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Editor's Note: Seaboard reckoning approaches

AT THIS WEEK’s meeting, Savannah City Council is scheduled to take up the controversial issue of the demolition of the 1929 Seaboard Freight Station to make way for high-rise luxury apartments.

While there is talk that a compromise will be reached that might save the building, the documentation I’ve seen prior to the meeting indicated that at most the developer might be required to merely save the sign and some building material.

It will be interesting so see how far the developer goes to placate public outcry -- a new version of the plan seems to show a portion of the building being moved to a corner of the parcel.

Currently the staff recommendation of the Metropolitan Planning Commission – whose voting board has already approved the site development plan including the demolition – just suggests that the developer “Incorporate some aspect of the historic building (i.e. historic sign, bricks, etc.) into the design of the new building and allow for historic building materials to be salvaged.”

That is the weakest of weak tea, if indeed that is what ends up happening. The language couldn’t be more vague.

And as for allowing materials to be salvaged, all that means is that a private company will get to sell the razed material by the piece.

Looking at the development plan, it is hard for a layman such as myself to envision any way the ambitious “Gateway Project” can be built with the Seaboard Freight Station staying intact where it is.

I hope to be proven wrong.

The entire project has in some ways been problematic from the beginning. The development relies on the City selling a tract of surplus property abutting the adjacent Savannah-Ogeechee Canal, but the City has already agreed to go ahead and sell the property without the usual bid process, at the low price of only $120,000.

Perhaps the main reason the City is so eager to shepherd this highly controversial and seemingly out-of-scale development to fruition does indeed have to do with the Canal itself.

Part of the agreement with developer WEDP involves the developer taking on the task of widening and reinforcing a section of the old Canal, to the tune of $1.5 million. At the conclusion of the work, the developer would deed the canal improvements back to the City.

While certainly this would seem a win-win for the taxpayers – private money improving a public works project – one can’t help but wonder if that offer from the developer sweetened the deal, essentially making the City an offer it couldn’t refuse.

While taxpayers would conceivably save over a million bucks, you can’t say that no strings are attached if the price includes the loss of the Seaboard Freight Station.

If indeed the cavalry arrives at the last minute in the form of a late-breaking deal to save the Seaboard, then kudos to all involved, including the developer.

Until then, we will stay on top of the latest developments as they happen.

IN OTHER big political news, First District Alderman Van Johnson officially announced his bid for Mayor of Savannah.

He joins a field that as of this writing includes incumbent Mayor Eddie DeLoach, former Georgia State Senator and Representative Regina Thomas, and Anthony Oliver.

While no one was particularly surprised at Johnson’s announcement, it does change the game. Johnson, along with his main ally on City Council, Tony Thomas, is one of the longest-serving aldermen.

Johnson and Thomas typically vote with Alderwoman Estella Shabazz on many issues, as a dissenting counterweight to DeLoach and the usual Council majority.

So there will be clear policy contrasts moving forward, as every Council vote will now be tinged with election year politics.

Two of Johnson’s key supporters are former Savannah Mayors Edna Jackson and Otis Johnson, who stood with him at his official announcement in Forsyth Park.

(Van Johnson actually first broke the news of his bid on Savannah’s community radio station, WRUU FM 107.5.)

The presence of both former mayors on Van Johnson’s side will no doubt help his campaign moving forward.

But one can’t help but be concerned that much of the rhetoric might focus too heavily on relitigating the prior election and making this one a form of “do-over,” rather than looking to Savannah’s future.