SAVANNAH, Ga. -- There is a riverwalk to nowhere east of the Savannah Riverfront Marriott that nature is trying to reclaim.
Weeds grow through the cracks. Puddles linger in place after a heavy rain. And the wakes of passing boats have broken apart floating docks that rock with each passing wave.
The riverwalk extension was completed about two years ago as a gateway to what was to become an extension of the Historic District, complete with a mixture of parks, homes and businesses.
That vision has been put on hold due to the economic downturn. Streets meant for tourists, residents and workers are hidden behind waist-high weeds and bushes.
The current owners of the Savannah River Landing property, MMA Capital, now include lenders for the project. Plus, MMA Capital has a lawsuit against the original owner, ALR Oglethorpe LLC, claiming the developer failed to live up to a settlement agreement reached when the property was facing foreclosure.
MMA Capital is seeking almost $4.7 million in damages from ALR. About half of that is to cover missed payments reached as part of the settlement agreement. The rest is being sought to cover the completion of about $2.3 million in infrastructure repairs and road construction needed at the Savannah River Landing site.
A 2009 inspection report by Thomas & Hutton Engineering found issues with the sewer lines, curbs, gutters, manhole covers and inlets that still needed to be addressed.
The findings were part of a normal process for a city project, said Sam McCachern, Thomas & Hutton president.
“That generates a punch list that needs to be done to complete the project,” McCachern said.
The total infrastructure investment for the project was between $80 million and $100 million, he said.
Court documents indicate the new owner may not be planning to develop the property as it was originally envisioned.
In response to a request for a $2.3 million payment in January, attorney David Lotz, who represented ALR, said the company is not responsible for sewer work that may not be needed due to the potential modification of the property’s proposed use.
“It is our understanding that, in prior conversations between ALR and Purchaser, Purchaser representatives indicated that the site would not be utilized in the current configuration,” Lotz said.
Representatives from ALR and MMA could not be reached for comment.
In 2011, the city tried to collect performance bonds for the project to get the infrastructure repairs and construction completed. Liberty Mutual Insurance, however, has refused to pay on the basis that the property’s ownership has switched hands, city officials said.
The city considered taking Liberty Mutual to court, and would have a strong case, but is trying to resolve the matter without going before a judge, said City Attorney Brooks Stillwell.
The infrastructure repairs are not a big concern to the city because it is a private development that will ultimately be addressed by investors, said city spokesman Bret Bell.
The city is trying to encourage that investment by improving street access as part of a road improvement project along President Street and General McIntosh Boulevard, which is mainly being planned to alleviate flooding problems in the area, Bell said.
“We are not going to accept it until they make those repairs,” Bell said.
Acting Assistant City Manager Dick Evans recently presented a plan to the council to issue additional bonds to help pay for the road improvements, the estimated cost of which now exceeds initial projections. That request was put on hold after the proposals did not meet certain requirements and the project had to be rebid.
Alderman Tony Thomas said the city does not need to invest more money in a site that may not ever develop as intended.
With the infrastructure problems at Savannah River Landing and the lack of access to the riverwalk, in addition to the condition of the docks, the projects amount to a “black hole” sucking up taxpayer funds, Thomas said.
“Before I vote on spending more money at that site, I want to see what our long-term plan is over there,” he said.
While development of the Savannah River Landing site remains stalled, the extended riverwalk meant to serve it sits mostly unused.
Other than a lone fisherman, the riverwalk was devoid of people last week.
Bell said a gate that blocked access to the riverwalk was recently removed, but city officials still worry about the public accessing it because it is so remote and lacks lighting.
Issues regarding conditions and access have been on the city’s radar since at least last fall, according to a September memo from then-City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney.
In the memo, Small-Toney said repair to the damaged docks was underway and city staff was working with the Coast Guard and Georgia Department of Natural resources to establish a “no wake zone” to help prevent damage to the docks in the future.
In addition, an agreement with Marriott to maintain the docks was also being considered. Those plans are still being worked out, Bell said Thursday.
The other issues there are merely cosmetic, Bell said. The weeds have sprung up because there is no foot traffic and gaps between the bulkhead and pier are supposed to be there to absorb any shifting, he said.
“That is rock solid area,” Bell said.
In February, City Manager Stephanie Cutter sent Thomas a memo addressing concerns he had regarding the condition of the riverwalk. Cutter said engineers hired by the city had ensured the stability of the structure following repairs and improvements made after the failure of a section in 2011.
About $14 million has been spent on the riverwalk, including about $3.8 million in repairs that were covered by the project designer’s insurance company.
The state contributed $8 million toward the structure’s construction, while the federal government paid another million. The city contributed the remaining million and will be responsible for paying for the repairs to the docks, Bell said.
Access to the extended riverwalk is problematic.
Road access has not been completed, and there is no way to walk from the existing riverwalk without trespassing on the Marriott’s property.
According to Small-Toney’s memo, the hotel has expressed some interest in a connection similar to the one on the west side of the property, but the city would have to acquire a long-term lease or permanent easement for its construction.
The construction of a public riverwalk in front of the Marriott’s property has also been included in the list of projects the city manager has suggested for the next sales tax referendum. About $4.1 million would be needed to extend the riverwalk from where it ends at the Lincoln Street ramp.