Eastern Wharf Brings New Opportunities to Savannah
A True Partnership: Eastern Wharf Mixed-Use Development Adds to Savannah Riverfront While Keeping True to the City’s Historic Charm
In the Southern city best known for its gracious hospitality and historic squares, Savannah will soon enjoy more places to live, dine, play, and splash back a glass of wine, as the $1 billion mixed-use development Eastern Wharf comes to life along a choice riverfront location.
“We saw a great opportunity,” says Andrew Allman, Director of Development Services with Regent Partners in Atlanta, one of Eastern Wharf’s developers. “It’s not often you get 55 acres with 2,000 feet of riverfront, adjacent to a historic downtown.”
Regent Partners and Mariner Group of Atlanta teamed up to develop Eastern Wharf, with financial partner ELV Associates, also with offices in Atlanta. The team began looking at the site in fall of 2016. They came together in September 2017, after city approval of their plan, to purchase the property and to build what is considered a large expansion of the historic city. The team paid more than $30 million for the land.
The developers sold off 11 acres on the northeast corner of the site for $11 million to Patrick Mallow Communities of Atlanta to develop single-family, multi-level, attached luxury townhomes, priced from the $600,000s to the $4 millions, called Upper East River. The brick-clad homes will share Savannah’s architectural style.
Regent and Mariner hired Cooper Carry of Atlanta to design the Eastern Wharf master plan, Thomas & Hutton of Savannah for civil, and Site Solutions of Atlanta for landscape design.
Challenges to Bring Project to Life
City founder James Edward Oglethorpe laid out a master plan for Savannah in 1733. He had platted the Eastern Wharf area but it was never built out. Many years back, it had served as a site for agricultural and industrial pursuits. The site contained rice farms in the 1700s.
Ambling Land and Resort of Valdosta, Georgia, had planned to build the mixed-use Savannah River Landing on the site back in 2007, investing about $60 million in purchasing the land, creating a master plan, and adding surcharge materials, and road and utility infrastructure, which had not been accepted by the city and was known to have deficiencies, reports Julie McLean, Savannah Development Services.
The city created a Tax Allocation District for the property, which would fund public improvements for the development, such as elevating the road in front of the property, since it was prone to flooding in high tide and widening a canal to the east of the property, McLean explains. The city took out bonds to pay for the improvements, which would be repaid by taxes paid by the new development’s property owners.
“From the city’s perspective, it has been long in the plans to have a vibrant development in that location,” McLean says.
During the Great Recession, Ambling went bankrupt and abandoned the property. PSP Investments of Canada took ownership.
The large parcel, adjacent to downtown, sat vacant for a number of years. Eastern Wharf was the last riverfront property available for residential development. The development’s name pays homage to the city’s Eastern Wharves District, which fueled economic progress in the city back in the 1800s.
“It’s been a great relationship,” Allman says. “There has been a true partnership with the city.”
Allman and colleagues met with the city bi-weekly for a couple of years to work out the development agreement, parking, and park space.
“A public-private venture can work effectively and positively,” Allman says. “Our interests continue to be aligned.”
Sean Brandon, Savannah’s Director of Mobility and Parking, adds, “This has been one of the better public-private collaborations we have done. The developer has been pretty good to work with.”
Therefore the city looked forward to revenue to pay those bonds. Additionally, the vacant site had become an eyesore.
Although near the historic district, Eastern Wharf is not in it, and therefore, the developers have more freedom with design elements. The developers plan to build out the project in multiple phases.
“We tried when possible to keep the existing grid, similar to the historic area,” Allman says. “While we plan on providing a new fresh offering to the city, we want to play off of the historic downtown architecture.”
Construction of First Phase
The first $225 million phase includes more than 300 studio, one- and two-bedroom luxury apartments in Riverworks, a six-level, multi-family project wrapped around and above an 1,100-space parking deck, with public and residential parking; 80,000 square feet of office space; a 193-room boutique hotel; 30,000 square feet of shops and restaurants; and a 3-acre riverfront community park and public squares, in keeping with the city’s original plan; and an extension of the city’s famed river walk. People will be able to walk to and from the historic district. The 3-acre riverfront park is designed to serve as an outdoor event space programmed with music, fitness offerings, events, and art installments.
“We are giving up some river frontage, but we think, overall, the city and the development are better off having the public park for locals and visitors to come enjoy a beautifully activated green space along the waterfront,” Allman says. “The partnership with the city has been great when dealing with infrastructure, public spaces, and parking needs for the city.”
Choate Construction of Savannah began construction on Riverworks, the apartments, parking and retail, in fall 2018, with occupancy expected this summer. Cooper Carry designed the building.
Balfour Beatty of Atlanta has started building the Thompson Hotels, a Hyatt brand. Smallwood of Atlanta designed the hotel, which will have meeting rooms, restaurants, bars and a terrace pool. Completion is expected in spring 2021.
Both structures and the townhomes are built on deep foundations, reaching down 70 feet. Most of the site was brought up to above the flood elevation. There is an 80-foot set back from the river to avoid putting excessive loads on the bulkhead. The soil was sandy for about 10 feet, but then it contains muck, from years of silt washing up.
The four levels of rental units are wood construction and sit atop a three-level, concrete podium for the parking deck and retail and restaurant space.
Multiple materials clad the parking and apartment building. Those include brick, stone, EFIS, and glass – changing throughout to appear as different structures.
“That was a challenge, breaking the façade up, so it wouldn’t appear to be one large structure,” Allman says. “We think the design team did a good job of breaking up the elevations to mimic the natural variations found in an organically grown downtown area.”
The city will own 700-spaces of the parking deck and operate a downtown shuttle at the lobby doorstep. Savannah paid $33 million for those spaces to ease the city’s downtown parking shortage. The city cannot build large parking facilities in the historic district, due to a lack of land and the need to sacrifice historic buildings.
By the time the entire project is built out, in five or more years, Eastern Wharf should have more than 1 million square feet, with about 1,500 residential units, 450 hotel rooms and 400,000 square feet of office space. Phase two also will include another 700-space municipal parking deck.
“This project was a great opportunity to develop a large parcel adjacent to downtown,” Allman says. “We view it as a natural extension of the historic grid. To be able to build an extension of a historic town, such as Savannah, is a great opportunity. We are excited about this development.”
An Unexpected Event
A fire raged through the Riverworks portion of the Eastern Wharf development on February 27, 2020. The Savannah Fire Department had more than 100 firefighters on site, plus off-duty firefighters and mutual aide partners.
“It was a major event, but thank goodness no one was injured,” says Karen Guinn, Spokesperson for Eastern Wharf.
More than 100 construction workers were on site when the fire broke out. One of them noted smoke and called 911, says Fred Anderson, Chief Fire Investigator with Savannah Fire during a post-blaze press conference.
Guinn said the extent of damage was not known at press time, as fire crews remained on site more than 24 hours after the fire started, putting out hot spots and smoldering areas. The three-alarm fire began on the upper levels of the building.
“The building collapsed into itself, which makes it difficult to get it extinguished,” says Derik Minard, Fire Chief with Savannah Fire during the press conference. He described it as a mega structure, with strong winds from the west fueling the fire.
The fire department used a fire boat to pump river water onto the blaze. Additionally, the city water department increased pressure to the hydrants surrounding the structure. The chief said water was not a problem. Minard adds the firefighters also were able to work with officials from Choate Construction to use the building’s fire suppression system to battle the fire.
A crane was in the middle of the fire, Minard adds. Choate’s engineer will assess any damage and determine how to safely remove it.
Guinn praised the proactive coordination between the Choate project team and local first responders, particularly Savannah Fire, with saving lives and preventing what could have been a much larger loss.
“Choate is one of a limited number of construction companies with an OSHA Strategic Partnership Program,” Guinn says. “Multiple evacuation drills have occurred on site as well as regular visits and reviews by the City of Savannah Fire Department. The proactive visits paid off, as the Savannah Fire Department knew where to go to hook up to our standpipes and to quickly set up to fight the fire. Even when meeting with city officials yesterday, they were praising the team for their efforts and commenting how they have not been on many job sites that are that thorough with safety protocols and drills.”
The fire was contained to the Riverworks apartment, retail, and parking structure. Minard says the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the State Fire Marshal’s Office will assist the department in determining the cause of the fire.
“The team will definitely rebuild and construction on other parts of the project will continue,” Guinn says.
Additional Savannah Activity
Last year, the city set an all time record for value of new building permits at more than $707 million, up from 2016 of $574 million.
On the western side of the historic district, the city of Savannah is building a $165 million arena in the 55-acre Canal District, expected to open in 2022. Also on the west side, the Kessler Collection of Orlando, Florida, is working on the $500 million, 5-acre entertainment and hotel area called Plant Riverside District in and near an old Georgia power plant. It is scheduled to open this month.