In the first pre-planned city in the U.S., whose lush, historical squares are tourist magnets, a renaissance is underway thanks to a wave of public-private partnerships. Developers and investors are reviving formerly vacant and abandoned buildings in downtown Savannah with new housing, retail, and hotel developments valued at more than $700 million.
A number of factors are feeding the redevelopment boom, including the growing popularity of coastal cities, and building rehabilitation by the Savannah College of Art and Design. Officials also credit John Berendt's famous 1994 book, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” with drawing attention to Georgia's oldest city, founded in 1733.
“We have had very vibrant residential growth that has been spurred on by investment from the public sector,” says Lise Sundrla, executive director of the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority, which focuses on projects in the two-square-mile historic district. “What we're having [now] is more mixed-use development.”
Along two of Savannah's corridors — Broughton Street and the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard/Montgomery Street corridor — more than $300 million in property has changed hands since 2000.
Ellis Square redevelopment is one of the largest projects in progress. Batson-Cook Co., based in Atlanta, in a public-private partnership with the City of Savannah, purchased a parking deck and the former Savannah Morning News building and is converting the site into a $75 million mixed-use project with more than 300,000 sq. ft. of residential, hotel and commercial space.
Ambling Cos. has plans for Savannah River Landing, a proposed 54-acre project to be co-developed with local partners. The $700 million mixed-use project would encompass housing, retail and office along the Savannah River, just on the outskirts of the historic district.
Redevelopment in the city — with more than 30 historically registered buildings and districts — has boosted property values. In 1986, the renewal authority's redevelopment district of 242 properties appraised at $38.7 million. Today, that total is $170 million, Sundrla says.
The Savannah College of Art and Design also is credited with reviving downtown: Since 1978, the college has invested $70 million into buying and rehabbing 60 downtown buildings.
Some observers caution Savannah's redevelopment boom may be constrained in the future. “There aren't any more big chunks [of land] like that that can get redeveloped,” says Whip Triplett, vice president of hotel developer North Point Hospitality Group, which is converting an extended-stay hotel at Abercorn and Johnston streets in Savannah into a Hilton Garden Inn.
Triplett also chairs the Savannah Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It's not an easy place to develop,” he explains. “There are large barriers to entry, and it's expensive to do business.”
Ray Michaels, senior vice president of Batson-Cook Development, says investors remain enamored with downtown. That could help Batson-Cook if the company decides to sell News Place after five years.
“We have designed it to appeal to institutional investors,” Michaels says. “If we do it well, we'll be more than well rewarded.”