I’VE LIVED in the Parkside neighborhood around the corner from Johnny Harris Restaurant for nearly 20 years.
The amount of development that has come to that portion of the Eastside hasn’t been unwelcome. But it’s come at a price.
There’s no question that the improved amount of nearby options for shopping and services in that area have increased the quality of life for residents like me.
But the attendant congestion in the Victory/Skidaway/Waters sector has become very difficult to deal with, presenting quality-of-life issues of its own.
For better or worse, the character of the area has changed with economic development. That’s the usual tradeoff. It was always thus.
It was sad a few years ago to see the iconic and charming retro-design of the old Backus Cadillac demolished, to be replaced by Whole Foods/Pet Smart.
Then again, I never bought a Cadillac from Backus! I do, however, shop at Whole Foods fairly regularly, and Pet Smart occasionally. So for me personally, it was a win.
We’re all part of this system we often claim to abhor.
One of the great joys of living in the area has been what I’ve always thought of as one of Savannah’s neatest secrets: The little touch of country in the city that is Wicklow Farms and the adjacent Truman Linear Greenway along the canal.
Tucked behind Victory Drive’s nascent sprawl and sheltered from the Truman Parkway’s runway-like noise level, the Wickow stables and their vast pasture have always been such a pleasant place to stroll or bike past.
When my daughter was younger we’d often stop and look at the horses, petting the ones who would come up to the fence, maybe bringing an apple or a carrot to feed them.
With the Greenway, it also forms an important mini-wildlife preserve and flyway for migrating birds.
Sadly, Wicklow Stables is part of the larger Johnny Harris parcel, owned by the Heidt family. All 11 acres of the parcel are scheduled for sale to and redevelopment by Atlanta firm ARS Ventures.
Almost certainly, the legendary Johnny Harris Restaurant itself, a landmark for nearly a century, will be torn down.
Candidly, I never much cared for the food at Johnny Harris and almost never ate there. But it was always comforting to know that whatever else happened, there’d always be that oasis of old Savannah nostalgia amid the strip mall development on Victory.
And now that will be gone too.
You won’t find a bigger advocate of historic preservation than me. But I’m afraid the grassroots effort to “Save Johnny Harris” is too little, too late.
It’s one thing to “save” something from a sinister outside force. But in this case, the Heidt family wants to sell the parcel on their own volition, and they’re well within their rights to do so.
How would you feel if someone told you that you couldn’t sell your house or your car because they just didn’t want you to? Right.
There’s a chance the Johnny Harris building itself might be incorporated into the new development, which would be wonderful. But unfortunately our local Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC) never required that when they approved the project.
And the time for citizens to make their voices heard was at that meeting, not at this week’s Savannah City Council meeting, where the issue might be on the agenda.
Indeed, the last time City Council looked at the issue was to vote 6-3 to approve the rezoning. It’s doubtful, but not impossible, that the new, more business-focused DeLoach administration would do anything to change that course.
John Bennett of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign, who writes the always-brilliant News Cycle column for us biweekly, points out that the MPC itself acknowledges that after the parcel’s redevelopment the number of new weekday trips will be 5,055 and the number of new Saturday trips will be 6,864.
That’s a lot of new trips in a corridor already gridlocked much of the time.
It’s almost certainly too late to “Save Johnny Harris.” Like Pinkie Masters, Hang Fire, Juarez, Leoci’s, etc. etc., that will be one more Savannah institution we’ll have to bid farewell, like it or not.
But we can pressure our governing bodies to force ARS to incorporate walking and biking options to link with the Truman Linear Greenway, Daffin Park, the Washington Avenue bike lane, and on to Savannah’s small but growing network of bike paths.
As Bennett wrote, “If we don’t think carefully about how new developments work with existing neighborhoods and land uses, we’ll be inviting suburban sprawl to creep further into the city core, degrading historic neighborhoods.”
“With its Victory Drive Project, ARS Ventures can get it right the first time and create a place that improves quality of life for people who live near it. The firm could offer a new standard for redeveloping similar sites around the city and around our state. If it doesn’t, Savannah will be stuck with the consequences for decades to come.”
That’s how Bennett closed his column, and that’s also as good a way to close this column as I can think of.