In Savannah, Where Change Is Slow, an Art District Is Catching On

Article in the The New York Times by Alison Gregor. SAVANNAH, Ga. — The idea of a vanguard arts district may seem counterintuitive in this slow-paced city of courtly manners and stately architecture, but after almost two decades, an emerging area called the Starland District may finally be hitting its stride. Originally envisioned in 1998 by two graduates of the Savannah College of Art and Design, the Starland District is a collection of art studios, small offices, galleries, cafes and retail shops loosely assembled around Bull Street south of Savannah’s historic downtown and Forsyth Park. At its center is the former Starland Dairy, two city blocks with crumbling historic buildings bought in 2000 by the district’s founders, John Deaderick and Greg Jacobs. They created retail shops, offices and residential condos on a portion of the former dairy site, while the rest remained undeveloped because of a lack of financing. About 2005, the area’s growth attracted Jamestown Properties, an acquisition and management company based in Atlanta, which planned to invest in vacant properties and develop a condo project in a former ice factory on Victory Drive at the southern end of the Starland District.   The global financial crisis of 2008 intervened, however. Jamestown eventually turned the roughly 125,000-square-foot project into dormitory housing for about 350 students, along with commercial space for the Florence restaurant, owned by the Georgia restaurateur and chef Hugh Acheson. Since opening last year, the dorm, One West Victory, and the Florence have added much-needed foot traffic and vibrancy to the area, Starland business owners said. “People have stopped thinking about Starland as a place that’s going to happen, but as one that’s happening as we speak,” said Mr. Deaderick, who lives in the district and owns the Starland Cafe. Mr. Jacobs also lives in the Starland District, which he said was an eclectic neighborhood unlike anywhere else in Savannah that served as an incubator for businesses. “Bigger cities can support many emerging neighborhoods like this, but in Savannah, the Starland District really filled a great need,” he said.   In the first half of the 20th century, the area around the Starland Dairy was a prime business district and the location of an early supermarket, but businesses were closed and homes abandoned starting in the 1950s in the era of white flight, Mr. Deaderick said. Initial efforts to revive the district revolved around restoring decaying Victorian homes, while also converting neglected buildings into art studio space and offices for start-up companies. Coaxing businesses that need more foot traffic, such as boutique shops and restaurants, into the area has taken longer. One early Starland business was the Back in the Day Bakery, which opened in 2001 and this year gained national acclaim as a James Beard Foundation semifinalist for outstanding baker. The bakery, which is now also a destination for tourists, leased the space for many years until the owners bought the building on the old Starland Dairy site almost three years ago, said Cheryl Day, a co-owner with her husband, Griff Day. Ms. Day said that when the bakery initially opened, patrons used to call from their cars to order baked goods, frightened by the derelict area’s reputation for crime. “We have huge windows, and we’d say, ‘We see you. It’s safe, and you can come in,’ ” Ms. Day said. “The neighborhood was kind of rough around the edges at the time.” Numerous factors, among them issues of perceived gentrification of the area as well as a lack of institutional financing for development, have slowed efforts to revitalize the district, Mr. Jacobs said. Businesses have come and gone, but in the last year “people are finally starting to get a feel for what the neighborhood needs,” including new vintage shops, art galleries and restaurants, Ms. Day said. Mr. Jacobs said that spaces that had been vacant for longer than he’s been involved with the district now have businesses moving into them. “More importantly, the area is developing its own identity, which is really thrilling to see,” he said. An art supply store, Starlandia, opened in late May, filling a niche in the district, which has two Savannah College of Art and Design academic buildings and several student dorms nearby. Starlandia’s owner, Clinton Edminster, is also the founder and executive director of Art Rise Savannah, a nonprofit organization that operates an art gallery in the old dairy and organizes the First Friday Art March, a monthly event that has helped increase awareness of the district. With new restaurants and bars looking for space in the district, “a major turning point is going to be activating the nighttime spaces,” Mr. Edminster said. “And I feel like the atmosphere is prime to develop a Starland business alliance.” Ele Tran, the owner of six Savannah restaurants, will open a new one, the Vault Kitchen & Market, in a former bank building in the Starland District this fall. Ms. Tran says she discovered the building two years ago because her sister lives in the district. “It’s just a beautiful area with all these up-and-coming young professionals living there, and a lot of students and artsy people,” she said. The restaurant, which will serve classic Asian and Laotian fusion cuisine, will offer lunch and dinner while making use of the former bank’s drive-through, she said. About 10,000 square feet of unrestored space in the former Starland Dairy is also being developed into a market for locally sourced food, similar to the East End Market in Orlando, Fla., and may eventually offer an urban beer garden, said Nathan Fuller of Manhattan, a construction manager who owns the space with his wife, Maggie Consor Fuller. “We’d like it to be an artisanal food-focused market where you can see the products being made, whether it’s a butcher, cheesemaker, ice-cream maker or a brewery, since my wife’s background is in brewing science,” said Mr. Fuller, who has family ties to Savannah. He said the market should open in roughly two years. Savannah can be slow to change; even a few natives interviewed by a reporter were not familiar with the Starland District. Even given the district’s low profile, however, the central location of the district makes it a logical place for business expansion, said Rhett Mouchet, an associate commercial broker with Judge Realty, who has worked in Savannah real estate for 40 years. “We still have some crime issues in that particular area occasionally, and it still has some challenges to go, but it has rapidly become an expansion area,” he said. The Savannah historic district’s lack of office space, parking and reasonably priced retail space has begun pushing some smaller businesses to other locations, and retail rents in Starland can be less than half the roughly $20 to $35 a square foot typically sought in the historic district, which has a low retail vacancy rate of 4 to 5 percent, he said. “In commercial development, you generally have an anchor, and it fills in between anchor locations,” Mr. Mouchet said. “With One West Victory, there’s lot of development headed out that way. It really pushes the boundary further.”  

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Source: The New York Times]]>

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