For many visitors and residents alike, it’s hard to image River Street without Rousakis Riverfront Plaza.
The half-mile long plaza, named for former Mayor John P. Rousakis, has since its dedication in 1977 given visitors a unique view of the historic buildings along the street and a front row seat to the massive cargo ships that glide up the Savannah River.
“It was a very exciting project. We started designing in 1973, and it was dedicated in 1977. It was quite a job,” said Gus Bell III of engineering firm Hussey Gay Bell, who worked on the project along with architecture firm Gunn and Meyerhoff (now Gunn, Meyerhoff &Shay.)
“They were great to work with,” Bell said of the joint venture with the architecture firm.
For Bell though, much of his involvement and the untold story lies underneath the plaza and River Street.
“We had to put huge concrete gutters all the way back to the (south sidewalk) on the street. It had to be enough to hold up trains, which gives you an idea of the massive structure under the plaza,” Bell said, adding that most people probably don’t realize that the water underneath goes back to the north sidewalk that borders the street.
The street itself, which was a combination of gravel, various pavers and was washed out in numerous places, also got an upgrade and was redone with ballast stone, which Bell said originally made its way to Savannah on empty ships in the 1800s. The stone was placed in the ships to keep them balanced in rough waters.
“That’s what I had the most fun with,” he said of upgrading the street.
Before the project began, the waterfront was not much more than a mess of weeds, boulders and decaying wharves. There were less than a dozen businesses on the street, and the plaza area was at one point slated to become a massive parking lot.
Once the project was given the green light, the city of Savannah received $4.3 million in urban renewal funds from the federal government and the city contributed another $3 million, for a total of $7.3 million, which by today’s standards would be more than $40 million.
The cost isn’t the only stark difference of the project. If completed in modern day, the plaza would look nothing like it does now, according to Bell.
“We were able to get the approval of the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) to go out to the harbor line. Today you would not be able to do that,” he said.
“It would probably be 20 feet less wide.”
Along with helping to transform the waterfront, the project, quite literally, helped lay the foundations for the city’s growing tourism industry.
“We did the foundations for the Hyatt Hotel… They had to build the hotel years later to meet those foundations that we had put in,” Bell said, adding that designing those foundations was one of the most difficult aspects of the project since the Hyatt was built years later in 1981.
Joseph Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah, said the vision of Rousakis and other leaders to transform the street was a cornerstone of the city’s thriving tourism and hospitality industry, which welcomes more than 13 million visitors from around the world each year.
“Visitors from around the region, the country and, in today’s world from around the globe, enjoy the energy, festivals and excitement that happen there almost every day of the year. River Street is one of the most vibrant areas of our city,” Marinelli said.
Jennifer Strickland of River Street Sweets said her grandmother, Georgia Nash, was drawn to the rich history of River Street when the family opened the candy store in 1973. They’ve seen the changes to the waterfront first hand, but said it’s always remained home.
“My brother Tim and I remember playing on the dirt in the playground where the plaza used to be. It was really the beginning of tourism on River Street,” Strickland said.
“For us, it’s home… There’s something about the rich history and beauty that is like no other place in America.”
Now 40 years later, River Street is still transforming, including major hotel developments and the Savannah River Landing on the east end and hotelier Richard Kessler’s $270 million Plant Riverside District on the west end, which will transform the old Savannah Electric plant into a 419-room JW Marriott.
“We believe that the next generation or transformation of the River Street experience has already begun. From the Kessler project and the new Plant Riverside District/J.W.Marriott Hotel on the west end of the street, to all of the development and growth also happening at the east end, we expect that the entire area will continue to grow and be popular with our visitors,” Marinelli said of the developments.
Even with all of the changes, Bell said the growth of the Georgia Ports Authority and the ability to be up close with the cargo ships that sail by is something that captures people over and over.
“It is one of the most dramatic historic tourist spots in the city and in many other cities, too. It’s our Statue of Liberty,” he said.
“… As a citizen, I think it would be disaster (without the plaza). It was something that had to be done, not just something that should have been done.”