GREENING THE GREAT UNGREEN
Client: Thrive Café and other commercial tenants of Whitemarsh Plaza
This was a team project in conjunction with the Design for Sustainability and Design Management Master's Programs at Savannah College of Art and Design
This story is one of working in a complex problem, and it’s a story of opening doors, building bridges, and making new pathways through it.
It’s a story of a strip mall.... in the suburbs in the deep south.
A little background: The project started as tiny seed of an idea from one of the business owners in Whitemarsh Plaza strip mall. Wendy owns Thrive Cafe, the first green-certified restaurant in Savannah. Thrive is an anomaly at this strip mall. Wendy wanted a picnic table built for her café made from materials from a large-scale local reclamation project. This seed of an idea was brought to a group of graduate students at SCAD. I was one member of that group.
Whitemarsh Plaza is situated on Whitemarsh Island at the intersection of two highways, about halfway in between downtown Savannah and our closest beach, Tybee Island. It’s also close to coastal waterways. Thousands of commuters and beach-goers pass by every day. Like the millions of other strip malls across the country, it’s the quintessential symbol of car-centric America and suburban sprawl.
The group of us went out to explore the site and found it was in need of much more than a picnic table. This was an outdated unattractive strip mall built in the 70’s. The facade was deteriorating, they had waste problems, parking and traffic flow problems, and massive flooding issues, as we later found out from the tenants. It was about 25% vacant. The tenants that are there are hole-in-the-wall restaurants, a liquor store, nail salon, convenience store, pet groomer, computer service store. Many of the business owners are ordinary southern folks, sustainability skeptics even. We started seeing this as a much bigger opportunity than just building a picnic table—it was an opportunity for the whole system to transform toward sustainability, and it was an opportunity to make a big impact in Savannah.
But why THIS place?
So often, sustainability initiatives show up in stereotypically predictable places and they end up reinforcing misperceptions. These examples are good, but they don’t really change any minds. If you want to show the value of sustainability to the ordinary American citizen, there’s hardly a more compelling venue than a suburban strip mall like Whitemarsh Plaza. A strip mall is a key piece of the American landscape, and successful models that can make sustainability a topic of cohesion within such a community could lead to greater effects.
But to change anything, the tenants, the property managers and owners needed to be on board. It had to be presented in a way that meets their business needs, otherwise it wouldn’t take hold. Through informal interviews, we began developing personal relationships with the business owners in the mall, one by one to get to know their unique challenges.
MEET THE TENANTS:
We found that this micro-community was pretty siloed. Despite sharing a building, they didn’t really know what the others were experiencing. But actually, several of the business wanted the same basic things: lower energy bills, improved aesthetics, more visibility, a solution to the flooding problem. At the handshake level, we opened some doors to conversations about possibilities that would actually help their businesses and be cost-effective. We also opened some doors between the tenants, they started talking to each other and thinking more like a network.
A similar thing happened with the property managers and owners. They were disinterested at first, but when they realized that some long-term problems, like the flooding, might be remedied through sustainable solutions, this opened the door for discussion.
Based on all the conversations, the designers on the team started putting together some initial ideas for Whitemarsh Plaza. We operated with an open-door policy in the design process. We invited professionals in the community to come to our presentations, join our charrettes and roundtable meetings. We invited people from the Metropolitan Planning Commission and the local Environmental Forum.
They led to more connections, and pretty soon our network of stakeholders for this little place that up to this point, was basically overlooked, had grown quite large. It was composed of nonprofits, city sector supporters, private sector supporters, community members.
Many of the design ideas were system-wide and dealt with the stormwater management problem we discovered at the Plaza. The impervious surfaces flooded frequently and would run off into the nearby tributary. As such, permeable pavers, a green roof, bioswales and rain catchment were a big part of the designs. Also: a composting program and community compost bin made from reclaimed materials, an indoor and outdoor educational display a system by which the restaurants could continually price out options for their utensils and paper products. And the outdoor eating area that started this whole project, here shown with planters made from reclaimed material.
News sources starting picking up on it. At this point, the tenants that previously had been resistant to talking to us started showing more interest, realizing that there were many possible options that could be cost-effective and even serve to differentiate them from competition.
We planned a public event. We held the event in one of the vacant units in the Plaza, where we showcased the visions for Whitemarsh Plaza and welcomed input through interactive displays. About 400 people showed up to check it out, which was even more than we expected. Reporters came. Restaurants in the plaza contributed food. Organizations outside of Whitemarsh Plaza got involved. Above all, people got excited. People offered up their skills. We were getting calls from green roofing specialists, solar panel companies, energy experts offering their services, some for reduced rates.
Chatham County and the City of Savannah took notice. The Natural Resources Administrator of the Metropolitan Planning Commission spearheaded the collaborative effort to submit a DNR grant that would help implement some of the initiatives, with particular emphasis on green infrastructure related to stormwater management. The grant focused on the benefits of this project to the coastal waterways, a showcase green roof that would be visible from the highway overpass, educational and outreach components, and the potential for this program to be replicated by any coastal community.
The County of Chatham adopted a resolution in support of transforming Whitemarsh Plaza into an Eco-Demonstration project. There’s still a long way to go, but because of the doors opened in this project, the relationships formed, new kinds of conversations were happening. They were happening among small business owners who never thought they could afford such changes. They were happening with community members envisioning a future for their neighborhood that they never thought possible. And new kinds of conversations were taking place even at the highest levels of our local government.
The tenants themselves, even the skeptics, have made some achievements. Small as they may be, they are powerful steps in the right direction, and achievements that they OWN.
While many of the big design ideas for Whitemarsh Plaza didn't come to fruition, this project sparked a new kind of conversation taking place at high levels of government and among ordinary citizens. And that’s a big step.
I presented this project at two conferences: Undisciplined in Savannah, Georgia and EcoDistricts Summit in Portland, Oregon.