The Charm, and Challenge, of Savannah

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The decision prompted officials and residents to intensify their allegiance to the city’s character. Builders in Savannah’s historic districts are required to meet height, design, scale, parking, color and other standards to fit new development into the old architectural vernacular. Ample numbers of meetings with city and Chatham County planning staffs are required, as are multiple listening sessions with neighborhood associations.

The experience can be a test of endurance for developers. In 2018, after two years of public meetings, city oversight and a lawsuit filed by neighborhood critics that challenged the city’s review, the Foram Group gained permission to build the $40 million, 170,000-square-foot Starland Village project in a historic neighborhood favored by artists and students. The first new mixed-use development in that district, the project is set to start construction later this year. It encompasses 91 apartments, retail spaces, a parking deck and the renovation of an early-20th-century Methodist church and school building for restaurants and offices.

Though it is an assembly of modest structures, new and old, Starland Village was criticized by some residents as out of scale with the neighborhood. “We had a lot of meetings with residents,” said Travis Stringer, Foram’s chief executive. “At least 10 meetings in large and small groups to discuss changes in the design and reorient the mixes.”

Residents wanted the development to blend into the community. “They wanted to feel like the project was theirs,” Mr. Stringer said.

The public challenge to Starland Village, and to so many other proposed projects, is so rich that Savannah’s media covers real estate development as running news stories. “Savannah is one of the hot destinations, like Charleston, that is experiencing large investment in the city center,” said Jim Morekis, editor of Connect Savannah, a weekly newspaper.

“It can be a gauntlet,” said Karen Guinn, founder of Collective Marketing, a consulting firm that helps guide developers through the process. One of her projects is Eastern Wharf. “It’s also why we’re fortunate to have the city we have. We begrudge it on one hand and are grateful on the other.”