Mecca for Urban Planners

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

This week’s blog is from Denise Grabowski,  one of  Savannah‘s biggest fans and founder of the urban planning firm Symbioscity.  Put on your fanny pack and tennis shoes as Denise takes us on a tour spotlighting the prized sections of Savannah that causes urban planners from all over the world swoon….

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I am a Georgia native, but would not dare to claim the same for Savannah. After all, I’ve only lived here 18 years! Though I cannot claim native, I do claim Savannah. I am very proud of our city and love any opportunity I have to share it with others. So, when a colleague suggested organizing a mobile workshop from Atlanta to Savannah as part of the American Planning Association’s  National Conference in Atlanta, it made perfect sense.

For you non-planners out there…Savannah is quite a mecca for the planning profession. General James Oglethorpe’s plan from 1733 has stood the test of time and is a testament to the strength and importance of the strong bones of the gridded street network of compact blocks, urban parklets (we call them squares), and magnificent trees that support a vibrant downtown, organic growth and an ever evolving blend of uses. Okay, I digress…but Savannah is what drew me to my profession of urban planning, so I get rather passionate about it (but that is another story, for another time…).

Now, bringing a tour to Savannah may not seem all that amazing, but consider this: this was a whirlwind 2-day trip (including 8 hours on a bus) at the end of a 5-day national conference. The pull and attraction of Savannah was strong enough to lure people from Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, New York, California, New Jersey, Arizona, Ohio, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Illinois, and even Canada!

  • Day One

Savannah is famous for our beautiful Landmark Historic District, so of course our tour started here with a fabulous lunch at Belford’s in City Market. Everyone received a warm Savannah welcome from Tom Thomson, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Planning Commission.   We then had a snapshot overview of Oglethorpe’s plan for Savannah – beginning with an excellent summary of our historic roots by Tom Wilson, author of The Oglethorpe Plan: Enlightenment Design in Savannah and Beyond and leading into a discussion of modern-day implications of the Savannah plan, facilitated by local architect Pat Shay.

As the organizer of the tour, I felt it very important to bring out the many other dimensions of Savannah, including our hip vibe. So who better to talk on that than The Creative Coast’s own Bea Wray and man-of-many-hats, Scott Boylston. Bea set the stage of our creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial culture, then Scott set the stage for the afternoon by providing a glimpse behind the curtain of his amazing non-profit, Emergent Structures, and their 3-tier consulting model for using reclaimed materials for community wealth.

I won’t detail every nook and cranny of our agenda, but must give a plug to one of downtown’s undiscovered gems – Massie Heritage Center.  Owned by the Savannah Chatham County Public School System, it is Savannah’s museum for history and architecture and a great place for kids, adults, and anyone in between. Massie’s scaled model of Savannah is amazing and a must-see first stop in Savannah.

Following our fabulous walking tour hosted by Beth Reiter and ArchiTours, we hopped on a trolley to venture outside downtown and off the beaten path, heading to the West Savannah neighborhood to visit Sustainable Fellwood.  Even though my work on the redevelopment of Savannah’s first public housing project, Fellwood Homes, into the mixed-use, mixed-income development of Sustainable Fellwood began eight years ago, it is still one of the best projects I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in. Sustainable Fellwood is a model of sustainable, affordable housing across the country – and proof that green and affordable are not mutually exclusive (all 11 multi-family buildings are LEED Gold,  the senior housing is LEED Platinum, and the entire development is certified LEED-ND Neighborhood Development Silver).

Ellen Harris, Director of Urban Planning and Historic Preservation for MPC, led the conversation as we headed back downtown, sharing the history and vibrancy along MLK Jr. Boulevard, including the SCAD Museum of Modern Art, the Georgia State Railroad Museum, and Coastal Heritage Society.  Of course the vibrancy fades as you head south…hence our next topic of the I-16 exit ramp removal and the current Reclaiming Old West Broad Street study.

After a quick loop around Forsyth Park, Sean Brandon, Bureau Chief for the City of Savannah, joined us to share the evolution of Price Street from a two-lane drag way into its current multi-modal configuration. For those of you who remember what Price Street used to be like, you can appreciate the difference that replacing a travel lane with a bike lane and on-street parking have really made! Not only is it a much more pleasant street to now travel along, it’s better for property values too.

Our last stop for the day went back off the beaten path to Southern Pine on East Broad Street, where we witnessed the inspirational work of Design for Ability,  led by the amazing Meagan Hodge, and Emergent Structures, led by SCAD professor extraordinaire Scott Boylston. Meagan’s graduate school vision developed during her years at SCAD and is now embodied in the Design for Ability greenhouse, constructed by high school students and volunteers of reclaimed materials. Scott captured the essence of our visit here better than I ever could…check out the Emergent Structure’s blog  for more details. If you don’t already know about Emergent Structures, you need to. Now.
We drove the gang hard all day…so we finished off the day with true Savannah hospitality and style: Drinks and delectable hors d’oeuvres at Vic’s on the River.

  • Day Two

Georgia is blessed to have one-third of the remaining saltwater marsh on the entire eastern seaboard along our coastline, so on Day Two we had to venture closer to the salt air.

How could a visit to Savannah be complete without witnessing first-hand the oak alee and tabby ruins of Wormsloe Plantation?  (Many of the guests also were quite enamored with the surprisingly tame – and large – rabbit at the guard gate…turns out, he was an Easter gift that outgrew his previous home.) Just like Massie Heritage Center, Wormsloe and the story of Noble Jones are precious community assets that, as residents, we often overlook. Haven’t been there? Go!

Patty McIntosh, newly named to the City of Savannah’s Department of Planning and Community Development, and Ellen Harris, from MPC, built upon the history of the islands and shared the heritage of Sandfly on our way to visit the Pin Point Heritage Museum,  which celebrates the life, work and history of the Gullah/Geechee community that calls Pin Point home. You don’t get an experience like this  just anywhere.

I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to share our amazing heritage, culture, environment, and community with others. Thank you to the many people who shared their time to make it happen. Promoting and sharing our community is not a task for one organization or business – it is something all Savannahians should feel proud and honored to do. Our community is amazing – get out there, soak it in, and invite others to join you.

Denise

Denise Grabowski is the founder of Symbioscity, an urban planning firm based in Savannah. Her love of community work is probably not the best business model, but it is near and dear to her heart. She enjoys cooking, anything outdoors and looks forward to the day when her home boasts a dream landscape…although no idea when that will happen with two young kids (three, including her husband), running a business, and owning a really old house.

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