APRIL 14, 2022, 11:00 a.m. - WORKSHOP and CITY MANAGER'S BRIEFING
OF THE MAYOR AND ALDERMEN
The work session and City Manager’s briefing was held at 11:00 a.m.
PRESENT: Mayor Van R. Johnson, II, Presiding
Alderwoman Kesha Gibson-Carter, At-Large, Post 1
Alderwoman Alicia Miller Blakely, At-Large, Post 2
Alderwoman Bernetta B. Lanier, District 1
Alderman Detric Leggett, District 2
Alderwoman Linda Wilder-Bryan, District 3
Alderman Nick Palumbo, District 4, Vice-Chairman
Alderwoman Dr. Estella Edwards Shabazz, District 5, Mayor Pro-Tem
Alderman Kurtis Purtee, District 6
City Manager Joseph A. Melder
Chief of Staff Daphanie Williams
City Attorney Bates Lovett
Clerk of Council Mark Massey
Deputy Clerk of Council Margaret Fox
After brief background information, City Manager Melder introduced Christian Sottile and Craig Clements of Savannah-based Sottile and Sottile for a PowerPoint presentation on the city's need for 100,000 square feet of office space and the options available.
Following the presentation, the following questions and concerns (statements) were raised by the City Manager and members of the City Council.
- City Manager Melder indicated the Johnny Mercer Theater is a viable facility. He indicated there is the ability to retain the name of Martin Luther King Jr. for the Civic Center, along with the ballrooms and meeting space collectively. The presentation solves space planning needs for the organization. It includes arts and culture, and restoration of the Plan.
- Alderwoman Miller Blakely raised concern regarding past statements that the Plan was attributed to Oglethorpe alone. She also asked Mr. Sottile to explain the difference between Tithing (tax paying) Lots and Trust (community tax exempt) Lots. Mr. Sottile advised Oglethorpe’s original idea was so good, the City kept doing it generations later. Oglethorpe made six (6) wards, and then the City later decided to continue making more. Alderwoman Miller Blakely asked Mr. Sottile if his ideas are like what they have done in Charleston. Mr. Sottile explained similarities and differences. Alderwoman Miller Blakely asked how development (especially modern buildings) will affect the City’s historic designation. Mr. Sottile advised this is a vey important point and in redeveloping this area, they have looked at returning to the historic pattern and coming closer to the original plan. All future development will have to be reviewed to ensure historic requirements, integrity and design. Alderwoman Miller Blakely asked how this project ties into Reclaim Old West Broad Street. Mr. Sottile stated it contributes to it.
- Alderman Palumbo indicated he is glad we have now taken an assessment of where we are. This is one of the most important urban planning decisions in centuries for this Council. He asked the City Manager about the need to get out of temporary spaces and move into permanent ones, based on the desires of this Council. He further asked will the proposal today meet those needs (yes, up to 100,000 sq ft of office space, with the Gamble building being an additional 40,000 sq ft). For the restored lots, are there any limitations for what the City can achieve? Mr. Sottile indicated underlying zoning, and the Council can dictate what will go there. Alderman Palumbo asked the City Manager if we could be looking at affordable housing in our historic landmark district (Yes). Alderman Palumbo asked about rights-of-way, traffic patterns and the grid. Mr. Sottile indicated the proposal makes it get better.
- Alderman Leggett stated when they were elected, he was looking at the Gamble building as one of the few properties still owned by the City, available for employee offices. The last administration sold-off other buildings. He advocates for keeping some of the old Civic Center. They were inaugurated there, lots of graduations, marriages and funerals were there, so the Civic Center holds a special place in their hearts. What is going to be done about parking? Even with returning to blocks and squares, parking is going to be an issue that needs to be addressed. To the City Manager, Alderman Leggett addressed the Civic Center as demolition by neglect. We must manage and maintain our own buildings and houses.
Alderwoman Wilder-Bryan asked how many blocks were removed with the Flyover (exit ramp), a study done by the Historic Foundation. Mr. Sottile advised there is approximately 7 acres of land, similar in size to 10 City blocks. Alderwoman Wilder-Bryan stated she wants to focus on just Housing, namely affordable housing for many not a few. We need more spaces for housing. We want to put our employees in one space, so we can renovate the Civic Center space and do just that. We need a definition of what is old in Savannah, not just tear things down because they are old. Her job is to take care of the needs, instead of the desires. There is such a need for housing. Alderwoman Wilder-Bryan questioned why there is only a $1 million difference between the two proposals. Doing one project versus both options, including the Gamble building appears to cost almost the same. Mr. Sottile indicated it is due to the offset in costs achieved by selling the Gamble building. Alderwoman Wilder-Bryan stated she is against selling any of the City property. She asked what happened to the parking, when he took away the arena and left the Johnny Mercer Theater. Mr. Sottile advised parking will be available in the parking garage on Liberty Street and the Robinson deck. Putting the streets back also adds parking on the streets. New buildings and/or housing built on the blocks can include parking inside of the blocks. Parking will always be a need that has to be met. Alderwoman Wilder-Bryan stated if housing is there, zoning requirements and parking needs will have to be met, but only for those who are located there, not to achieve the broader needs for parking. Alderwoman Wilder-Bryan asked about the employee space at the Coastal Georgia Center, with a lease agreement that is due to expire in May. She recommended converting space at the Civic Center to a purpose-built area for employees, instead of spending more money on the lease at the Coastal Georgia Center. The City Manager advised he can show her the numbers to compare the benefits.
- Mayor Pro-Tem Dr. Shabazz asked the City Manager how many people he needs to get into a centralized situation (roughly 250-300 staff members). She asked him if there are any projections with respect to what is needed in the years to come. In reference to the selling off of properties, including the Gamble building, Mayor Pro-Tem Dr. Shabazz stated her disappointment with the actions of the previous administration. She further stated that availability of affordable housing is a big problem and second to the housing problem is parking. The plans and designs today do not address the parking issue. Mayor Pro-Tem Dr. Shabazz asked the City Manager where is the proposed $42.5 million going to come from. City Manager Melder stated this is something Council will have to direct me (him) to do. He asked Council to give him direction today, or at the next Council Meeting, or whenever Council is ready to develop a plan on how to deal with the land, parking solutions, and how we will meet the $43.5 million price tag. Mayor Pro-Tem Dr. Shabazz stated she likes the idea of the municipal office space on the Oglethorpe side of the building. She would like to utilize the small acreage by staking the parking, like the other garages.
- Alderwoman Gibson-Carter asked Mr. Sottile how he was selected to be a part of this project and in what capacity he is currently serving (on-call urban design consultant to do preliminary planning and research thereby supporting City staff). She asked if he was on a retainer (Yes, as requested by the former City Manager Brown). City Manager Melder stated we have a current contract with Sottile & Sottile. Alderwoman Gibson-Carter asked if that was presented to City Council. City Manager Melder stated it was prior to his time, but we can look. Alderwoman Gibson-Carter asked to see the contract. She asked Mr. Sottile, who do you primarily do work for, namely larger projects done in our City? Mr. Sottile advised they have done work with the City, smaller residential redevelopments, housing projects, new housing in the Victorian district, hospitality work, redevelopment of Plant Riverside, with about a third of our work coming from Savannah (public and private). Alderwoman Gibson-Carter asked who are some of the larger companies or projects you have worked for, which we would recognize? Mr. Sottile advised the Kessler Collection, and the City of Greenville. Alderwoman Gibson-Carter asked if he has done any work with the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) and which ones. Mr. Sottile advised yes. We were design architects for the SCAD Museum of Art, and with the City to restore Turner Blvd. Alderwoman Gibson-Carter asked Mr. Sottile if they were doing any current work with SCAD (No). Alderwoman Gibson-Carter asked if there are any cost projections resulting from this contractual agreement. The City Manager advised this is a consultant agreement and has no bearing on the future of this project, other than a presentation of options. Alderwoman Gibson-Carter asked if the Architect firm will be providing the cost projections. The City Manager responded no, we could ask them to consult with us. Much of our work and cost projections are done in our Real Estate Services office. With respect to a trip taken to Charleston with Mr. Sotille and staff during the City Manager’s first month, Alderwoman Gibson-Carter was concerned about that visit, since there is nothing in Charleston that she would like for the City of Savannah to mimic, due to gentrification and the marginalized working-class and African American people who have been forced out (sanitized community). City Manager Melder responded we visited the Gaillard Performing Arts Center in Charleston which has a similar design and construction date as our Johnny Mercer Theater in Savannah. They recently underwent renovations and provided municipal office space around the existing theater, so we went to see exactly how that project was tackled (another city’s close-by example). While she is glad to see this discussion as a workshop item, Alderwoman Gibson-Carter stated she believes that holding an executive session regarding this matter is the responsible, professional thing to do, allowing more time to discuss the matter. She asked what commitment the City made when advocating for the Arena, which is not a replacement of the current scope and use of the Civic Center. She is happy to hear the City Manager say that we will maintain the name of the MLK Jr. Arena. She asked again what are the undertones of the commitment made between the current Arena and the Civic Center. City Manager Melder indicated he is not aware of any commitment related to the two, but the same group helps to manage both facilities. He agreed the Johnny Mercer Theater serves a unique function in the community that the Enmarket Arena does not serve, nor was it built to serve. Hence his recommendation of Option 1. The arena in the Civic Center has outlived its useful life by several years. It no longer functions in the way performances and productions work. Alderwoman Gibson-Carter stated she knows there were advocates for the new Arena who were intending to connect contractual pieces related to the Civic Center. Related to parking, she is reminded of our clean energy goals and she cringes when we discuss parking garages. With respect to bike trails, walkable communities, ride share, why aren’t we interjecting those, instead of parking garages and decks. We have to start making commitments towards the lofty goals we throw out and talk about. She asked the City Manager to recognize our energy goals and sustainability. When we talk about options, today she has only been presented one option. She would like to prioritize or rank what the Council seems fit, based on discussions with the constituency, worthy of a public hearing at the Civic Center. We have to stop talking to or at people and listen to them. She was glad to hear that we have to move toward owning and not leasing space, because it is the smart thing to do. Prior administrations unloaded multiple, valuable pieces of property. Alderwoman Gibson-Carter stated she cannot understand why are we leasing valuable property adjacent from the Civic Center for parking at the new Arena, totally over $19 million, with a contractual period of 5 years, while mitigating and developing the land. Then we turn it back over to the owner. To date, we have expended $660,000.00 in that contract for parking we are not using, which could cause for hazardous contact to residents in that area. Staff has shepherded us down this path, and staff shepherded us down the path of the arena project which we still have major issues. City Manager Melder stated staff has done a yeoman’s job, earnestly, in getting us to where we are today. With respect to accessibility of space for employees, it is also important for spaces to be accessible to citizens. Employees who work with the public don’t need to be placed in the Gamble building, forcing citizens to navigate River/Bay streets and cobblestones. Alderwoman Gibson-Carter would like to see other options for the Gamble building. City Manager Melder stated we can provide more options for the Gamble building, but if we do not use it for municipal office space the highest and best use from a real estate perspective would likely be hospitality. Alderwoman Gibson-Carter asked how many people the Floyd complex holds, since there is availability there. Displaced employees, like those in Community Services, could be assigned to work there so residents can easily access them. She would like to see more blended options, with respect to the use of space, even more unique and exciting. In addition, she requested the City Manager to more openly give the Council and the public a way to weigh-in on this decision.
- Alderman Purtee expressed concern regarding the parking issues, since parking is needed now. He stated that he likes the ideas regarding the Civic Center and the Johnny Mercer Theater, but he believes more discussions are needed concerning the Gamble building. Alderman Purtee indicated there are citizens on the Southside that cannot access City facilities downtown, due to parking and other issues. How do we provide the accessibility and equity piece on the Southside. We should be having conversations about centers and places to do City business on the Southside.
- Alderwoman Lanier provided some historical context around the Arena Committee and discussions on how the building would be utilized, and on how the MLK Jr. name could and will be used in a place of prominence. Regarding the Gamble building, she asked if a cost benefit analysis had been conducted. She wants the City to make decisions based on what makes sense, pros and cons. City Manager Melder responded yes, which they believe will raise (per a sale) approximately $8 million. For people who want to restore Elbert Square, historical investments (i.e., money spent on the Theater v. Arena) should be looked at more closely to understand the conditions. Alderwoman Lanier indicated she had various concerns. She is and was concerned about the price point of using certain spaces. She is concerned about the process used to develop options, she is concerned about mobility, parking, the driving situation, traffic and the pedestrian behavior. It is getting worse driving downtown. With respect to strategic direction, when Chester Ellis became Chair of a committee, another voice came forward which said to keep the Johnny Mercer Theater and tear down the arena side. These conversations are not new and occurred over the last ten years or so. With answers and solutions for traffic and other things, Alderwoman Lanier stated she believes they will be better able to make decisions going forward.
- Mayor Johnson stated the City Manager has done what we have asked him to do. We asked him to investigate options and give us what he felt were the two most viable options, and he has done that. We need to maintain the Johnny Mercer Theater. We own it all, so we can do it all. When we talk about the Gamble building, we are talking about inward facing departments who are integral to the daily operations. Mayor Johnson stated the Gamble building did not sell and he thinks that was destiny. This is a unique opportunity to address City needs and planning for our future while respecting the plans of the past. He continued by stating, we love our Civic Center. Everyone in the community has a civic center story. We have celebrated, come together, had meetings, and even buried loved ones out of the Civic Center. It’s the center square and equity spot. The Johnny Mercer Theater is an excellent theater, although she has been worn by time. The cultural arts center has 400 seats, our Arena has 9500 seats, so getting rid of the Johnny Mercer Theater means we have nothing in between. This is about equity when it comes to prices, as compared to the Lucas and Trustees theaters. There are only 1003 theaters across our country with 2500 seats or more. Mayor Johnson stated that he believes this is an exciting public-private, philanthropic, fundraising opportunity for those who want to see that happen. There are ways to raise money as they did in Charleston. We get seven of our ten City blocks back. The key word here is City, which means we own it and can do what we want to do with it. Right now, the City Manager is only asking for strategic direction. A municipal building with a mixed-use that can pay for itself means we can be the landlords or the Morning News of sorts. The Civic Center does not have a name, so he would support and insist that the name of the old arena be transfer over to the name of the Civic Center. We can reconfigure our streets and utilize Vision Zero in doing this, thereby re-engineering and re-designing what really makes sense. Mayor Johnson stated he fully supports Option 1, and he asks Council not to get bogged down with paralysis of analysis. We need to pick a road and go down it. We can pay for this in many ways. Bonding and SPLOST are options, but the City Manager is not asking us for that. Council has given clear direction that we are going to retain the Johnny Mercer Theater, changing the narrative on the record. He then asked the City Manager how he would like to proceed. City Manager Melder stated he will proceed at the pleasure of Council, with respect to timing. He will follow-up with a detailed memo on how they will go about this process, incorporating public comment/discussion concerning these strategic directions, not decisions. And he will detail the costing-out or budgeting or looking at the hard numbers and the technical side of this process.
Option 1: Retain the Gamble Building and renovate it for up to 40,000 sq ft of municipal office space; and Build between 60,000 - 100,000 sq ft of municipal office space on the Oglethorpe Avenue frontage at the Civic Center (between Johnny Mercer Theater and Oglethorpe Avenue).
Option 2: Do not retain the Gamble Building for municipal office use; but Build up to 100,000 sq ft of municipal office space on Oglethorpe Avenue frontage at the Civic Center (between Johnny Mercer Theater and Oglethorpe Avenue).
*Per the City Manager, both Options 1 and 2 provide an opportunity to keep/save/incorporate the Johnny Mercer Theater, the Ballroom, the meeting spaces, and the MLK Jr. Arena. There also is the option of demolishing each of the spaces and building a municipal office space on any one of those parcels owned by the city.
Option 3: Level (demolish) the Civic Center and restore The Plan with historical squares, with no municipal office space at the Gamble Building, and no municipal office space at the Civic Center.
Option 4: None of the above. (City Manager Melder stated this option would allow the City Council to identify what goes on the Civic Center site after you demolish it.)
Following City Manager Melder's explanations of the options available to Council Members, Alderwoman Gibson-Carter was ruled out of order, when a point of order was raised.
Mayor Johnson asked the Clerk of Council to (straw) poll the City Council on the options. *A (straw) poll neither adopts nor rejects a measure.
At the request of Alderwoman Wilder-Bryan, Mayor Johnson asked the City Attorney to describe what is meant by (straw) polling the Members of Council.
City Attorney Lovett advised this is a poll for direction. No votes were taken. At this point, it is a very public and transparent process. City Council is giving the City Manager guidance to do what’s next, pursuant to the Charter. There will certainly be votes taken at some point.
The results of the (straw) poll are as follows:
Mayor Johnson – Option 1
Alderwoman Gibson-Carter – abstained due to ambiguous process
Alderwoman Miller Blakely – rejected options, requests community input/weigh-in
Alderwoman Lanier – would like to hear from the community
Alderman Leggett – Option 1
Alderwoman Wilder-Bryan – Option 1, with housing
Alderman Palumbo – Option 1, with housing
Mayor Pro-Tem Dr. Shabazz – Option 1, with public input, housing, and parking
Alderman Purtee – Option 1, with housing and bringing more services and resources to the Southside
At the request of Alderman Purtee, the City Manager advised this will include a public engagement process. He further added this is not a vote or decision, rather strategic direction. Anything that comes later is subject to the City Manager having to bring forward budgets and plans.
Alderwoman Miller Blakely asked the City Manager to clarify what is affordable housing, workforce housing and income-based housing.
Alderwoman Lanier asked the City Manager to clarify if Option 1 “raise(s)” (levels) the MLK Jr. Arena.
Alderwoman Gibson-Carter moved to enter into Executive Session to discuss personnel regarding the police department, seconded by Alderwoman Miller Blakely. The motion failed, 3-6-0, with Alderwoman Gibson-Carter, Alderwoman Miller Blakely, and Alderwoman Lanier voting yea.
The PowerPoint presentation is available and on file in the Clerk of Council's office.