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Friday, October 23, 2009 - 12:39pm

Preservationists Prepare for Recession's End

Savannah is on the verge of approving new construction regulations for its famed Historic District, the nation's largest and a big economic driver because of tourism.

The rule-making process began two years ago when preservationists worried that a steady stream of new hotels and condominiums would overwhelm smaller homes.

The regulations specify how large buildings -- over 9,000 square feet -- should be built -- their height, construction materials and appearance -- in the downtown core.

Preservationists say, the regulations are coming just in time. Economists believe the recession is ending. And with that will come an eventual pick-up in construction.

"We'll know how well we did once we come out of this recession and construction begins again and the MPC starts seeing petitions," says Daniel Carey, President of the Historic Savannah Foundation, which defends traditional building styles.

The MPC or Metropolitan Planning Commission approves the designs for all new construction projects in the Historic District. In general, new construction must fit in with the historic surroundings. The lengthy regulations have knotty details.

"This may have been the ideal time to do the revisions because we've had a 'time out' from the construction boom," Carey says. "[The new rules] aren't perfect but they're a vast improvement over the previous ones because they're more clear."

Developers are also giving the new rules their qualified approval. At the height of the boom, some projects were delayed by what developers saw as unclear rules.

"The rules said a five story building was 'permitted' but then you'd find out that it only meant 'possible,'" said Patrick Shay, a local architect and politician, about the old regulations. "The idea of introducting more predictability with trade-offs so we can have quality urban development and historic preservation is always a good idea."

The MPC approved the new rules this week after 18 months of public discussion. They now go before City Council, which has final say in the matter. The Council is widely expected to approve the new regulations.

Still, how soon the new rules will be tested is an open question. The economy has cooled the heated battles over historic preservation that once dominated the MPC. And it's not at all certain the market will return.

"When construction does pick up, it's not going to go back to the way it was two years ago," says Shay. "This isn't going to be a recovery, but a complete transformation of the economy."

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