AT LAST week’s City Council meeting, the most telling exchange was one that got almost no attention.
Longtime local businessman Milin Patel was there for a hearing about transferring liquor licenses for two of his Quick Stop stores in working class neighborhoods.
Patel ran into problems when City Council pointed out that he had too much advertising on his store windows.
More than ten percent coverage of your window is a code violation, because it blocks visibility into the store.
Alderman Van Johnson told Patel – and this is a direct quote – that his store “looks like the ‘Hood.”
Johnson lectured Patel that, “these businesses are in neighborhoods, so they should add to the character of the neighborhoods.”
When Patel quite reasonably suggested that it would have been nice if someone had told him this before the hearing, Johnson admonished him:
“There’s a responsibility that you understand what’s going on with the property that you own... we have to make sure we’re abiding by the rules.”
So to recap, a local small businessman was told that:
A) His windows didn’t meet existing code;
B) His business had features out of keeping with neighborhood aesthetics;
C) He shouldn’t be in business unless he is willing to abide by already-existing local regulations.
Some of you already see where I’m going with this.
Just a few minutes later in the same meeting, City Council took the complete opposite attitude toward windows, as they seemed to bend over backwards to benefit a large developer who also ran afoul of items A, B, and C listed above.
The background: 7 Drayton Hotel wants the Historic District Zoning Ordinance changed to allow them to put double-pane aluminum-clad windows in the American Building, which they are renovating into a boutique hotel.
(The developers claim to be “unaware” of what happened to the building’s original circa 1915 historic wooden-frame windows, which I believe in this case to be a euphemism for “We already sold them to someone else.”)
The proposed change would apply to all buildings five stories and over in the Landmark District – and only those buildings — and would overrule local ordinance in favor of generally less-strict federal standards.
As is usually the case, the real nuggets of wisdom come not from pundits like myself or from politicians, but from regular citizens who choose to speak out about issues close to their hearts.
Addressing Council, citizen Ken Zapp eloquently summed up the proposal’s basic unfairness:
“When a person or company buys property in the Historic District, that buyer is responsible for understanding the existing codes, regulations, and requirements” in the District, he said, in an echo of the argument Council had just finished using against a different business.
“I don’t think it’s our job to sacrifice some of our standards here” to increase profits for a developer, Zapp said.
“Let’s look at the Landmark District — is there any dearth of renovation and building going on?” Zapp asked. “This regulation is not deterring economic development or business, therefore there is no objective reason to eliminate or amend the existing regulation.”
David Altschiller told Council that “Savannah will not suddenly become a city that was once great. It will lose its greatness little by little... compromise by compromise, window by window.”
If Council allows the hotel to change current regulations, he said, “A historic building will have lost its integrity, and we will have lost a piece of ours.”
What made last week’s fireworks especially bizarre was that all this took place in the wake of a recent study commissioned by the National Park Service (NPS) recommending that Savannah’s National Historic Landmark District be placed on the “Threatened” list.
I’ve been taken aback by the ferocity of the City and tourism industry’s PR pushback on the study. I’m not even sure I’ve seen murders and violent crime provoke this much political unrest at the top.
The City has issued defensive press releases insisting that the NPS has no intention of downgrading the District’s status, as the study recommends.
They’re probably right. But that’s up to the federal government, not City Hall.
Most alarming is the City and tourism industry’s tactic of directly attacking the study itself as bogus or somehow tainted.
City Manager Rob Hernandez penned an indignant op-ed in the daily paper lauding the City’s and SCAD’s preservation track record, and seeming to mock widespread local concern about the new study.
His op-ed missed the point: It’s precisely because of our good track record in the past that the new NPS study is so disturbing to so many people.
A small show of empathy for the many citizens clearly concerned about the way things are trending might have been a better use of the City Manager’s time and of the daily paper’s newsprint.
Contrary to Hernandez's claim that the NPS doesn't endorse the study, the agency itself described it recently as “the most extensive study we have conducted since the district received federal designation in 1966.”
While the City Manager and tourism leaders might want you to think the study is illegitimate, the National Park Service is clearly comfortable putting its name on the study.
It is indeed a third-party study, but it was commissioned by the National Park Service. Attacking the study seems dangerously close to an ill-advised attack on the NPS itself.
In any case, Mayor DeLoach wisely pushed the vote on the windows down the road two weeks, to give the Downtown Neighborhood Association a chance to meet further with the hotel developer.
NPS will hold local public meetings next month about their new Landmark District assessment. They happen May 10 from 1- 3 p.m. and May 11 from 5- 7 p.m. at the Metropolitan Planning Commission, Mendonsa Hearing Room, 112 E State St.