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Growing the city within the city
Many places have an Additive City. Savannah’s is especially large, and especially pleasing due to our unique ward plan, but the manner it grew piece-by-piece was no different than any city or town of its time.

LAST THURSDAY night there was an event at the Massie Heritage Center entitled "New Development in Savannah: Where Do We Go from Here?"

This installment of a quarterly lecture series sponsored by the Friends of Massie and the Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA) featured Nick Palumbo, President of the Ardsley Park Neighborhood Association, and Kevin Klinkenberg, Director of the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority (SDRA).

These two gentlemen outlined their observations on the current climate of real estate development, primarily focusing on how it affects the Landmark Historic District and adjacent historic districts.

Palumbo went first, and keyed in on tourism, the growing numbers of visitors to downtown, and the scale of the hotels being built to accommodate them.

Klinkenberg followed with a more general discussion of pre- and post- World War II development patterns.

Both offered a way forward. More on that later.

First, here is my own simplified, bimodal model of city growth and development, culled from many sources over the years.

While researching at Georgia Tech I ran across an old book that is now one of my prized possessions – Principles of City Land Values, by Richard M. Hurd. In it, Mr. Hurd details his theories on the growth patterns of cities, and how these growth patterns imparted different values on various individual parcels of land.

One of the most interesting things about this book is that it was about to become very, very dated. You see, it was first published in 1903.

Five years before, in 1898, there was only one automobile in America for every 18,000 Americans.

Ten years after, in 1913, there would be one automobile for every 8 Americans (figures taken from Crabgrass Frontier).

And you think smart phones have changed the world.

In 1903, Hurd wrote this about city growth:

“In all growth, central or axial, great or small, the vital feature is continuity, the universal tendency being to add on buildings one by one, of the same general character as those which preceded them.”

This passage described growth of what I conceptualize as the “Additive City” – incremental, granular, and adjacent to what already existed.

Many places have an Additive City. Savannah’s is especially large, and especially pleasing due to our unique ward plan, but the manner it grew piece-by-piece was no different than any city or town of its time.

But the growth of the Additive City was about to be halted, everywhere. Now development would not follow the extension of streetcar and rail lines in a predictable parcel-by-parcel pattern.

Now, ubiquitous private car ownership would vastly increase the supply of developable land — of what could be turned into “city” — and continuity would no longer be a feature.

The new “Subtractive City” has a different growth mechanism. It is not characterized by the methodical accretion of mixed-use, walkable urbanism. Instead, it takes bites out of the hinterlands, digests them, and turns them into homogeneous auto-oriented swaths of residential, commercial, and industrial development, separated from one another and with no obligation to mimic the “general character” of what came before.

The older Additive City was encircled by the newer Subtractive City, and was rapidly dwarfed by it, at least in land area.

The Additive core became the city within the “city”.

Then there came zoning.

Savannah and Chatham County adopted zoning in 1960 and 1961 respectively. This is relatively late in the zoning game, thus the code was very much about enshrining the newer auto-oriented development pattern of the Subtractive City, parking requirements and all.

The first call for a complete revision because of its bad fit was in 1962, but to this day it has never happened. More:

It is surprising that in half a century neither one of them has been updated. There have been a number of re-writes, and amendments, and amendments on top of amendments, and after awhile it does get confusing. The format of the ordinance is still based on the 1950s, and if I brought in the ordinance from that time, it looks like something from the 1800s. We’re still using that same format, and it’s not an intuitive ordinance at all, it’s really difficult to use.

I’ve looked at a lot of zoning ordinances and I don’t think I can say anything comes close to how difficult this ordinance is.

That’s not a real estate developer bitching about the zoning code. That’s Charlotte Moore, veteran city planner and Director of Special Projects, in a presentation to the Metropolitan Planning Commission (that she works for), on September 1, 2015.

She has given this presentation several other times, including to City Council in a workshop session.

Current zoning is doing our Additive City no favors. In fact, it prevents much of it from being built again from scratch, because it requires lot sizes and setbacks of a suburban nature.

Obviously, the answer is to revise the zoning. The city has been trying to do this, in fits and starts, since 1997.

MidCity Zoning, roughly contiguous with the Thomas Square Streetcar Historic District, was adopted in 2005, and was intended as the first roll-out of revised zoning. However, it has not been expanded since then.

Let’s return to the Massie speakers – Palumbo and Klinkenberg.

Palumbo asserted that rather than just revised zoning, downtown needs a form-based code (FBC) to protect its unique character. An FBC can be tailored to enshrine the physical properties of the Additive City, rather than the Subtractive.

It would make sure any future redevelopment or infill was consistent with the “general character” of its surroundings.

Klinkenberg threw down the gauntlet. He observed that downtown Savannah has been in defense mode since the 1950s – fighting tooth and nail to preserve what it has, and not allow new development that disrupts the fabric.

Klinkenberg wants downtown to play offense — to actually expand itself.

Let’s say yes to both.

Let’s make that form-based code that enshrines our Additive City, the Landmark Historic District and other adjacent historic districts, then let’s bump it out into the Subtractive City, bit by bit.

Will this make nonconforming properties? Yes, that’s the whole point.

When they are redeveloped, we want them to conform and expand our stock of walkable urbanism. Let’s deal with development pressure by dispersing it into adjacent areas that need improvement.

Let’s grow the city within the city.