The Johnny Harris Site
a counter proposal
Eric S. Brown, author
A New Urban Proposal
The current site of the Johnny Harris restaurant and surrounding properties have been proposed for a new development. That proposed development isn't totally clear, but the general use is large format or “big box” retail along with tearing down the 1936 Johnny Harris building. Brown Design Studio, an architectural and urban design firm, has prepared a counter proposal for this site.
The purpose of the counter proposal is to show a better method of urban planning that is more in keeping with the nature and character of Savannah. The hope is that this counter proposal raises the bar of discussion about how, why and where Savannah grows and what those development patterns are. The methods used show the possibility of development patterns that are healthier, more sustainable, more walkable, more beautiful and make much better financial sense for all parties involved.
The Typical Conventional Suburban Design Pattern:
The current site is composed of assembled properties that included the loved 1936 Johnny Harris restaurant. A conventional suburban style auto oriented strip mall approach to the site will yield some where around 100,000 sq.ft. of big box retail along with a conventional out parcel on Victory Drive that is typically a fast food chain. The formula here is really just a function of how much parking can be accommodated in the most efficient format with the large “sea of parking” being the standard result.
This type of development is out of character with this portion of the City of Savannah and belongs else where in the City or County. While the current site is not being used to its highest and best use, the suburban approach is short sighed and destructive to the patterns of the adjacent neighborhoods. Things like this contribute nothing to the character of a City, neighborhood or place, in fact, they often remove those things.
The Mixed Use Urban Design Pattern:
The counter proposal response is based on three main principals that create great places; 1) Creating a Civic Public Realm, 2) Mixed Use walkability 3) Beauty. These three things are part of what makes the City of Savannah such a special place and the premise of this proposal is that all development in the City should have the same qualities. Communities, neighborhoods or even infill areas that have these qualities are the largest trend in real estate right now. Cities like Atlanta are building these neighborhoods inside the City because the people or market prefer that over conventional suburban development.
The Civic realm starts with making great streets. Savannah has great streets so this is easy, just copy what works. Great streets support people, bikes and cars and they do it through good design that accomplishes those three things while also allowing for Beauty, such as street trees. Street parking is natural and is used to soak up cars that would other wise be clustered in the big sea of parking. Typically the street pattern, a grid in this case, allows multiple ways in and out as well as easy access for emergency vehicles. Another part of the Civic nature of streets is the activity that happens on them. The proposed commercial buildings are close to the street, like much of downtown, that allows for window shopping and outdoor seating areas. Lastly, the Civic realm here is shown with a small square that is in the center of the property. This square serves as the anchor for the new neighborhood. It is both a visual break from buildings and a place to gather and have functions.
Mixed Use walkable neighborhoods are the hottest trend in real estate today. The walkable aspect is important to people for living as well as working and playing. This particular site is a great site as it actually has easy walking distance to Daffin Park, a trail system linkage and the retail area adjacent, including a Whole Foods. People tend to not walk if the environment isn't conducive to walking so again, you have to get the design right for that to work. One of the advantages of building walkable communities vs. conventional development is that the need for vehicular trips per day drops, thus taking away some of the additional auto traffic pressure and also lessening the needed parking requirements.
The Mixed use portion is simply just trying to use the site to its highest and best use. The proposal shows a wide mix of uses and building types. First, the Johnny Harris Building itself is shown saved in it current location. Smaller scale commercial buildings are shown in the front half of the site nearest Victory Drive. These could be one to three story buildings, very much in keeping with the scale of most of Savannah, that have retail or commercial on the ground level and residential or office space above. The southern portion of the site is divided into two portions. The first shows a series of Savannah style row houses, each with a garage and private courtyard. Garage apartments could add to new affordable housing. The other portion of the site shows a small scale apartment complex. The complex uses small three story buildings that engage the street with some shared parking in the rear.
The proposal seeks to show diversity in building types but this mix can always be changed as needed. For instance, you could replace the apartments and townhouse with large format retail of 40-50,000 sqft. and still retain most of the character shown here. My office has worked on these type of developments bringing national retailers into walkable urban places. We have worked with Publix, Walmart and others. There are many examples of this in Atlanta, Charleston and Charolette to name a few. Many national retailers actually are actually seeking these types of developments and have developed prototypes that are smaller and plug in to this urban grid format.
How to make this Beautiful too? Building Beauty comes from design and proportion which doesn't have to always cost more, in fact, many times it actually is cheaper if done right. This proposal shows timeless Beauty in the form of great streets that are proportioned in the proper scale with the buildings that frame them. The landscape is Beauty as it saves the larger oaks on the property and then adds new urban landscape that will get better over time, just like downtown has done. The buildings are Beautiful not because they use expensive materials but because they are well proportioned, relate to human scale and use authentic Savannah materials. The roof lines and scale are the composition tools taken from 300 years of Savannah building fabric.
The Johnny Harris site is part of the core portion of the City of Savannah, just inside the Truman Parkway. It is along one of the City’s main streets, beautiful Victory Drive. It is adjacent to an established neighborhood with a clear urban grid and pattern of development. The site should be designed just as the rest of the City of Savannah was designed pre-1940. Building additional suburban sprawl with in the fabric of the City just doesn't make any sense. Build suburban in the suburbs but build for people in the City.
This counter proposal shows how to accommodate a better mix of uses, people and places than a singular auto oriented use. It shows how to incorporate the urban patterns of Savannah into new development and it shows how to grow the City of Savannah with out letting it become suburban Atlanta as it does so. All of the things show have been accomplished in many many places across the county so nothing presented here is groundbreaking on a national level.
The financial impart of this is interesting. A conventional approach yields investment around $10M for this property. That approach brings a few dozen low paying jobs, high traffic and sales tax on the retail. The counter proposal brings about $16-18M of investment for the property. That yields higher property tax base, a similar amount of low paying jobs, less amount of traffic and adds new housing units of all price ranges. Those new residences pay income taxes as well. Letting this prime site, in a core part of the City, be used for single use suburban retail is short sighted financially, the mixed use complex is a higher an better use by any measure of financials.
Saving the Johnny Harris Building would be a great thing for Savannah. The cultural impact of the building and the restaurant over the last 75+ years has been remarkable to learn about. This proposal does save that building and lets it connect to the rest of the development in a meaningful way. The building could continue as a restaurant or it could be part of something else like a park pavilion or another private use. Whether the building stays or not, however, the key point to take away from this counter proposal would be that the building could easily be accommodated because of the finer grain approach to design, the street network and the scale of the new buildings.