FEATURE: Site Plan Review for Starland Village Project to be on MPC’s Calendar Next Week

PHOTO: Architect's rendering of portions of the proposed Starland Village project by The Foram Group, to be built on Bull Street, between 37th Street and Victory Drive.

By Lou Phelps, Savannah Business Journal

August 24, 2018 – A major new development on Bull Street, in what is known as the Starland District just immediately north of Victory Drive, will face its next hurdle before the Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC) on Tuesday, Aug. 28. when the Site Plan is set to be voted on by the MPC for Starland Village, being developed by The Foram Group.

The Agenda for the meeting has not been made public yet, but neighborhood opponents of the project believe it will come up, now that the MPC staff has completed its review of the "Appropriateness" of the five elements of the massive project. That review is one portion of the Site Plan Review process.

The criteria for site plan reviews are separate from the Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) process, but the COA reports are part of the criteria in how the MPC reviews a site plan. The MPC's Site Plan Review process language, section D, states that "appropriate location, arrangement, size, and design of buildings, lighting and signs," are to be considered. And normally, the MPC's Executive Director, Melanie Wilson, is the person that signs off on the COA's for each project that comes before the Planning Commission.

However, in a conversation with MPC Director on August 2nd, City Manager Rob Hernandez informed them that he would be reviewing the design," in other words, handling the COA aspect," according to Ellen Harris, the MPC's Director of Urban Planning and Historic Preservation.

The zoning ordinance designates that legally the City Manager is the Design Administrator, "so he is exercising that authority, though he has never done that ... not to my knowledge," states Harris, an opinion supported by others on the MPC staff. Hernandez is the City of Savannah's designated member of the MPC.

Opponents of the project contend that the when all the documents are reviewed, and after reading the emails they have obtained and reviewed between the MPC and the City Manager’s staff, the bottomline is that the MPC leadership does not view significant portions of the project as appropriate for the historic area, and would have recommended turning town the Site Plan due to the negative issues in the COA's.

Back on March 29, 2018, the Savannah City Council adopted several amendments to the Mid-City zoning ordinances which specifically applied to each lot within the project site for the total project being proposed by The Foram Group, a project that will encompass an entire city block. Several changes to zoning were approved, including amending zoning to designate the lots in the block as a CIV - a Civic and Institutional (CIV) District – “intended to provide for civic and institutional district uses that serve a large area or produce insensitive activities not readily assimilated into other districts,” according to the ordinance.

The ‘Principal Uses’ allowed are listed in table Sec. 8-3125,(1) of the ordinance, and are permitted by right, or permitted as a special use by the Board of Appeals in accordance with Special Use Review.

The overall project includes residential units, retail, at least one restaurant, a parking facility and an event venue. The Event venue, to go into the former Epworth Methodist Church, was added as a permitted use in the table as part of the March 2018 ordinance amendments, with the intent that the church would be converted to an event venue, “to encourage the re-use of parcels with contributing buildings originally-designed for religious or education-related uses, it may be desirable to allow for flexibility with regards to principal uses and development standards for such parcels and associated or adjacent parcels, when appropriate,” according to an MPC staff report.

“Because these parcels are unique as to their location and surroundings, the extent to which flexibility may be allowed must be considered on an individual parcel basis. Associated and adjacent parcels may be included,” the language states.

One of the most controversial aspects of the overall project is the size and scale of the main buildings of the project that will include a large number of residential units, viewed as ‘blocky’ in design and inappropriate for the area, according to Dan Walters, a long-time resident of the area who is fighting the project. His home lies immediately behind one of the very large buildings that is proposed to anchor the new development.

There are five MPC Staff Reports, one for each of: the Co-op Building; the Epworth Church Event Venue; the Multi-Family North building; the Starland Village Multi-Family South building; and the Parking Garage. The latter design includes a system of raising autos up into a large parking structure due to a lack of surface parking available to meet minimum parking requirements.

Area residents contend, also, that the overall project is not providing adequate parking, especially for the event venue.

Walter’s concern is that he is being told by the MPC staff, he states, that City Manager Rob Hernandez has indicated that he will be signing the needed ‘Certificate of Appropriateness (COA)’ – normally the responsibility of Ellen Harris, “since if you look at these (the MPC Staff Reports on all five elements of the project) it’s unlikely the MPC would grant it. As far as anyone knows this is unprecedented, but the MPC said they had looked at "the ordinance" and the city manager - as I guess is head of everything - and can do this,” he states.

The five MPC Staff Reports provide detail on a number of areas where the required standards in the zoning are not met, or there is not enough information provided yet by the developer. The residential buildings are too large for the lots, according to the staff report, for example in the opinion of the MPC planners.

The president of the Starland Neighborhood Association, Clinton Edminster, said that he had not yet read the COA reports by the MPC staff, and could not comment.

The Foram Group and Cadence Capital Partners, in concert with the Foram Group, is proposing a 150,000 sq ft, transit-oriented, “Live, Work, Play” development that will be "Savannah;s premier mixed-use development featuring 54 superior residential apartments, 39,000 SF of Class-A private and co-working offices, retail & restaurant space and a historic cathedral transformed into a first-class event venue," the company states. It is projected to be a $97 million project. The Foram Group was founded by Loretta Cockrum, CEO/Founder.

Efforts to reach Hernandez for comment have been unsuccessful.

The Planning Commission meets on Aug 28 at 1:30 pm in the Arthur A. Mendonsa Hearing Room.

Here are the five staff reports to be discussed at next Tuesday’s meeting.

Editor's Note: This story will be updated as appropriate, including an interview with City Manager Rob Hernandez.

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