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Ports & Transportation

DeRenne Charette Process Concluded

SBJ Staff

12/4/2009 - The curtain closed last Thursday on a month of charettes and focus sessions on the future of a stretch of DeRenne Avenue from Interstate 516 to the Truman Parkway.

From here, a pair of transportation options and several visions for the corridor’s commercial and residential development go to a citizen’s committee for review and to Savannah City Council for action early in the new year.

A crowd of more than 100 corridor residents, business owners and citizens interested in the avenue’s future showed up in the vacant NAPA Auto Parts building on DeRenne Avenue Thursday for a summary of Project DeRenne’s charette process.

In a rapidly moving presentation, planner Matt Noonkester of consulting firm Kimley-Horn and Associates detailed two alternatives for easing the roadway’s near constant bottlenecks. He addressed the corridor’s future development in a series of four “focus areas,” two looking at the possible commercial and residential future of the corridor area west of Abercorn Street and the remaining commercial and residential development east of Abercorn.

The “boulevard strategy” calls for an entirely new road while the “intersection strategy” specifies an additional lane on DeRenne’s eastbound side. Both options require the taking of private property, according to planners.

Named “Poplar Place Boulevard” by planners, the four-lane extension of White Bluff Avenue through to I-516 is seen as an effective way to get traffic off of DeRenne. This, planners say, would return the heavily traveled east-west roadway to its former purpose as a city avenue.

Traffic surveys show that of the 55,000 cars that travel DeRenne Avenue each day, about 20,000 have destinations that require turning south onto either White Bluff or Abercorn Street. Those southbound motorists would take the extension, thus relieving DeRenne of its bottlenecks, planners say.

“Not surprisingly, you would see a lot of improvement in delay time at the intersections” of Montgomery Street, White Bluff and Abercorn, Noonkester told last week’s gathering.

While the neighborhood south of DeRenne would lose houses to make way for the one-mile “Poplar Place Boulevard,”  it would gain a realigned Montgomery Street, creating a more connected neighborhood, Noonkester said. A straightened Montgomery would return “integrity” to the neighborhood, making it look more like a traditional Savannah neighborhood, he added.

Just how the alignment of the boulevard or a realigned Montgomery would look could well change “as you move forward and do some of the ‘fatal-flaw tests,’” Noonkester said.

While both transportation options include modifications to intersections, the “intersection strategy” specifically addresses the difficulty of traffic trying to turn south onto White Bluff from DeRenne. Under this approach, a new lane would be added on the eastbound side of DeRenne that would become a turning lane as it neared White Bluff. The lane would begin just before Mildred Street.

The intersection strategy’s flaw, planners say, is that it does not relieve lengthy bottlenecks on White Bluff as motorists try to turn east or west onto DeRenne or continue through DeRenne to Bull Street. Nor does it ease delays encountered in turning onto DeRenne from Abercorn Street.

“Unfortunately, it does not affect the long queues of vehicles waiting to turn on either White Bluff or Abercorn,” said Rob Hume, a traffic engineer with Kimley-Horne and the manager of Project DeRenne.

The stretch of DeRenne from Abercorn to the Truman is not viewed as over-taxed for a four-lane roadway, at least at present, according to Hume, who said traffic counts show about 35,000 vehicles travel the roadway daily. “The traffic volume and lane capacity are not that far out of balance,” he noted.

The focus here, he said, has moved away from adding more lanes to removing the center turning lanes and replacing them with wide medians that would be attractively landscaped. With that approach, Hume said, would come refiguring of the entrances and exits to north-south streets intersecting DeRenne, such as Habersham Street and Waters Avenue.
“We can make them better able to accommodate the traffic,” he said
In detailing the four focus areas, project planner Noonkester started with the neighborhoods south of DeRenne between White Bluff and Montgomery. The idea there is to create more connectedness among the Poplarville and University neighborhoods and to encourage neighborhood retail needs, such as a drug store and service outlets. The realignment of Montgomery Street is a key part of the strategy, he said.
In all, he said, “We see opportunity but no wholesale change in those neighborhoods. The neighborhoods have a good housing stock you’d want to keep up.” He noted particular attention should be given to maintaining the area’s large live oaks.
To the east, planners see an opportunity for transformation of the commercial stretch of the south side of DeRenne from White Bluff to Abercorn that is home to Savannah’s iconic globe. Noonkester envisions a village-like setup that would include a movie theater, a junior anchor store and a series of shops that would surround a park.

“What would happen if some of that commercial area were to be redeveloped to make it more intensive as a way to keep commercial from encroaching into residential areas?” asked Noonkester in describing a key purpose of what Project DeRenne planners call “Midtown Village.”

He suggested efforts could be made to preserve the globe, which has been a Savannah landmark since it went up decades ago as a giant natural gas storage container.

“Midtown Village,” he said, could become a draw for shoppers who could walk there from nearby Poplarville and Kensington Park. Instead of turning its back on Abercorn and White Bluff, the village “would address those streets,” making the shopping area an easy “walkover” from nearby neighborhoods.

“If you’re going to do this, don’t do it halfway,” Noonkester warned. “Pay attention to the design elements.”
The remaining two focus areas are the Medical Arts District and South Garden residential area.

Planners want to encourage more dense development of medical and professional office space uses in the Medical Arts District, which takes in 28 blocks from Candler Hospital to Waters Avenue and extends north from DeRenne to 67th Street.

This approach would rely on infilling of vacant parcels and encourage compact development as a way to prevent further encroachment of medical offices into the South Garden neighborhood.

South Garden could become an enticing target for medical office developers who may find willing sellers among the neighborhood’s large elderly population, Noonkester said. “It has lots of aging residents who want to sell their property,” he said. “Without a plan, we’d get a hodge-podge” of office and residential uses.

Attached multi-family housing could be the answer, he said. “We envision more than single-family.”

Attached multi-family could be built in the neighborhood in a way that would make it undistinguisible from the surrounding homes, he said.

Land-use polices should be put in place to keep South Garden a strong cohesive neighborhood, Noonkester said. “It’s worth fighting for as a neighborhood.”

Further, he said a linear park could be established that would connect to walking trails near Truman Parkway.

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