SavannahCEO: City Council Gives Kessler Big Thumbs-Up

By Clark Byron, as published in Savannah CEO on May 22, 2014

Mega-hotel developer Richard C. Kessler requested last Thursday to have the City Council approve a text amendment to an existing height restriction ordinance that limits the height of new structures in Savannah’s Historic District.

Kessler, president of the Kessler Corporation, is building a $200 million luxury hotel, restaurant and retail complex on the far west end of River Street, an area that Mayor Edna B. Jackson referred to as “blighted.”

The multi-structure campus, consisting of five buildings on four and one half acres, is centered on the old Georgia Power Plant that sits near the water’s edge of the Savannah River at River Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Kessler bought the property in 2012.

Kessler’s attorney, Harold B. Yellin, a partner at HunterMaclean Attorneys in Savannah, first brought the change request to the Chatham County – Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission on March 11 of this year, requesting the ordinance text and the Historic District Site Map be amended to allow for taller structures in the northwestern quadrant of River Street.

Kessler wants to build structures on the site that are taller than are currently permitted. Presently, the ordinance limits buildings on the riverfront to stand no taller than three stories above River Street and two stories above Bay Street. Kessler wants to extend his original building designs, raising the two principal buildings on the site to four and six stories respectively, elevating the six-story structure to a maximum height of three stories above Bay Street, and the shorter to four stories above River Street and one story above Bay Street. The additional stories would increase the total cubic footage of these two buildings by some 300 percent.

Yellin said these two buildings were to be built on lots where buildings of the same heights once stood, contending that it is not inconsistent with the actual history of the location. He also explained that when a developer is permitted build higher, the developer is not forced to cover the entire site with the footprint of the building. Building higher would allow the developer to leave a green space approximately 75 feet long to allow for open access to the riverfront; something that is extremely important to the MPC and the City.

At the March 11 MPC meeting, the MPC staff recommended the commission not approve Kessler’s original petition but rather, an alternative proposal that approves each building be one story shorter than requested. “Both proposals would require a text amendment,” said Yellin, pointing out that even the MPC staff recommendation was more than the current ordinance allows and would also require a text amendment.

When the staff recommendation came before the full commission, the commissioners disagreed, throwing out the staff’s compromise proposal and approving Kessler’s original request. However, that was just the first step for Yellin in accomplishing his goal of an amended height ordinance.

The next step was to present the matter as a zoning and ordinance change before the City Council. He did so at Thursday’s Council Meeting. Council heard more than two hours of testimony from Kessler’s group and his supporters, as well as a number of citizens opposing the plan. All voices in opposition made clear that they were very much in favor of the project but were opposed to changing the height restrictions because these buildings would obscure the view of the river from townhomes and condos on Bay Street; a view for which they said owners paid a premium to enjoy when they purchased these homes. Some who spoke in opposition wore large white and red campaign-style buttons that read “Remember the Hyatt,” a reference to the Hyatt Regency Hotel at the far east end of River Street that completely obscures the view of the river from that part of Bay Street.

“It’s possible to develop this site in a historically-sensitive way,” said Ellen Harris, historic preservation officer at MPC and leader of the team that recommended Kessler’s proposal be modified or denied.

District 2 Alderman, Mary Osborne, a vocal supporter of Kessler’s request, pointed out that the entire downtown skyline is higher on the west side and lower on the east side, suggesting that approving Kessler’s request would only be consistent with the rest of the downtown area.

District 5 Alderman, Dr. Estella Edwards Shabazz, also a vocal supporter of the request, said, “Approving this height amendment would add to the beauty of the gateway to the west side of River Street. I approve, and I can’t wait until it gets started.”

Former Chatham County Commission Chairman, Pete Liakakis, spoke briefly but passionately in favor of this amendment and urged Council to approve it now. But when it was suggested by several speakers that Council table the motion until the Savannah Historic District Review Board of Review has a chance to consider the matter – the third step in the amendment process – the most impassioned comments came from Robert James, president of Carver State Bank and chairman of the board at the Savannah Economic Development Authority. “Vote today!” said James. “This is 800 permanent jobs, all within walking distance of most neighborhoods, and you couldn’t have selected a better partner than Richard Kessler.”

District 4 Alderman, Mary Ellen Sprague, also concerned about the visual impact looking from Bay Street, spoke in opposition to the plan. “Mr. Kessler knew the rules when he bought the property,” said Sprague.

Shabazz made the final comments before making the motion for a vote. “I look at this city and I am concerned about the crime rate,” said Shabazz. “People often turn to crime when they don’t have what they need. We’re talking about 800 new jobs here, and creating jobs reduces crime. We cannot wait. We need to move forward.”

The motion passed 7-2.

The third step in the process for Kessler’s request now is to go before the Savannah Historic District Review Board of Review. If approved there, then it comes back to Council for final action which amends the zoning ordinance and the height map.

Kessler, a native of Rincon, Ga., now living in Orlando, Fla., has already developed two luxury hotels in Savannah: The Bohemian Hotel Savannah and the Mansion on Forsyth Park, in addition to eight other boutique and luxury hotels across the country. He has also developed several high-end residential properties.

In concert with the several redevelopment projects along Savannah’s waterfront, the Georgia Department of Transportation is about to embark on a $20 million project to widen existing routes on the west side to handle the increased traffic expected as a result from the progress planned for or already underway all along River Street.