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February 28, 2019, City Council Regular Meeting
18. Motion to Deny the Request to Amend the Zoning Ordinance Regarding the Historic District Height Map (Petitioner: River Street Hotel LLC, dba HOS Management)
Strategic Priority
Economic Strength And Poverty Reduction

River Street Hotel LLC, dba HOS Management, Petitioner, is requesting approval of a text amendment to the Zoning Ordinance specifically regarding the Historic District Height Map (height map) found in Section 8-3030(n)(2). They are proposing to amend the map for certain properties located at 114 West Bay Street (117 West River Street) and 126 West Bay Street (125 West River Street).

In the 1990s, the Mayor and Aldermen made the decision to engage a preservation consultant to provide recommendations on policy changes that would help protect and preserve the Landmark Historic District.  In 1992, the City was presented with the Chadbourne Report authored by Christopher Chadbourne of Clarion Associates, Inc.  Among a number of recommendations, the Chadbourne Report recommended a proposed height map.  Relative to height, the report emphasized the importance of establishing guidelines.  It stated specifically that height regulations would provide “predictability to the development community, surety to the neighborhoods and continuity to the historic city which is at the root of the city’s tourist economy.”  Subsequently, a citizen led stakeholder group was established and this committee revised the original proposed height map from the report and this revised map was adopted by City Council in 1997.

The area in which the height map is proposed to be amended includes two parcels developed with contributing buildings originally constructed in the mid-19th century.  The westernmost property, 126 West Bay Street is the existing Cotton Sail hotel.  The existing addition above the Cotton Sail hotel was specifically permitted through the variance process, based on findings of fact related to the structures visual and physical characteristics, and its limited visibility from the public right of way.  In addition, it was reviewed in context of the overall redevelopment of the historic structure and the then proposed improvements to Factors Walk.  Subsequent to this approval, on November 21, 2017 the Mayor and Aldermen amended the zoning ordinance to prohibit variances from the Historic District Height Map (File No. 17-002807).  The intended consequence of this action is that the only way to amend the height map is through the zoning text amendment process

The building on the easternmost property is currently permitted to be two stories above Bay Street.  The petitioner is proposing that this property’s designation be changed to permit three stories above Bay Street.  While this would permit a new rooftop addition at the subject property, it should be noted that a variance from the Historic District Ordinance would also be required. Section 8-3030(n)(11) states, in part, that “Additions to historic buildings shall be located to the rear of the structure or the most inconspicuous side of the building.  Additions to roofs shall not be visible from the front elevation.”  The easternmost property, 114 West Bay Street was purchased by the petitioner with the intent to expand the hotel into this property.  The petitioner has stated that their intent is to extend the existing rooftop addition from the Cotton Sail to the east to cover the adjacent building.  Again, this proposed extension, if visible from the public right of way, would require a variance from the previously mentioned standard.

The Historic District Board of Review has not had the opportunity to review the proposed change to the Height Map.  The current review process allows the petitioner to submit directly to the MPC and City Council, as it is considered a text amendment.  However, the proposed addition was on the HDBR’s December 12th agenda and staff was recommending denial.  The petitioner withdrew the request for the addition prior to review by the HDBR.

The establishment of a Historic District Height Map within the zoning regulations that govern the district, was one of the most critical outcomes of the Chadbourne Report.  Height, as it relates to historic development patterns, is an important aspect of visual compatibility.  It is the single-most important tool the City has to maintain the character and integrity of the District.  Very recently, the governing body has determined that changing the permitted height of structures in the historic district should not be a matter of discretion by any unelected body but should only be changed through the most strenuous process available for amending local regulations.  Specific to the subject properties, non - historic additions that are visible from the public right of way are not permitted under the current regulations.  The impact of these additions on the historic integrity of contributing buildings and the greater historic district can have long lasting negative effects.  Staff cannot recommend a change that risks negatively impacting contributing structures or the integrity of the district at large.  Additionally, the National Park Service Department of the Interior changed the Savannah Historic Landmark District’s status from Satisfactory (Priority 3) to Threatened (Priority 1) last year.  One specific risk noted in the report is rooftop additions on historic buildings.  “There has also been a surge in applications for rooftop additions to historic commercial building within the SNHLD which are becoming more prominent…This ultimately changes the mass and scale of the building, when additions are visible.”  The NPS notes that, “Considered individually many impacts may seem minor, but cumulatively they can be substantial.  Stewards must be careful to guard against incremental changes that over time can lead to a severe loss of integrity.”  They go on to recommend that “when changes to the height map in one area of the District are proposed, it would be beneficial to consider the height map and the district as a whole.”

On January 29, 2019, the Planning Commission voted to recommend denial of the request.

Bridget Lidy, Planning & Urban Design Director
Financial Impact
Review Comments
Exhibit 1: Planning Commission Recommendation - Historic District Height Map Text Amendment.pdf
Exhibit 2: Photos and Map - Historic District Height Map Text Amendment.pdf
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