Friday, April 4, 2008

Historic Preservation and Gentrification in Savannah

Savannah has long been renowned for its very unique city plan and its historic preservation movements that vehemently preserve individual historic structures in the Savannah historic district. Savannah’s city plan was designed by Gen. James E. Oglethorpe in 1733. Savannah’s city planning is very distinctive and differs from all previous American towns. Early city planning in Savannah divided the town into wards. Each ward was planned around a central square, which was flanked at its eastern and western sides by four trust lots. The trust lots were allocated for the sites of public building. Each square was flanked at its northern and southern by four tythings of ten lots each, which were reserved for houses.

The streets are a grid of straight streets and each squares is entered by a single street in the middle of the north and south side. Three streets enter each square from the east to west side. The ward plan of squares and grid street systems qualify Savannah as a landmark in the American urban planning.

The historic preservation movement in Savannah was initiated by a group of concerned citizens in the 1950s. In the 1930s and 1940s, many of historical buildings in Savannah’s downtown were demolished to create parking lots. Several squares were also bisected by streets and fire lanes. The group of concerned citizens consisted of seven women and started historic preservation movement in Savannah by purchasing and saving the Davenport house in Savannah’s downtown from being torn down for a parking lot. Saving the Davenport house was the founding act of the leading historic preservation organization in Savannah –the Historic Savannah Foundation.

The Historic Savannah Foundation was a key player in the preservation of Savannah’s downtown. The Historic Savannah Foundation’s efforts resulted in the designation of Savannah’s downtown which comprises Oglethorpe’s unique city plan as a National Historic Landmark District in November 1966. Savannah’s historic district is one of the largest National Historic Landmark Districts in the nation.

The Historic Savannah Foundation along with the city of Savannah expanded its efforts to preserve Savannah’s historic district by convincing the State Legislature to pass enabling legislation for historic zoning in Savannah in 1968. The Savannah Historic District Board of Review was established in 1973 and exists to protect the values of property associated with history, unique architectural details, or related to a square, park or area within the Savannah Historic District.

In addition to the Savannah Historic District, the City of Savannah has designated other neighborhoods as local historic districts including Victorian Planned-Neighborhood-Conservation (PNC) District, the Cuyler-Brownsville PNC District, and the Mid-City PNC District. The Zoning Ordinance of each local historic district lists the permitted uses, development standards including lot area, setbacks, and heights, off-street parking requirements and visual compatibility requirements. No building permit will be issued in the local historic districts until proposed plans have been reviewed and approved as complying with the Visual Compatibility Guidelines and Standards by the Visual Compatibility Officer at the Metropolitan Planning Commission.

Today Savannah retains much of the Oglethorpe’s unique city plan and becomes evidence for the success of historic preservation movement in Savannah. On the other hand, the success of historic preservation movement in Savannah has also negative impacts on neighborhoods particularly low-income households. As stated by many urban scholars (Cohen 1998; Gale 1991; Werwath 1998), historic preservation has often been associated with gentrification and the displacement of lower-income households.

The historic preservation movement in Savannah has been encouraging people to return to the historic districts but also caused gentrification and displacement. Because of the rehabilitation efforts in the 1950s and 1960s, substantial number of African American and low-income people has been displaced from the historic areas. The success in restoring historic housing displaced residents, particularly African American and poor households, as their homes were sold or refurbished to be rented with higher rent. In 1972 City Manager Don Mendosa acknowledged the displacement of low-income residents from the historic areas and the lack of affordable housing in Savannah (Hodder 1996).

In an effort to mitigate the negative impact of historic preservation on lower-income households, the Savannah Landmark Rehabilitation Project (SLRP) was founded in 1975. SLRP aims to preserve the neighborhood’s racial and economic mix and provide the benefits of preservation for the rich and the poor (Hodder 1996). Using federal, state and local funds, SLRP created a model program to maintain a neighborhood mixed by class and race.

The SLRP program was criticized among preservationists and deplored as socialism since it was aimed to address the problems of equity (Hodder 1996). Leopold Adler, the leading advocate of SLRP program, asserted that African American people should not be displaced since they built and have lived in the historic areas for 30 years. Adler played an important role in securing $1.6 million loan from the city and the Ford Foundation in 1980 for buying 260 dilapidated apartment units in the Victorian District and renovated most of them for low-income households.

Led by the NAACP president, W.W. Law, historic buildings in Savannah’s historic areas that were relevant to African Americans history were started to be identified in 1973. Law also educated the public about African American contributions to the development in Savannah. He also played an instrumental role in relocating the King-Tisdell Cottage to the Beach Institute Historic neighborhood. The relocated King-Tisdell Cottage opened in 1981 as headquarters of the local branch of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASAALH). The preservation of the King-Tisdell Cottage also reflected the attention of preservationists to the African American community in the historic areas and marked the beginning of protecting and interpreting historic resources for Savannah’s African American heritage.

Currently the impact of historic preservation on gentrification in Savannah is still ongoing. Gentrification was the subject of a series of discussion organized by the Chatham County Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC) and the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority (SDRA) that were held between July 2003 and March 2004.

In April 2004, the MPC established the Gentrification Task Force and asked 34 participants in the earlier discussion to serve as members of the Task Force. The Task Force produced a report on October 2004 and identified three stages of gentrification in many of Savannah’s neighborhoods. The first stage is the movement of higher-income residents to an area because of lower housing prices and the demographic diversity, historical and architectural characters of an area. The second stage is the renovation and the flow of money into the community made by higher-income residents. The third stage is the attraction of more affluent people who see the area as an investment. Another important factor in this gentrification process is that higher-income people are often moving to the area for getting closer to their places of work and the central business districts of Savannah.

As a result of the property improvement, the city of Savannah raises property taxes, which causes the increasing housing cost and the displacement of lower-income residents. The Task Force identifies that gentrification in Savannah occurs in cycles of disinvestment and reinvestment and Downtown Savannah has gone through at least two of these cycles.

The Task Force identified five neighborhoods that are currently experiencing gentrification: Baldwin Park, Beach Institute, East Victorian, West Victorian, and Thomas Square. Five indicators were used in identifying gentrifying neighborhoods including lack of affordable housing, shift in housing tenure, increase in household income, increase in home values and increase in redevelopment activities.

In addition, nine other neighborhoods are identified to be likely to experience gentrification in the future: Benjamin Van Clark, Dixon Park, Metropolitan, Eastside, West Savannah, Cuyler-Brownville, Live Oak, Midtown and Hudson Hill. The Task Force used five leading indicators as predictors of neighborhoods most likely to experience gentrification in the future: high rate of renters, ease of access to downtown, significant decline in population, historic architecture and comparatively low housing cost.

The Task Force has acknowledged that gentrification will harm the city and disrupt the economic and social fabric of the vulnerable neighborhoods. The displacement of lower-income households will result in disruption of lives, loss of community identify and diversity and lack of ability to build wealth. The Task Force recommends five areas of concern for mitigating the negative effects of gentrification and also for stimulating residential revitalization in Savannah’s vulnerable neighborhoods. The five areas of concern include land use and zoning, affordable housing, economic development, education and training and redevelopment programs.


  1. Chatham County Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission. (2004). One Savannah: Report of the Gentrification Task Force. Savannah
  2. Cohen, James R. (1998). Combining Historic Preservation and Income Class Integration: A Case Study of the Butchers Hill Neighborhood of Baltimore. Housing Policy Debate 9(3): 663-697
  3. Gale, Dennis E. (1991). The Impacts of Historic District Designation: Planning and Policy Implications. Journal of the American Planning Association 57(3): 325-340
  4. Hodder, Robert. (1996). Savannah’s Changing Past: Historic Preservation Planning and the Social Construction of a Historic Landscape, 1955 to 1985. In Mary Corbin Sies and Christopher Silver, (Eds.), Planning the Twentieth-Century American City, pp. 361-382. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press
  5. Werwath, Peter. (1998). Comment on David Listokin, Barbara Listokin, and Michael Lahr’s “The Contributions of Historic Preservation to Housing and Economic Development”. Housing Policy Debate 9(3): 487-495


Anonymous said...

It is interesting that you have observed something that has been going on in Savannah prior to this migration going back to the 1950 when African American were not allowed to shop and live in these areas. Such changes have been prevalent in the historic downtown areas of Savannah for years, but where is the solution?

Anonymous said...

anonymous...I'm not from Savannah but I've visited it and have seen a nice diverse mix of races visiting and interacting. Mr. Rukmana mentioned education and training programs for lower income people,not just African Americans, and economic redevelopment perhaps meaning attracting/stimulating the growth of industries that can employ these retrained individuals?

Anonymous said...

it is interesting that the neighborhoods of Baldwin Park, the Victorian District and parts of Midtown are coming full circle. These neighborhoods were developed as upper middle income and now they are returning to their developers intent.

Anonymous said...

Displacing people through the redevelopment of areas that were at one time left during "white flight," the movement of the middle-class to the suburbs, will surely never be solved by some of the listed initiatives unless thoughtfully implemented. Economic development can lead to higher rents and taxes; education, training, and redevelopment programs may not be suitable for everyone, especially elderly. Wishing for affordable housing is just that, an impossible wish without uprooting people from their homes and forcing them into less suitable apartment buildings or less afluent neighborhoods. There is a need for initiatives to keep the rents low and affordable for those who call those neighborhoods their home. Savanna is showing great promise in creating the Gentrification Task Force that strives to mediate the problems of economic displacement; continuing the study of gentrification and its causes will certainly raise awareness and prevent some displacement, but the roots of the problem need to be addressed.

Anonymous said...

Gentrification is a word that has inherently negative connotations, but redevelopment isn't a bad thing. These historic buildings need to be in the hands of owners who can properly care for them. Due to changes in the tastes and preferences of house-seekers, people with money now want to move back into these neighborhoods. I see no I'll effects of this process other than the fact that it hurts the feelings of lower-income individuals. Supply and demand are at work here, and it is not and should not be the government's responsibility to subsidize away the effects of natural market forces. Many of Savannah's historic neighborhoods have been reduced to slums for too long, and it's disgusting to see some great examples of architectural beauty lying in ruin as crack houses and low-rent tenements. Economic forces in the real estate market always have winners and losers. Spending taxpayer dollars to counteract these forces is suboptimal and inefficient, not to mention an irresponsible waste of government resources.