Land Matters Attends Georgia Planning Association Fall Conference

Land Matters was in attendance for the recent Georgia Planning Association (GPA) Fall Conference from September 28-30 in Savannah. Presenters offered a wide array of thought-provoking sessions on topics ranging from infill development to sustainable affordable housing, and from bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure to high-speed rail. Given its status as Georgia’s first city and the product of James Oglethorpe’s urban planning efforts, Savannah served as an ideal backdrop for the conference. Two sessions stood out strongly for Land Matters:

In one of Wednesday’s sessions, Sarah Ward of the Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC) presented alongside Christian Sottile of Sottile & Sottile Associates, an urban design firm based in Savannah. The pair discussed Savannah’s new infill development standards for large-scale development in the city’s National Historic Landmark District. The standards, developed through an extensive public involvement process, stress design outcomes that include frequent building entrances and ground-floor uses (i.e., street addresses) as a means toward activating the street; skyline/rooftop variation; variation in façade recesses and setback that can accommodate windows perpendicular to the street; clear expression of the building’s base, middle and top; and the restoration or extension of the Oglethorpe street/lot/block/square network. Incentives such as additional height and other bonuses are offered to encourage conformity with the standards, which can be found in Section 7.8.9.r of the MPC’s draft Unified Zoning Ordinance or UZO (open for public comment until January 31, 2012).

As background, City of Savannah and Chatham County elected officials adopted a unified Comprehensive Plan in 2006, and as the next step in the process, the UZO will bring the city and county zoning ordinances – which, thanks to decades of amendments since the 1960s, are often redundant, confusing and contradictory – into one streamlined, unified framework.

A Thursday session featured speakers Martin Fretty with the Savannah Housing Department, Tommy Linstroth of Trident Sustainability Group, and Scott Lee of the Southface Energy Institute. Mr. Fretty discussed the Neighborhood Renaissance Savannah program, which for over a decade has leveraged funds from a combination of Federal (e.g., CDBG), local (e.g., SPLOST) and other sources to reinvest in some of Savannah’s most distressed neighborhoods, such as Benjamin Van Clark, Cuyler-Brownsville and West Savannah. Program activities include acquiring vacant and abandoned properties; creating enterprise and other economic development zones; addressing code compliance and property maintenance issues; and improving or rebuilding public infrastructure like streets, sidewalks and parks. The highly successful program has been the subject of substantial press and recognition through at least one national award.

The next phase of the program is taking place in the Savannah Gardens neighborhood on the east side of the city and is the result of a 2009 redevelopment plan. Originally constructed as temporary public housing for World War II-era shipyard workers, the site was later sold to a series of private owners who failed to reinvest in the property over a period of decades.  As a result, the area eventually became extremely blighted. As part of the Neighborhood Renaissance Savannah program, the new Savannah Gardens, which is currently under construction, will stand as a mixed-income, mixed-use community that features an array of green amenities, including pervious pavement for on-site drainage; mature trees that are being strategically saved  during the development process; and solar trash compactors throughout the site. The successes of Savannah and its redevelopment partners at this site and others such as Sustainable Fellwood show that sustainability and affordability are not mutually exclusive.

To close the conference, GPA recognized a number projects and processes around the state with awards for excellence in planning. Among the recipients was the Atlanta Regional Commission, winning the award for Outstanding Initiative (Large Community) for its development of the PLAN 2040 Regional Agenda. ARC thanks the region’s citizens, communities and non-governmental organizations for their valuable input in helping the agency make PLAN 2040 a reality.

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