My Missed Obama-tunity

Clothes hung outside the original Fellwood development April 15, 1949

By: Martin Melaver

I’m a sucker for dreams-go-sideways stories. You know the type: You work hard against all odds, you pull off amazing feats as an underdog, you’re on the brink of phenomenal success, and then something pulls the rug out from under you at the last minute. Still, despite the lack of external glory, there’s that intense internal satisfaction of having mastered a discipline and having realized one’s purpose in life. Or am I kidding myself?

Think of Alan Parker’s 1991 film The Commitments. With a group of on-the-dole Irish putting together an R&B band that brawls and skitters its way to sweet-sounding soul, even if Wilson Pickett never quite makes it to the last show they put on before disbanding.

Well, here’s one more for the list: the story of Sustainable Fellwood. It’s quite a tale, even without a Mustang Sally soundtrack.

Fellwood was one of the first public housing projects built in the US (1940). It was also built in my hometown, Savannah, GA ─- just a mile from City Hall but a cultural millennium from the white upper crust that inhabit the city’s historic downtown core area. In 2006, Fellwood was razed, and my company was tapped to serve as the master developer for a restoration effort. Sustainable Fellwood was born.

This project had all the elements it needed to become a true sustainability success story. For one thing, it’s one of only three HUD projects in the nation that’s LEED-certified and one of a handful of green mixed-income, mixed-use projects in the LEED for Neighborhood Development pilot program. It’s a project that extends beyond simple green building strategies to incorporate a handful of services having to do with education, recreation, green-collar job creation, local food production, etc. In other words, it is where the future of green development is headed: thinking beyond the footprint of a particular development to tap into the rich infrastructure around that footprint.

It’s the real deal. As you can see here, we went so far as to save and reuse palm trees from around the property:

But that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface. What is really cool about this project is that it no longer belongs to me and my colleagues at work. (It probably never did, except in the hubristic mindset of us real estate developers). The Westside neighborhood association helped us design the project from the get-go. The Housing Authority of Savannah, our client, has invested generously for the long term and has met with us more or less weekly for several years to continually tweak the vision. The City has provided infrastructural improvements (it doesn’t’ hurt that the Mayor’s family grew up in this part of town). The County has fast-tracked all the arcane approval processes. The State’s Department of Community Affairs has actually re-written its tax credit program in order to create incentives for all such projects in Georgia to mimic Sustainable Fellwood. And, hell, even the Federal government has been at the party, providing needed ARRA funds to provide the gap funding when the pricing on tax credits plummeted this past year.

So there you have it: a green, energy and water- efficient project that provides desperately-needed housing for many at 30% (or 60%) of average median income, located  in an urban core city that calls out for diversity of housing stock, providing green-collar jobs for mostly minority/disadvantaged small businesses, designed to integrate various aspects of what sustainable communities are all about, and implemented by an entire village of folks coming together to make this vision come true.

So what’s wrong with this story?

Nothing really. Except that President Obama happened to pay a half-day visit to my home town of Savannah, GA yesterday and passed it by. Damn. What a missed opportunity, I keep thinking to myself. It would have been nice to see just a small fraction of the cast-of-thousands involved in Sustainable Fellwood show the President around the site, share their stories with him, give him the gift of seeing “yes we can” being implemented in ways that a gridlocked Congress has no inkling of. But no matter. The vision is there. Even as the presidential motorcade moved on down the road.

Martin Melaver is a founder/principal of the newly-formed sustainable/consulting firm Melaver McIntosh. Prior to that, he was for 18 years CEO of Melaver, Inc. He is the author of Living Above the Store: Building a Business That Creates Value, Inspires Change, and Restores Land and Community.

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