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Savannah sings to Raleigh 

America's first planned city is still growing by going small

Just got back from Savannah, and weekend two of the now three weeks long Savannah Music Festival. Note to Raleigh: Why don't we do this too? They've got the spring sewn up--and their azaleas are already in bloom. Ours can be in the fall. They've got classical, jazz, bluegrass, ballet, you name it. Lots of local talents, lots of visiting artists, from Buddy Guy to Arianna Zuckerman. So can we--heck, one of their featured guests was our own Cool John Ferguson. I love Savannah. Even when the music stops, it's a musical place, in 4/4 time, you might say. It was America's first planned city. In 1733, when General James Oglethorpe claimed Georgia for the British, he laid out Savannah as a series of short blocks arranged around 24 one-acre public squares, almost all of which remain intact in the downtown district (and are replicated to some extent in the near-downtown neighborhoods).

Buildings were limited to five stories, a rule Savannah's maintained--with very few exceptions, most of which are now considered mistakes by city leaders--ever since.

Add some serious historic preservation and the latterday design skills of its resident SCAD folks (the biggest developer in town is the entrepreneurial Savannah College of Art and Design), and the result today is a city that many consider America's most beautiful--and a stunning display of every one of the elements you read about whenever the subject is "livable places" or "downtown revitalization." Cribbing now from Jeff Speck, city planner and author of Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, these elements start with a couple of old chestnuts: design your streets for people, not cars, and "small is beautiful."

Says Speck: "People are small, and the most walkable cities acknowledge this fact with small blocks, small buildings, and small increments of investment." Mix the uses, hide the parking lots, and let the skyscrapers in only when all the empty land (aka, parking lots) has been developed, because otherwise what you'll end up with is a few overbuilt sites and massive speculation on the empty remainders--you've read the rules, you know them, but: "That many of these items are common sense," as Speck goes on, "does not alter the fact that (public officials) every day make decisions large and small that violate them outright."

An important footnote: Your height limit is key when it comes to getting some affordable housing mixed in with the trés cher. Use that extra story as a bargaining chip with the developer, Speck says.

Well, there are no skyscrapers in Savannah, and very few empty lots either. Instead, the downtown consists of block after block of the most "walkable," visually interesting streets, all different, all design-driven, as owners work to make the most of their three- and four-story buildings. Here, a mansion; there, condos over a store; around the corner, apartments in a row and a neighborhood "local." The newest hotel is built in the style--and to the scale--of the old four-story manse that serves to anchor it on one corner. Wow.

Cities, Speck says, quoting Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, "should be places that make the heart sing." Now, admittedly, it was a glorious spring day Saturday, but that alone doesn't explain why my traveling companions broke out in a chorus of "On the Street Where You Live" as we walked from our host's apartment toward the river. Ever seen that in Raleigh?

People--and all the downtown streets were full of them--did indeed stop and stare. They did not bother me. For there's nowhere else on earth--hey, maybe they thought we were visiting artists.

But seriously. Savannah is not Raleigh, of course, and its development rules are no exact template for Raleigh's downtown. For one thing, Savannah is a tourist mecca, and the main economic driver there is its history and beauty. Raleigh's economic drivers are government and university research (and, of course, sprawl).

On the other hand, Raleigh is building a convention center, which means it must attract more visitors. And in that vein, Savannah's insistence that its new buildings match the scale of its old ones, and that they fit the fabric of a walkable, beautiful city, is a model for Raleigh to follow. We've got no end of downtown parking lots here, all hoping to be skyscrapers--and whenever we let one go up, the rest are left to fume with cars--and Raleigh gets less walkable, not more.

Moreover, Raleigh wasn't built on a river, unlike Savannah, nor did it do all that well at preserving its history, though the basic outlines of its own 18th century plan (by William Christmas) are still visible. Which only ups the ante for what comes next: If Raleigh's to have a downtown that'll bring in the tourists, most of it remains to be seen.

Our next big test: Ted Reynolds' scheme to put a 32-story building up on Hillsborough Street, roughly across from one of Raleigh's mistakes, the round 19-story hotel that used to be a Holiday Inn and is now a Clarion. Reynolds is a nice fellow and a successful businessman, but if this goes through (he's got an option on city-owned land, but hasn't tried to exercise it yet), it will be as if misshapen goal posts were erected to frame the entry to downtown Raleigh, save only for a missing crossbar. Not a pretty sight.

As one of my friends said, looking at Savannah, "furnishing" your downtown is like furnishing a room, or a house even. You can mix styles all you want. But it's hard to mix scales.

Meeker vs. Council?
Mayor Charles Meeker, who pushed through an extension of Reynolds's option over the objections of the city manager, Russell Allen, has tossed out 20 stories as a possible compromise. Uh, oh. In his "State of City" message recently, Meeker was all over the place trying to define mid-sized buildings, landing variously on six, 10 and 20 stories as he answered questions from his audience.

Now, we have it on good authority that County Commissioner Herb Council, a Republican, will challenge Democrat Meeker this fall, taking what amounts to a free run at him, since Council's commission term has another year to go.

But on what basis will Council challenge Meeker? Not on the convention center, Meeker's baby. Republicans like Councilor Mike Regan, who briefly was in the running for mayor, hope it'll be Meeker's tar baby, but Council voted for it, and the hotel subsidy too. We await Council's views on building heights.

And perhaps Meeker was running his tape recorder when Joe Bryan, the current commission chair and Council's fellow Republican, called the mayor "one of the greatest leaders this region has seen in a long time" at a recent press conference on homelessness.

It's a running joke between us: At election time, the affable Council says, the Independent always calls him "pretty good," or "not that bad," then endorses his opponent. This time, is it "pretty good" against "one of the greats"?

  • America's first planned city is still growing by going small

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