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VIDEO: Momentum Building for Savannah's Divisive I-16 Flyover to Be Demolished

Wed June 26, 2024 - Southeast Edition #14
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Richard Shinhoster has long believed Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Savannah, Ga., will be reborn.

Decades after he closed his first business on the western edge of the Georgia coastal city's National Historic Landmark District, he returned to the same building with optimism in the early 2000s.

Now with a push from local elected officials and long-awaited federal support, Shinhoster and others hope the city will be able to remove a literal barrier to revitalizing the neighborhood.

"Some revitalization has already taken place in spurts for a few years," he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "However, the flyover always was an area of demarcation."

The flyover in question is part of the elevated terminus of Interstate 16, completed in the late 1960s to connect Savannah to Macon. Drivers enter the highway via a ramp on MLK Jr. Boulevard and exit onto Montgomery Street in the heart of the historic district.

While much of downtown has flourished in recent years, neighborhoods near the flyover have lagged, the Atlanta news source noted June 25. That includes west Savannah, which once was the center of the city's Black business community, and where Shinhoster grew up and established a shop.

He has another personal connection to the flyover as it is officially named the Earl T. Shinhoster Interchange in memory of his brother, a civil rights leader who died in 2000.

Still, the local business owner, along with other area residents, want it gone.

Discussions about removing the flyover, restoring the parts of the street grid it disrupted, and redeveloping the land date back to at least the 1990s.

Those calls increased after the city overhauled another nearby highway interchange as part of the creation of the Canal District, an area surrounding the newly opened Enmarket Arena. That revamped interchange provides easy access to Savannah's sports and entertainment venue to the west and the Historic District to the east, making the flyover less necessary.

The Journal-Constitution reported that city leaders took a significant step toward the flyover's removal in December when they approved an agreement with the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) for preliminary engineering.

In March, Georgia's two Democratic U.S. senators, Raphael Warnock and John Ossoff, said money for the project is included in a federal infrastructure bill.

Warnock was raised at Kayton Homes, a public housing community south of the flyover.

"I grew up in Savannah, in the shadow of the I-16 flyover, and I know what removing it would mean for folks in the neighborhood," he said in a statement.

When Warnock was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2021 "and was very supportive of this project, we thought, ‘OK, this is the opportunity to see if we can get some federal assistance and federal pressure to make this happen,'" explained Ellen Harris of Ethos Preservation, who co-chairs the flyover removal coalition.

Razing the overpass will not happen overnight, though, as the planning process alone will take three to four years, according to Savannah municipal officials.

Flyover Fallout

There is currently a parking lot next to Diaspora Marketplace, the store Shinhoster opened almost 25 years ago at the corner of MLK and Gaston streets. He said a Black movie theater was there in the days before the flyover was built. Other Black- and immigrant-owned businesses thrived in the corridor, serving a diverse customer base who lived and worked in neighborhoods like Frogtown, Currietown, Cuyler-Brownsville and Carver Village.

But many residents were poor and property values were low. When the government was looking to secure land for the interstate as part of midcentury urban renewal programs, residents and businesses were displaced, and the old Union Station, considered an architectural treasure, was demolished in 1963.

"I think it's no accident that I-16 comes into the city where it does because that's where the land was the cheapest," said Harris. "Maybe there wasn't an ill intention there, maybe that was just a strategic economic decision, but it certainly had the most negative effect on the most vulnerable people."

Shinhoster said he opened a record store at MLK (then called West Broad Street) and Gaston around the time I-16 was completed, but by the early 1970s he had to close it down.

"Our business thrived for the first two to three years, and then we began to notice that the neighborhoods were changing and the people that were our customers were no longer living within walking distance to us," he explained a reporter from the Atlanta newspaper. "Many of the people were going out to the mall and to the southside."

The MLK/Montgomery Street corridor was described in a 2012 Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission study as a "street network that caters to high-speed automobile traffic, is hostile to pedestrians and bicyclists, and lacks connectivity in both the east-west and north-south directions."

In addition to cutting off communities from downtown, according to the study, the flyover disrupted one of the city's best-known features: the historic grid pattern introduced by the Georgia colony's founder, Gen. James Oglethorpe, in the 1700s.

The planning commission study's conclusion recommended removing the flyover and exit ramps at MLK and Montgomery.

In 2015, an Interchange Modification Report (IMR) found that removing the flyover would improve safety and traffic flow into downtown Savannah because "more than enough Interstate access is available within this corridor," with five nearby access points.

The Federal Highway Administration requires an IMR before changes can be made to the interstate system, but the report was not forwarded by GDOT, again stalling efforts, according to critics of the flyover.

‘Everything Is In Alignment Now'

In 2021, Historic Savannah Foundation President Susan Adler explored improving the look of the city's downtown entryways and helped broaden the removal push.

The coalition later made a presentation to the city council in early 2022, and the next year, Savannah officials completed an application for a $1.8 million grant in the federal infrastructure bill. A separate federal grant earmarks about $700,000 for engineering, the Journal-Constitution noted.

Bridget Lidy, the city's director of planning and urban design, said the planning to remove the flyover will include conceptual design, environmental studies, public outreach and equitable redevelopment.

"It seems as though everything is in alignment now," Lidy explained.

Earlier studies projected that removing the flyover would reclaim about 8 acres of developable land. Proponents have suggested it be used for affordable housing, business development and public space.

Shinhoster believes affordable housing is key to reestablishing a community in the corridor because "it would allow people [to] not only work in this area but live in the area, as it was when it was West Broad Street."

He also wants green space to be part of the redevelopment — and to have it named for Earl Shinhoster, his deceased brother and civil rights leader.

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