Broughton Street


Skeptics will object to my use of Savannah as a role model for Tulsa. Savannah, after all, was founded in the 1730s, the first city in the colony of Georgia. It's renowned for its beautifully restored historic district, full of buildings which were around long before the railroad came to Tulsa.

All this is true, but one of the most interesting streets in the historic district is full of buildings that were built in the first decades of the 20th century about the same time, and in the same character, as those once lining Tulsa's Main Street. Broughton Street is a major east-west thoroughfare through Savannah's historic downtown, a commercial street of buildings from one to four stories high, mostly two or three stories. Every building has a storefront on the first floor, nearly all of them with an active business. The continuity of buildings is a major reason that the street is a pleasant place to be at any hour -- the street as a whole seems intact, not a shattered remnant.

Like every other American Main Street, Broughton Street went through a long decline as the population moved to the suburbs and the retailers followed. Remaining retailers tried to bring customers back by refacing their classic turn-of-the-century buildings with "modern" metal cladding. But unlike the Main Streets in most other medium-sized cities, Savannah did not indulge in an orgy of government-funded demolition in the name of "renewal". The buildings remained, albeit neglected and underutilized, and there remained eight or nine blocks lined on both sides with a nearly continuous row of storefront buildings, a tremendous resource to be rediscovered.

The rediscovery began to happen in the '90s, just one phase of a long-term commitment from city government and the private sector to restoration of Savannah's historic district. One of the ways city government is helping is with a facade rehabilitation revolving fund. A building owner or tenant (with the owner's permission) can borrow from $12,000 to $30,000 at low interest over eight years to pay for restoring the building's facade to its historic condition. Over the 10 years of the program, $600,000 in public investment has leveraged $6.5 million in private investment and the rehabilitation of 28 buildings. (Click the previous link to look at a couple of examples and see program details.) The city also offers sprinkler cost assistance loans to encourage the redevelopment of the upper stories of these buildings. More and more upper stories have been converted into loft condos, selling for over $100 per square foot.

Broughton storefronts have filled with restaurants -- on this trip so far, we've had lunch at Nita's Place, a famous soul food cafe that relocated to Broughton a couple of years ago, and dinner at the Casbah, a Moroccan restaurant featuring belly dancing. There are bars and clubs, clothing stores, and the Gap has arrived, which may herald the return of national retailers to the street.

The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) restored an 1947 art moderne movie theatre as their school auditorium and performance hall, now called Trustees Theatre. (Can you imagine if some Tulsan had had the vision to reuse one of our glorious downtown movie palaces as a concert hall?) Across the street, an 85,000 square foot department store, built in the 1890s, is now the college library.

There are still a few gaps in the streetscape ripe for infill development. Savannah has rules (scroll down to "Commercial Design Standards") to ensure that new development is consistent with the historic character of the street, thus protecting the investment made by those who have restored older buildings.

Tulsa can't bring back our Main Street as it was, but we can protect our successful historic commercial districts, like Brookside and Cherry Street, and where old commercial buildings still exist, the public and private sectors can take steps to encourage their preservation and renovation. Sadly, demolition continues to be the preferred approach to redevelopment, and there is a sense of resignation when a historic building is demolished.

Here in Savannah, resignation was replaced with outrage back in the '50s, when the city market, a Romanesque structure, was demolished for a hideous parking garage, and when historic 18th and early 19th century homes were being torn down for brick to be used in new suburban homes. Private resources were marshalled to purchase and preserve endangered properties, and laws were changed to provide protection for historic buildings. Today the public and private consensus supports rehabilitation and adaptive reuse and sees demolition as a last resort rarely required.

Tulsa has historic preservation zoning, but by all accounts homeowners, developers, and preservationists are all dissatisfied with the way the system works. There is no protection at all for historic commercial buildings in Tulsa. When will Tulsa reach the tipping point?

UPDATE: Added link above to Savannah zoning regulation governing the Historic District. The entire Savannah zoning code can be found here.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on October 20, 2003 10:33 PM.

Savannah nightlife, and no arena in sight was the previous entry in this blog.

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