Originally created 05/12/00

Parking lot will replace cottages



SAVANNAH - Backing away from the controversy it often attracts, Savannah's historic review board has chosen not to fight for two tiny historic cottages in an old, working-class neighborhood.

The issue: a petition to demolish two, attached four-room cottages at the edge of the city's Historic District.

The decrepit building in the Beach Institute neighborhood is listed on a city registry of valuable buildings in that 22-block area, home to immigrant and black manual laborers in the late 1800s.

But even though it's estimated to be at least 100 years old, it isn't included in a 1985 city registry of significant Historic District buildings. And so board members insisted they had no right to stop Bob Thomas from tearing it down.

"We don't have any legal right to hear this," board member Neil Dawson said.

Richard Mopper agreed, questioning whether the board should even discuss the situation.

Mr. Thomas said he mistakenly sent his demolition request to the board, assuming he needed its approval to tear down the cottage, which sits between his house and two other homes he owns.

Not all board members were against debating the issue. Some felt the building's exclusion was little more than an oversight; others were disturbed about what would replace the structure.

Mr. Thomas, who wants to clear the site for parking, said the lane's future would suffer if homeowners can't park near their homes.

"Would you spend a hundred grand to live there and then have to walk five minutes to get to your car?" Mr. Thomas said after the meeting. "If somebody buys a $150,000 house, they drive a $50,000 BMW, and they want to park it somewhere close."

Mark McDonald, director of the Historic Savannah Foundation, was disappointed with what he called the board's "legalistic approach" toward the issue, especially because the loophole on the building registry could be closed as early as next week.

He also disagreed with Mr. Thomas' belief that progress in the Beach Institute area could stagnate if there's not suburban-type parking to lure upper-class homeowners to the neighborhood. Savannah, he said, needs to learn that walking a few blocks between cars and homes is a fact of life in most cities.

But he's more adamant that parking woes shouldn't drive Beach Institute's future. It's the past that needs tending - preserve that, and the future won't be a problem, he said.

It might not be too late to save the cottages, even if Mr. Thomas is granted a regular demolition permit before the list is updated. Mr. Thomas offered the building to anyone who wanted to haul it away and put it on another site, and he said he'd sell the building and lot for the right price - something Mr. McDonald said the foundation would consider.

Savannah's city ordinance gives special protection to buildings listed as significant on a registry that was last updated in the mid-1980s. Demolition permits for those buildings must be approved by the historic review board. But buildings not on the list - like the Charlton Lane cottages - don't merit that treatment.

"Would you spend a hundred grand to live there and then have to walk five minutes to get to your car? If somebody buys a $150,000 house, they drive a $50,000 BMW and they want to park it somewhere close."- Bob Thomas, on his plans to tear down a pair of cottages in Savannah's Historic District