The Heart Of Savannah

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But in the view of most experts the critical need ever since the restoration movement began has been for enactment of a strong historic zoning law that would control or disallow the many inappropriate eyesores—auto body shops, small industries, and the like—that infiltrated the historic district during its decades of decline. Such a law would also provide guidelines for new construction within the district, to assure that the increasing attractiveness of the area and the rising property values would not bring in new buildings incompatible in style with the historic restorations.

It is precisely this kind of protective zoning, sanctioned in case after case by the courts, that has fostered effective restoration in other cities. But not in Savannah, although the city has had special permission from the state and an overwhelming mandate from the voters to write such special legislation. While the city council failed to act, plans were set for a high-rise luxury building that will compromise the unity of Factor’s Row, the long, low series of old buildings that extends along the riverfront and provides a vital axis for the whole district.

As destructive and frustrating as such delays are, the movement to restore the heart of Savannah to life has gained too much momentum to be easily stopped. It seems inevitable that Savannah’s government will enact historic zoning, if not now, then in the near future. Meanwhile, the citizens who are deserting the suburbs to return to the central city are young and enthusiastic, the kind of middle-class family people who make up a vocal and influential constituency. They are not about to desert their own commitment and the style of urban life they have rediscovered. In addition, Savannah’s government and business leaders have discovered the hard-cash benefits of reviving a moribund inner city: the tax assessment of a typical house has tripled or quadrupled with restoration, according to the Foundation’s Executive Vice-President, J. Reid Williamson, Jr.

In fighting their own local battle the people of Savannah may be performing a soul-saving service for the rest of urban America, which has yet to find a way to make cities that reflect a human image of mankind. As the Philadelphia planner Edmund Bacon notes, “The building of cities is one of man’s greatest achievements. The form of his city always has been and always will be a pitiless indicator of the state of his civilization.”