The Savannah City Council’s ability to set zoning regulations is helping the city sell property originally purchased for a new cultural arts center and generate more residential development downtown.
A zoning amendment approved by the mayor and aldermen on July 6 helped clear most of the hurdles blocking the tentative buyer’s plan to build a 75-unit apartment complex on the long-vacant property that covers half a city block at Hall and Montgomery street. The ordinance amendment allows the developer, Lookin Good Properties, to incorporate parking on the ground level of the proposed five-story building, with residential units on the upper floors. Parking was not included when city council adopted the upper-story residential use in 2016 as a way to encourage more residential develop within portions of the Historic District without the loss of active ground floor uses such as retail, eating and drinking establishments.
In addition, last week’s amendment reduced parking requirements to a minimum of one off-street space per dwelling unit with up to two bedrooms. The change also eliminated density restrictions while implementing a minimum dwelling unit size of 450 square feet, although the proposed development’s smallest apartments are expected to be at least 650 square feet.
Lookin Good Properties is waiting to get some variance requests approved by the Historic District Board of Review before closing on the $980,000 sale, but the changes approved by the council eliminated most of the restrictions that would have prevented the project from moving forward, said one of the developer’s principals, Harley Krinsky.
“It is very tough to achieve what the city wants when their ordinances don’t jibe with their wishes,” Krinsky said.
In the request for proposals, the city had sought a buyer with a plan that would enhance the commercial area of the Historic District as “a safe, vibrant, pedestrian oriented and economically thriving place.”
Krinsky said the first floor will include a restaurant or coffee house and leasing office in addition to the 76 parking spaces the building will house.
The changes approved by the council apply to a more commercial zones in the Historic District west of Jefferson Street and in the northwest portion of the Historic District in the Indian Street area.
The amendments are consistent with the City Council’s recent push for incentives to attract more residential development downtown, amid concerns about the proliferation of hotels and short-term vacation rentals in the Historic District and surrounding area.
One way to incentivize workforce housing that recent college graduates can afford is to reduce density restrictions and allow for smaller units, which a lot of younger people are tilting toward anyway, said Alderman Bill Durrence. The city is also considering an ordinance that would allow developers to pay into a mobility fund for reduced parking requirements that would fund bike stations, public transit and parking garages.
Many of the younger people who are choosing smaller units downtown prefer to get around by walking, bicycling or using public transit, instead of traveling by car, Durrence said.
“There is reduced parking stress even though it’s increasing density downtown,” he said.
The apartment complex will join the recently opened 59-unit Bowery apartment complex about two blocks north on Montgomery, in addition to other smaller multi-unit projects being built in the area.
The city council approved the sale of the Montgomery Street property to Krinsky and his partner, Ian Smith, in June 2016 after multiple previous attempts to sell the property had failed.
The city purchased the land for $985,000 in 2007 with the intention of building the cultural arts center there, but issues such as parking limitations led to a decision in 2010 to move the project to the current site west of the Civic Center at Montgomery Street and Oglethorpe Avenue. Revenue from the sale of the former site is expected to help cover a $2 million budget deficit for the arts center, which is currently under construction, with the remaining balance covered by capital funds budgeted for area infrastructure work.