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The Complex Perception of a Historic District

April 20, 2010

In my roll as a member of the Savannah Historic District Board of Review, I have a say in helping shape the future of Savannah’s downtown historic district.  Last week, the proposal submitted by McDonald’s to adapt a building on Broughton Street that has stood vacant for about 20 years into the location for one of their restaurants sparked a virulent public debate about the project.  Some members of the public decried the arrival of the king of fast food onto the revitalizing main street of the city.  Others welcomed the commitment of new life to a long-neglected and rather destitute building.  From the point of view of the Review Board, our jurisdiction was limited to deciding whether proposed changes to the building were compatible from a design point of view and respectful of the historic character of the building and the community.  Our debate focused principally on the proposal to cut a hole in the side wall of the building to serve as a pedestrian pick-up window, altering — and potentially upsetting — the design of that facade facing the side street.  (Unfortunately, the potential for this take-out window to facilitate an increase in litter in the area was beyond our purview to judge.)  The proposal brought to light a range of issues that revealed the heightened sensitivities among members of the public when it comes to building forms and types of uses appropriate to an historic district.  In the end, a compromise between revitalization and mostly sympathetic design outweighed a puristic view that certain kinds of business and changes of any kind to building fabric were unwelcome.

Click here for a newspaper report about the proposal and its approval by the Review Board.

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