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Here comes the neighborhood?
Development would bring new life to an old corner

Once upon a time, the corner of Bull Street and what’s now Victory Drive was the furthest edge of town.

The Savannah Ice Company set up shop there in 1898, long before the march of WWI’s victorious soldiers. The icemakers constructed a formidable yellow building to manufacture their frozen product, followed a few years later by another handsome red brick edifice next door.

More than a century later, the site is one of the city’s most visible corners. But the buildings are boarded up, its walls festooned with political signs and garage sale notices.

Now a proposed development is in the works that would save these old buildings as well as revive commerce here, and it has the neighbors talking.

Last week, members of surrounding neighborhood associations listened to a presentation for One West Victory Drive, an upscale mixture of retail space and residential units that includes a four–story apartment building as well as a parking garage. Residents of Ardsley Park, Metropolitan and Thomas Square were invited to view renderings and voice concerns before the Metropolitan Planning Commission meets to review the plans on Tuesday, April 3.

(The site actually lies in Bingville, which has no organized neighborhood association.)

Green Street Properties, the sustainable design firm behind Atlanta’s Glenwood Park and Manhattan’s Chelsea Market, has incorporated the historic buildings into its LEED–certified design. Its principles tapped local architect Patrick Shay to pen the plans and hope to break ground on the $20 million project this fall.

“This is great for Savannah,” says Beth Vantosh, the commercial real estate broker who’s managed the property since 2007. “All of their other projects have done nothing but stimulate growth and economic development.”

Bobby Zarem, who attended Tuesday’s meeting at First Presbyterian Church and whose family has lived in Ardsley Park since 1941, wholly supports the plan.

“I think this project speaks for itself, it’s fantastic,” said Zarem after the presentation that drew a crowd of about 80. “When you come down Whitaker and you face that wall, you look at that beautiful red building and think someone ought to put some life back into it.”

Jamestown Properties, along with its $4 billion in real estate holdings around the world, currently owns the triangle–shaped acreage and rejected several proposals that called for the demolition of the buildings.

Still believing in the value of the real estate, its executives turned to Green Street, its in–house design firm since acquiring the small company in 2007. The team went work last year to figure out a financially–viable development angle while retaining the majesty of the architecture.

According to Green Street senior vice president and project manager Amy Switz, that iconic red building at the end of Whitaker will house a non–chain restaurant that would anchor a revitalized commercial environment, including future businesses within the former ice factory.

“The inside of that yellow building is like a cathedral,” confirmed Switz reverentially. “When we toured the site, I didn’t see how anyone could have the heart to rip these down.”

Given Green Street’s history of and passion for transforming blighted blocks into thriving urban settings, opposition to such a project seems to counter economic development in a pocket of Savannah that has lain fallow for decades. But the proposal has nearby residents concerned about the 48–foot roof line and increased traffic on their streets as well as the overall scale of the project.

“We think this is out of character for the surrounding area,” said Randy Moffett, president of the Ardsley Park/Chatham Crescent Neighborhood Association. “Outside of downtown, the hospitals and the mall, you don’t see four–story buildings around here. We think it would have a destabilizing effect.”

“We’re enthusiastic about that area being developed,” he added. “We just want to see appropriate development.”

Moffett would like to see a plan that adheres more to the 2007 proposal designed by Christian Sottile for Jamestown Properties that featured subterranean parking and fewer residential units. However, that proposal was zoned for 55 feet, a full story higher than the current design, and also contained 4 percent less greenspace. It was tabled in 2009 after the economic meltdown.

Swick said this time around, Green Street chose not to add a fifth story precisely because it didn’t want to overwhelm the surrounding areas.

Last month, she reached out to Moffett to help organize the neighborhood meetings after informational packets about the project that were supposed to be hand–delivered to Ardsley Park residents were lost.

After Switz learned that the neighborhood hadn’t had the opportunity to review the proposal, she pushed back the scheduled review with the MPC from mid–March to April 3.

“We don’t do sneak attacks,” she promised. “We wanted the chance to talk to the community.”

The community was all ears as Switz and fellow Green Street VP Walter Brown painted a picture of attractive greenspaces, comfortable gathering spots and a residential population of students, families and affluent singles.

Brown spoke of bicycle culture and locally–based concepts for restaurants and shopping, invoking the name of beloved fruit stand man Jerry Polk and suggesting that art from Savannah’s schoolchildren decorate the windowed atriums of the parking garage facade.

In short, he talked like a local. He also assured that Jamestown, with its bank of holdings that includes properties like 1 Times Square (where the ball is dropped from on New Year’s Eve in New York) had the equity to see the development through.

By the time he was finished, there were a lot of nodding heads. Four stories or no, the proposal for One West Victory appears a vast improvement for a corner that hasn’t seen much action in the last hundred years. If the MPC agrees, it will recommend the proposal to the city council for its May agenda.

In the meantime, Swick, Brown and the rest of the Green Street crew hope they’ll be welcomed to the neighborhood.
“There’s a lot of power in a project this size to transform an area,” Brown implored. “If we stop fighting and link arms, we can create a lot of change.”