Don’t be dense about city density!

An excellent piece!

From the Savannah Morning News posted June 24, 2017
By Daniel Carey

I recently took a trip to Seattle for a retreat with the leaders of peer preservation organizations from around the country. Seattle is a great city. Not as historic as Savannah, but progressive and full of energy. It’s quite large and growing at a rapid rate. Regardless of its size and scale, Seattle helped put Savannah in perspective for me. Its urban core is very dense, and in that density lies a problem that Savannah may be saddled with… too much of a good thing in one finite, fragile and historic space.

Density is today’s buzzword in planning and development. And it’s good… mostly. Around the country, the development pendulum is swinging back from wasteful suburban sprawl and towards older, close-in neighborhoods. Through decades of preservation work, Savannah has been a national leader in proving that downtowns can be popular live-work-play areas. Demand creates a need for greater density. However, density should not be a password to more at all costs because it is, after all, just that—more.

Downtowns are, by nature, dense. Savannah’s downtown is the densest part of Savannah. Before it has to endure more — in the name of soothing a rash of hotel development — why not explore increased density in other parts of the city that crave it and can better absorb it? Instead of dumping every mediocre development idea on the same square mile because it’s a no-miss investment, why not explore the edges and surrounding neighborhoods (MLK, Jr. Blvd., Montgomery Street, Eastside and Cuyler-Brownville)? Those areas have vacant lots and “grayfields” that crave investment and can handle it. Additional housing in those areas — which are adjacent to downtown and served by public transportation — can fill a need and return a profit. The city should facilitate such development, and tax credits can incentivize the rehabilitation of existing blighted housing.

Creating more affordable housing, respecting historic preservation, and maintaining human scale are not mutually exclusive goals. The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Atlas of Re-Urbanism” is a comprehensive, block-by-block study of the American urban landscape. It reveals that areas of older, smaller buildings and mixed-age blocks boast 33 percent more new business jobs, 46 percent more small business jobs, and 60 percent more women- and minority-owned businesses. They are also denser than newer areas.

Moreover, as Boston’s North End and Miami’s Little Havana demonstrate, relatively small human-scale neighborhoods with older fabric are the keys to the successful cities that visionary Jane Jacobs touted. We already have that in Savannah and it’s the real thing, not a 21st century knock off. In agricultural terms, instead of overplanting and exhausting our best soil, we should focus on sustaining it.

So let’s be careful to scrutinize every aspect of proposals and text amendments that call for the wholesale removal of density requirements. Why be skeptical?

Because downtown is not just any place, it’s a National Historic Landmark District… la crème de la crème. For the most part, it retains a human scale. But it’s just a few amendments and variances away from becoming something entirely different. Or should I say the same?

Daniel G. Carey is the president &CEO of the Historic Savannah Foundation.

 

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