The mayor and city council of Savannah traveled to Alpharetta this week to learn how the City of Alpharetta plans, partners on, and brings to life community transforming projects like Avalon, City Center, and the AlphaLoop. The delegation from Georgia’s first city, known for its designed and natural scenic beauty, are working to redevelop Savannah’s Canal District and hope the lessons learned from Alpharetta will lead to the effort’s success.
For the multitude of visitors who descend on Savannah each year, the coastal city is defined by images from its Landmark District. This is the area centered on the six wards that James Oglethorpe originally designed in 1733 that contains Savannah’s famous parklike squares, carefully preserved historic buildings, and trees lined with majestic, moss laden live oaks. While the district saw a period of crushing decline that led to it becoming almost a ghost town, in the late 1980s it saw a stunning rebirth; led by preservation efforts of the Savannah College of Art and Design and fueled by an influx of tourists drawn to the community by the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
“But Savannah, like so many places, is also a tale of two cities,” says Kevin Klinkenberg, a city planner and former executive director of the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority. “The Landmark district thrives, but within a short walk you find desperation and despair. In aggregate, this is still a poor city, with much work to do to build up its economy and its people.”
The Canal District, located to the west of Landmark District, is one such area of Savannah that has struggled and at times seemed to resist efforts at revitalization. But, following a year-long study effort, in December 2017 Savannah officials launched a new effort to turn around the district; centered on a new $160 million arena and visions of a vibrant new center of activity surrounding it.
“We kept reading articles and hearing leaders from other cities talk about the amazing things happening in Alpharetta and how your city is working in partnership with private developers and investors to make it happen,” said Savannah Council Member Bill Durrence. “We wanted to see it for ourselves and learn from your experiences.”
The Savannah delegates met with Alpharetta elected officials and staff as well as representatives from North American Properties and Morris and Fellows so they could gain insight into how the public and private sectors have collaborated on projects that have transformed key areas of Alpharetta. While much of the discussions focused on how partnerships have been structured, permitting processes, and how Alpharetta’s development codes have encouraged quality development, Savannah officials also explored issues like parking, noise management, and creating architectural standards that preserve the character of an area while providing flexibility so development feels natural rather than manufactured.
While this is not the first time another community has sent its leadership to learn from Alpharetta’s success, the visit by the Savannah delegation was a clear point of pride for Alpharetta officials.
“Savannah is known internationally as an example of what comes from good city planning,” said Kathi Cook, Alpharetta’s director of community development. “From its squares and overall character to the way that new development blends with architecture that has been in place since the 1700s, Savannah is referenced in almost every discussion or conference on urban planning and design as the way to design quality cities. Their leadership coming here to gain insight from us, to learn the Alpharetta way, is affirmation of the quality work we are doing and the vision of the Mayor and Council. It kind of feels like the student has grown into the teacher.”