“Righting a Wrong” in Savannah, GA: Community Plans to Remove I-16 Flyover for Community Beautification
March 21, 2024
Image credit: Richard Burkhart, Savannah Morning News

In a significant win for the community character and scenic beauty of Savannah, GA, the city was recently awarded a substantial grant to plan the removal of the Interstate 16 flyover in downtown Savannah. This development marks a crucial step in the city’s ongoing efforts to enhance its urban landscape and foster community revitalization.

The $1.8 million grant, awarded through the federal Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods Grant program, stands as a testament to Savannah’s commitment to thoughtful urban design and restoration. With an additional $450,000 in local matching funds, totaling $2.25 million, the planning phase of this ambitious project is set to commence, spearheaded by the dedicated efforts of organizations like Scenic Chatham, a local affiliate of Scenic America.

“Partnerships and persistence are everything!” said Ardis Wood, chair of Scenic Chatham. “We brought together all of these movers and shakers including the Historic Savannah Foundation, Savannah Tree Foundation, Savannah Development and Renewal Authority, as well as local politicians, urban planners, architects, philanthropists, as well as city staff.” Wood also mentioned the direct involvement of the African American community in Savannah, whose old neighborhood was destroyed to accommodate the construction of the I-16 overpass.

“We’re fortunate with this opportunity to have the planning money in order to do it right,” remarked Bridget Lidy, Savannah’s director of planning and urban design, underscoring the significance of meticulous planning in achieving the desired outcomes of this endeavor.

The removal of the I-16 flyover holds profound implications beyond mere infrastructural change. City leaders and advocates alike view it as a chance to rectify the injustices inflicted by midcentury Urban Renewal projects, while also breathing new life into communities along the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard corridor. Mayor Van Johnson aptly noted, “It creates the opportunity to do things on that land—land that is public space, and we can build a sense of community there.”

The support for this initiative extends beyond local leadership, with U.S. Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Savannah native, advocating passionately for its realization. Reflecting on his personal connection to the affected corridor, Warnock emphasized the project’s significance in reconnecting communities and fostering social cohesion.

As the planning phase unfolds, several key components will guide the process, including conceptual design, community outreach, environmental studies, and equitable redevelopment planning. These critical steps are estimated to span three to four years, paving the way for the eventual removal of the flyover and the transformation of approximately 8 acres of downtown Savannah.

Community engagement will be at the forefront of this endeavor, with the city committing to extensive outreach efforts to solicit public input and ensure diverse voices are heard. Traditional avenues such as public meetings will be complemented by innovative approaches, including pop-up events, to encourage widespread participation.

Moreover, a cultural landscape assessment will honor the area’s rich history, documenting lost resources and preserving the legacy of businesses that once thrived in the vicinity. This holistic approach underscores Savannah’s reverence for its heritage and its dedication to preserving the city’s identity amidst modernization efforts.

The removal of the I-16 flyover has long been a priority for downtown revitalization, with advocacy groups and stakeholders championing the cause for years. Sue Adler, President of the Historic Savannah Foundation, hailed the grant as an opportunity to “re-write history by ‘righting a wrong'” and revitalize a lost neighborhood, echoing the sentiments of countless individuals invested in Savannah’s future.

As Savannah embarks on this transformative journey, guided by principles of community empowerment and scenic conservation, it stands poised to emerge as a beacon of urban excellence and inclusive development. With the unwavering support of organizations like Scenic Chatham and the collective determination of its residents, Savannah paves the way for a more vibrant, equitable, and picturesque future.