A version of this previously appeared on southmag.com.
The Congress for New Urbanism, a nonprofit based out of Washington, D.C. that advocates for new urban design, held its 26th conference right here in the Hostess City last week to explore some of the urban design challenges Savannah currently faces. South magazine sat down with award-winning designer Matthew S. Hallett—founder of HALLETT & Co.—to discuss what went down at the event.
SOUTH MAGAZINE: So, tell us why the Congress for New Urbanism conference is so important.
MATTHEW: The Congress for New Urbanism conference brings together 1,500 people each year to discuss new urban design and advocate for things like sidewalks, traffic calming, what makes a good building that contributes to the city. They bring speakers and workshops to the host city so we can learn new strategies to improve our cities.
SM: Can’t bringing 1,500 people to one city be a bit detrimental?
MH: Of course, and the organization understands their presence can be a burden, so they want to give something back; they come into the host city about five months before the conference, bringing their best and brightest, to leave a “legacy project.” Because these folks are coming from out of town, they are bringing their incredible level of talent and incredibly fresh eyes to see what locals don’t see to examine some of the problems in the host city and develop a game plan to fix them.
SM: What sort of problems did they find in Savannah?
MH: So, in the 1960s, we stopped building cities that work for people, but instead work for cars. If you build a city for cars, you get a city full of cars. But if you build a city for people, you’ll get people. Take a look at cities like Vienna. They have gorgeous town squares with tall buildings and people walking everywhere. We can’t have that in a majority of America, but we can have it in Savannah. Thankfully we have new urbanism in Savannah thanks to Oglethorpe and we luckily stuck to it in most places. But as the city grew, we started building for cars, as most of America did. Take a look at the Savannah Mall. Did you know the mall’s property is about the size of the landmark historic district downtown?
MH: Yeah, it’s nearly the same size yet doesn’t have anywhere near the same amount of economic activity as downtown does.
SM: What other problems did the project find?
MH: Well they also took a look at Waters Avenue. A lot has been proposed about fixing and restoring Waters, yet very little has been done.
SM: Why so?
MH: The city codes discourage the building of classic, four-story brick houses and carriage houses downtown. Instead, they encourage the building of malls, like Savannah Mall. So the project took a look at Waters Avenue, from Victory to Wheaton.. and Waters to East Broad. Essentially there’s a lack of greenery, the lack of parking spaces. It’s historically a legacy of racism. The people that lived there were mushed together and given very little amenities. So [the planners] said, “What if we did some landscaping? What if we continued the palm trees from Victory all the way down Waters? Perhaps we could raise the medians and extend the greenery.” If we tied these areas with two different income scales together—including Savannah Arts Academy, the East Broad Street School, and Spencer Elementary—with new urban design, it would right some of the wrongs we have done to racism. There were ten different action plans for the Waters Avenue corridor that you can see if you go to the CNU website.
SM: Is it actually possible to accomplish these projects?
MH: Absolutely! If we want Waters Avenue to come back, we have to change the codes, which will allow commercial businesses to come back.
SM: Will that be difficult?
MH: Not really. If you can get a city government official on board, it can get changed. A couple aldermen just need to decide this project is important and we can make it happen. Thankfully, Alderman Tony Thomas is totally enthused about the Southside project. Bill Durance, Alderman for the second district, has been to two different CNUs and he is all over it, too. It doesn’t cost anything to change things like parking codes, either. Building a horseshoe-shaped park, now that will cost, obviously, but we can decide next year and start acquiring the property and the project can start five years from now.
SM: Your focus is on historic preservation and home design, but you are obviously very passionate about this. Why?
MH: I love Savannah. I want to see the best for it. We are still at half of the historic density of residents. Downtown emptied out after World War II and we are slowly gaining those people back, but it’s predominantly vacation rentals. I love tourists, but I want to see more residents and homeowners downtown. As part of the Board of Downtown Neighbors Association, it’s disparaging to see where there once were homeowners who would water your plants or feed your cat while you were out of town, are now vacation rentals. I want to have those neighbors back who used to be bartenders and lawyers. I want to see all income levels being represented in the downtown district.
To learn more about the Congress for New Urbanism, visit their website at cnu.org.
To learn more about Matthew Hallett and HALLETT & Co., visit his website at hallettco.com.