This is the first segment of a multi-part Special Report analyzing the proposed new Westside Arena. Look for more installments in future issues.
Marcel R. Williams grew up in Savannah and holds a Masters degree in City Planning. He has long been fascinated by the unique history, nature, and potential of Savannah's urban form.
WHILE THERE has been a generally positive trend in Savannah’s governance over the past several years, the decision to locate a new arena west of downtown at Stiles Avenue and Gwinnett Street is a grave mistake that the city will come to regret decades into the future.
The project is laudable for directing investment to a long-neglected part of the city, but a combination of insufficient parking, nonexistent related commercial activity and the very real threat of flooding will likely doom the usefulness and financial success of the arena.
As currently proposed the arena plan is infeasible. Put simply, there is not enough parking.
The arena consultants hired by the City projected that the arena will require 3,000 spaces. Unless a truly massive garage is built at great expense, there is no realistic way to provide all the required parking for a sell-out event either onsite or nearby.
Even if every city parcel in the area (totaling about 14 acres) that isn’t wetland is covered with surface lots, the site will still be short 1,800 spaces.
Complicating matters further, that much impervious surface will require additional land for storm water detention, since the low-lying site is vulnerable to flooding.
In response to the lack of parking on site, the project consultants propose an unrealistic system of shuttles and walking paths from downtown.
Even if downtown garages have sufficient capacity, the walk is more than half an hour through an unwelcoming industrial landscape. Few will walk during the day, and almost none at night.
Running shuttles is also extremely inconvenient and would require dozens of trips to move 4,000+ people and do so in competition for road space with the 1,000 or more cars that do manage to park at the site. It’s unclear where passengers would gather in downtown and how long they would be willing to wait, especially during rainstorms and Savannah’s torrid summers.
And what about the roughly half of arena attendees who are projected to come from outside Chatham County? Few if any could ever be persuaded to park downtown and take shuttles.
Assuming most of the site around the arena is dedicated to parking, there will be little or no remaining space for any of the other development that is supposed to define the Canal District. The gorgeous site renderings promoting the project are unrealistic if sterile parking lots or vast garages must cover the site.
Adjacent private land offers few if any opportunities for exciting, mixed-use development unless houses are condemned or nearby industry is persuaded to move. The City does own several tracts north of the proposed site, but these are low, swampy lands unfit for serious development.
Experience has shown that arenas succeed based on the quality of their surroundings.
Think Fenway Park, not Turner Field.
The current Civic Center has a wealth of businesses, parking and lodging options just blocks from the arena. Nestled within Savannah’s historic downtown, it offers visitors an endless range of restaurants, bars and activities.
The proposed arena site is isolated and has virtually nothing to offer beyond a gas station and car wash. This absence of complementary businesses will severely handicap the arena’s finances and limit its draw.
Large conferences and conventions will shun the space because there are no hotels sufficiently close by to host their attendees.
Any new development will need extensive subsidies, assuming sites can be found at all. Truly successful arenas become desirable destinations independent of the events they host.
They drive traffic because they are vibrant, exciting places to be. The new arena, unfortunately, promises none of the above.
Much available evidence suggests the new arena is a poor financial proposition. Arenas often lose money and even when they do break even rarely generate significant returns.
The arena consultants assume that there will be significant revenue from premium seats and luxury boxes, but expert opinion on the local market contradicts these rosy projections. Savannah is known for a “cheap ticket/late ticket” culture that seriously undermines the case for premium seats.
Economic development studies for the new arena, meanwhile, leave much to be desired. Projecting the overall economic impacts is notoriously difficult and the consultants’ report fails to present the net gain above and beyond the existing arena; for all we know, it could be negative.
The weight of academic evidence suggests arenas are poor catalysts for additional development, belying a sense of “build it and they will come.”
In Savannah’s case, the utter lack of commercial opportunities nearby to absorb visitor dollars all but ensures economic impacts will be meager.
Ultimately, there are good reasons why the current “Canal District” area is not extensively developed despite its proximity to downtown. The region is a low-lying floodplain that has a history of sparse industrial uses tracing back at least a century.
Even as Savannah grew outwards, it largely skipped this area. It seems odd, then, that in an era of rising sea levels and climate change the city has chosen such a site for a major civic asset.
The new arena will lie in or very near an official flood zone and according to models will be submerged if anything greater than a Category 1 hurricane hits at high tide. The arena would then be unusable as a storm shelter.
Adjacent parcels included in the overall vision are even lower-lying and some are designated wetlands. Investing so much in the site seems at best imprudent and at worst a recipe for disaster.
While residents near the proposed site have generally expressed support for the arena development, it’s quite likely they will come to resent the project.
A 9,000-seat arena will bring vast amounts of traffic, noise and disruption to the neighborhood. Frustrated by the lack of convenient parking, visitors will clog adjacent streets and cause widespread inconvenience.
Wouldn’t other forms of investment on the site, such as a recreation center or library combined with business, retail and housing, that had more diverse uses and required less parking be more beneficial and less stressful?
None of the above is meant to deny the urgent need both for an improved arena and reinvestment in Savannah’s West Side. I merely question the wisdom of locating the arena at Gwinnett and Stiles.
A site much closer to downtown, even with high land acquisition costs, would save on vast new parking construction and flood mitigation while benefitting from strong business and tourism offerings nearby.
Though undoubtedly a sub-optimal outcome for many, City consultants confirm that renovating the current Civic Center would cost vastly less than a new building.
The city could still restore the old waterworks building on the proposed site and realize its potential to anchor a vibrant, mixed-use development that would leverage private investment and attract new residents, not just fans who bring traffic and leave as soon as an event ends.
The plan as currently formulated creates a transportation nightmare that leaves little possibility for a true “Canal District” and may well be underwater in the next big storm.
Savannah’s leaders should take a long, objective look at the project and decide what is in the best interest of all its citizens.