Sticking to building height limits is like sticking to a diet instead of eating junk food, according to the President and CEO of the Historic Savannah Foundation.
“Maintaining reasonable height limits is similar to dieting and exercising. If we stick to the regimen and remain disciplined, we ensure our community’s long-term health,” notes Daniel Carey. “If we deviate from the plan, we allow other junk food appetites to take over, which result in short-term satisfaction and long-term regret.” http://www.myhsf.org/
In crude financial terms, staying off junk food and protecting historic Savannah’s streetscapes from bulking out means that Savannah’s most valuable revenue-generating asset will stay profitable in the future, Carey argues.
Daniel Carey, dynamic President and CEO of the Historic Savannah Foundation, declares building “junk food” off-limits in historic Savannah in order to protect the city’s fragile assets
With Portsmouth in turmoil over the size and quality of new development, Portsmouth Now decided to check into how other historic cities protect their assets. Last winter, we went to Charleston, SC. We found out that the nation’s oldest historic district uses more tools than Portsmouth, and seems more fierce about protecting its character. Then we went to Savannah, the nation’s largest National Historic Landmark District (ie. some call it the “crème de la crème” of historic districts), to find out how they do it.
A wealth of historic houses line Savannah streets and squares
NATION’S LARGEST HISTORIC DISTRICT TIGHTENED ZONING DURING DOWNTURN
Unlike Portsmouth, Savannah tightened its historic zoning standards during the down economy, adding tougher standards for large-scale development and hotels, according to Ellen Harris. As Director of Urban Planning and Historic Preservation for the Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission, Harris is staff advisor to Savannah’s Historic District Board of Review ( the role Nick Cracknell of the Portsmouth Planning Department plays vis a vis Portsmouth’s Historic District Commission).
Unlike Savannah, which says it tightened zoning standards in the down economy, some complain that Portsmouth relaxed standards, resulting in enormous Anywhere, USA-style buildings looming in the city’s historic district
In Savannah, rampant growth has simmered down since the 10 years after “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” came out (1994). That’s when Savannah was “discovered” and real estate went wild– a period Carey likens to the Wild West.
Today, a controversial new ordinance going through a “very slow” approval process covering the whole city will cut the city’s 126 zoning districts down to 41, according to Harris. Meanwhile, tighter zoning in Savannah’s historic district means that any big hotel projects coming through now face tougher new standards, Harris explained. These include requirements that they break down the mass of buildings and limit the square footage of building footprints.
Asked whether Savannah’s new standards allow plastic windows in the historic district (as the HDC retroactively allowed for Portwalk), Harris laughed and said no. “We don’t allow any of that.”
Carey says Savannah’s historic zoning ordinance is a kind of hybrid of traditional and form-based, with a height map in terms of stories, not feet. Although it allows a bit more density downtown, Carey warns that too much density downtown can be a problem. ”Urban cores are designed for greater density—but it can be like packing too much sausage into too little casing.”
SAVANNAH TODAY: THE POLITICAL WILL FOR A STRONG HDC
Under Savannah’s historic preservation ordinance, enacted in 1973 amid controversy over a big waterfront hotel, any changes to buildings in the historic district require the Historic District Board of Review’s approval before getting a building permit.
Most places in historic Savannah, trees frame the streets
Asked how tough Savannah’s version of the HDC is, Harris said it varies, depending on who gets appointed, but the board today is “pretty strict.” Although the board includes several architects, Harris says “they hold their counterparts to a very high standard. It really depends on who the City Council appoints. There has to be the political will for the board to be effective– and we have that right now.”
Much of historic Savannah is built on a low, human scale
SAVANNAH’S HISTORIC REVIEW BOARD FOLLOWS NATIONAL ETHICS CODE
Members of Savannah’s Historic Review Board are required to recuse themselves if they have a financial interest in a project, Harris said. And when they do, they have to fill out a form explaining the conflict. Savannah’s version of the HDC has also adopted the National Association of Preservation Commissions’ code of ethics, which requires, among other things, that commissioners be “advocates” for the community’s heritage and “actively promote” its historic integrity. http://napc.uga.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Code-of-Ethics-new-logo.pdf
In Savannah, a series of squares with gurgling fountains framed by trees
Harris says Savannah’s “finely-grained” height map measures building heights in stories instead of feet and is so detailed it almost changes block by block. Most of the downtown is three, four and five stories—“but usually three and four, athough a “very, very” small downtown section goes higher, she said.
A container ship bringing goods up the Savannah River. The city’s historic waterfront is the most sensitive to development
DEVELOPERS’ ARGUMENTS ABOUT WEAK BRICK DON’T WASH IN SAVANNAH
With such a wealth of old brick buildings, I asked Carey, the Historic Savannah Foundation CEO, what he says to developers’ claims that brick buildings have to be demolished or dramatically altered because of weak or powdery bricks. (An argument developers have made in Portsmouth lately).
Carey says that argument has absolutely no traction in Savannah. “Our brick is porous because of its very nature,” he responds. “It’s often stuccoed—as was the fashion. I don’t know of any buildings that are structurally compromised by soft brick, and that’s what we’ve built here from the get-go.
On the Savannah waterfront, cobblestone streets attract visitors in droves (and their dollars)
The Secretary of the Interior Standards for Rehabilitation say you should repair– not replace. It’s pretty elementary stuff!”
In Savannah, tourists admire a series of squares with running fountains curtained by trees
Does the board respond to developers’ arguments that they need to build bigger and taller to make their numbers work? They certainly hear the argument, said Harris. But she reminds the board: “that’s not something the Historic Review Board can take into consideration.”
Savannah’s Olde Pink House
And what about large tracts of open land like Portsmouth’s North End? Carey says Savannah has one too. But unlike Portsmouth’s North End, which is growing in fits and starts without an overall vision, Carey’s dream is for Savannah’s swath of open land to be developped on a grid pattern like the original city.
About a century after English settlers landed on the Piscataqua River’s strawberry-covered banks (1630), another wave of colonists founded Savannah on the banks of the Savannah River (in 1733). Aided by a Charleston (SC) civil engineer, their leader Edward Oglethorpe laid out the new city in a grid pattern of streets and squares. What started out as four squares eventually grew to two dozen squares framed with houses, with live oaks dripping Spanish moss over gurgling fountains.
With the original grid just about intact, Carey says there’s no reason the grid pattern can’t be replicated in a somewhat updated form to a big swath of open land. Designed for 150 families, it houses 200,000 residents. Its pleasant squares with their shade-giving live oaks and veils of Spanish moss attract 12 million visitors a year– and lots of tourist dollars.
And the bottom line, Carey says cheerfully, is: “It works!”