictions which has increased the construction of multifamily residential, but until more inventory builds up and puts some price pressure on an ample supply, that issue will continue.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to maintain a “Watch” condition for the City’s status, but not in the sense of a criticism for past events, especially considering the trend for those events is strongly positive. The real challenge is how can we protect our heritage and still be a living city, not a museum, not becoming so calcified that we are just a historic theme park available only to affluent visitors and residents.

It’s time for the Park Service to lead in a discussion on how we take an 18th century construct into the 21st century, addressing the livability and technology demands of a changing world in that context. We need ways of incorporating modern transportation options, broadband fiber optics, building materials that are sustainably grown/manufactured and that provide environmental benefits like insulation for temperature and sound, and other contemporary approaches.

Just saying “No” to any change is not a viable pathway to preservation.

Bill Durrence

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