Wrecking ball or second life? The choice ahead for a Savannah landmark

Federal agency removes warning about city’s ‘threatened’ historic district, clearing way for controversial redevelopment plan for Savannah Civic Center
SAVANNAH, GA - FEBRUARY 26, 2024:  Savannah Civic Center's block aesthetic style, known as new formalist, is out of keeping with the architectural beauty that gives downtown its charm, Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, Savannah, Ga. Its construction in the late 1960s also obliterated the remnants of one of the original 24 squares developed as part of the Oglethorpe Plan, a world-renowned urban design concept. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

SAVANNAH, GA - FEBRUARY 26, 2024: Savannah Civic Center's block aesthetic style, known as new formalist, is out of keeping with the architectural beauty that gives downtown its charm, Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, Savannah, Ga. Its construction in the late 1960s also obliterated the remnants of one of the original 24 squares developed as part of the Oglethorpe Plan, a world-renowned urban design concept. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

SAVANNAH — In a city that takes pride in its historic charms, the eyesores stand out.

Case in point: The Savannah Civic Center.

Savannah City Council is poised to decide the future of the aging downtown arena and performance hall complex. The facility’s fate has been in question since the city opened a modern showpiece sports and entertainment venue, the Enmarket Arena, west of downtown, in early 2022.

Now, the recent suspension of a federal government program meant to encourage historically sensitive development — one that had limited Savannah’s options for the Civic Center complex — has cleared the way for action. Saying “it’s time to move forward,” Mayor Van Johnson plans to issue a public call for feedback and ideas for redevelopment of the site in the coming days.

SAVANNAH, GA - FEBRUARY 26, 2024: A resident walks his dogs past the fountain at Orleans Square near the Savannah Civic Center, background, Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, Savannah, Ga. Orleans Square is a perfect example of how the city was laid out before the construction of the Civic Center in the late 1960s. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

The Civic Center sits on what Johnson considers one of the city’s “most consequential” properties — 7 acres in the heart of the historic district at Montgomery Street and W. Oglethorpe Avenue. Built in the late-1960s and early-1970s to replace an outdated municipal auditorium, the Civic Center sprawls over all or parts of six square blocks.

The facility’s block aesthetic style, known as new formalist, is out of keeping with the historic architectural beauty that gives downtown its charm. The construction of the complex, which includes the Martin Luther King, Jr. Arena, the Johnny Mercer Theatre and a large surface parking lot, also obliterated the remnants of one of the original 24 squares developed as part of the Oglethorpe Plan, a world-renowned urban design concept.

As City Council looks to the Civic Center’s future, they are considering two approaches:

  • Raze the complex, restore the distinctive street grid and square pattern — the Oglethorpe Plan, named for Georgia founder James Oglethorpe — and redevelop the property in ways consistent with much of the rest of the historic district.
  • Demolish and redevelop the southern half of the site, home to the MLK Arena and a surface parking lot, but retain and refurbish the 2,526-seat Mercer Theatre performing arts venue.
SAVANNAH, GA - FEBRUARY 29, 2024: Built in the late-1960s to replace an outdated municipal auditorium, the Civic Center sprawls over all or parts of six square blocks that include the Johnny Mercer Theatre, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, Savannah, Ga. The Mercer is SavannahÕs lone midsized performing arts venue, accommodating shows that need more than the 1,200 seats. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

‘Threatened’ no more

Johnson, City Manager Jay Melder and several city leaders favor the hybrid model, embracing a view championed by local arts advocates that the Mercer Theatre’s size makes it invaluable. The Mercer is Savannah’s lone midsized performing arts venue, accommodating shows that need more than the 1,200 seats found in the city’s many intimate theaters and concert halls but less than the minimum capacity at Enmarket Arena, which is configurable for crowds ranging in size from 4,000 to 10,000.

But until recently that Mercer Theatre plan faced a significant obstacle: an assessment from the National Park Service (NPS) that deemed Savannah’s historic integrity “threatened.” The criticism stemmed from a 2018 report in which the NPS chided Savannah leaders for large-scale development that ran contrary to the urban plan and other elements cited in Savannah’s National Historic Landmark District designation.

The presence of the “threatened” label weakened the case for saving the Mercer Theatre. In 2019, land use experts recommended demolishing the entire Civic Center complex, based in part on the NPS’s assessment and the priority placed on protecting the Oglethorpe Plan. So long as the district’s historic integrity remained “threatened,” the raze-the-arena-but-keep-the-theater movement lacked support.

SAVANNAH, GA - FEBRUARY 26, 2024: Visitors from Virgina walk their dogs down famous Jones Street in the heart of SavannahÕs Landmark Historic District, Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, Savannah, Ga. Jones Street is an example of the Oglethorpe Plan with zero setbacks on the homes facing the street. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

The “threatened” stain was wiped away in late 2022 — although not communicated to Savannah officials until almost a year later — by an administrative decision by the NPS to suspend its historic integrity monitoring program nationwide. To minimize Savannah’s chances of landing back on the NPS naughty list, city staffers are preparing an update to its landmark status broadening the definition of what makes the district historic beyond the Oglethorpe Plan.

The moves ease the way for council to adopt a plan that saves the Mercer Theatre, named for the late famed songwriter and a still-busy performing arts center.

“It certainly takes away the alarmist attitude,” Johnson said. “We are a historic community but we don’t have to be dinosaurs. We have contemporary needs that the Mercer meets.”

Opportunity for change

News that Savannah was free of the “threatened” label and of the city staff’s desire to update its historic designation broke in January.

According to Bridget Lidy, a longtime city employee and the current director of Planning and Urban Design, updating the paperwork behind the National Landmark status is important to the development of a citywide historic preservation strategy prioritized by Melder, the city manager. He was hired as Savannah’s top non-elected executive in July 2021.

SAVANNAH, GA - FEBRUARY 26, 2024: The historic homes a block away from the Savannah Civic Center are examples of General James Oglethorpe's original plan, Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, Savannah, Ga. A plan that is unique to the National Park Service Landmark Historic District.  (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

The revision, Lidy said, will help Savannah “tell our whole story” by highlighting the contributions of the historic preservation movement, which began in 1955 — after the historic “period of significance” cited in the current NPS designation, first granted in 1966.

Yet few Savannahians have made the connection of what the changes could mean for Civic Center redevelopment.

Alderman Nick Palumbo, the most vocal champion of the Mercer Theatre plan, acknowledges the two issues are related. But he said expanding the options for Civic Center redevelopment is not the driving motivation behind pursuing the landmark status revision.

And he said adding components to what defines the district as historic is not intended to “dilute” the Oglethorpe Plan’s importance.

“We can both retain the theater and put back the grid pattern and pay homage to the square that was lost when the Civic Center was built,” he said. “I’d argue this could lead to the greatest restoration of the Oglethorpe Plan possibly in the city’s history.”

SAVANNAH, GA - FEBRUARY 26, 2024: 
Established in 1801 and named after Revolutionary soldier Samuel Elbert, Elbert Square is a sliver of greenery located across the street from the Savannah Civic Center, Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, Savannah, Ga. Savannah City Council is poised to decide the future of the arena and performance hall complex known as the Savannah Civic Center. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Others disagree and plan to protest any proposal that stops short of fully restoring Elbert Square and the historic street grid. David McDonald, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, said the Civic Center redevelopment is an opportunity to “bring life” to a less-than-vibrant area, a rarity in the historic district.

“You put back the Oglethorpe Plan, you can bring residents, businesses, office space and recreation — more community — to what has long been a dead zone,” he said. “And if you put most of it in private hands you generate millions in tax revenue that’s gone if you keep it as government property.”

Mayor Johnson acknowledges the Civic Center property’s immense value but insists the site’s highest and best use may be as a municipal facility.

“Public benefit is not always in taxes,” he said. “That site is in the middle of our downtown core and has the potential to be our public square.”