Saturday, November 3, 2007

10/11 - Minus limits, Jekyll could be monster > Opinion > Bookman
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 10/11/07

Everybody involved in the redevelopment of Jekyll Island State Park — the politicians, the state officials, the private developers — talks in reverent tones about protecting the island's ecology, beauty and character. There's no reason to believe that they're anything less than sincere.

However, there's a lot of reason to fear that those good intentions won't be enough, and that we will end up doing permanent damage to "Georgia's Jewel."

Jekyll is a pretty small place — just 6.6 square miles of sand off the coast of south Georgia —and there's no question that its lodging facilities and other amenities need a significant upgrade.

But in undertaking a major redevelopment and expansion on Jekyll, the logical first step would be to figure out how much growth it could absorb before its character and integrity are compromised. How many housing units, how many daily visitors, how many cars, how many restaurants and shops can be put in such a small place without losing what makes it special?

We don't know the answer. The Jekyll Island State Park Authority has begun handing out major contracts for redevelopment without any real idea of the island's capacity to absorb it all.

Bill Donohue, the executive director of the Jekyll Island Authority, acknowledges the usefulness of a limit, suggesting that such a restriction would probably evolve over time, eventually settling somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 to 2,500 rentable rooms,.

(For comparison's sake, the island today hosts a little over 1,200 rooms, not counting private homes. That's a drop from its historic peak of more than 1,500 rooms, another sign of the island's decline as an attraction.)

But here's the problem. Last month, the authority awarded a major redevelopment contract to Linger Longer Communities to build three new hotels, a new convention center, retail space and cottages and condos on Jekyll.

The proposal is well thought out, with a lot of environmentally responsible features. But built out, it would add 1,400 rentable rooms to the island. Combined with the 1,200 units already on the island, that would put the island total at 2,600 units, already above the informal ceiling suggested by Donohue.

And that would only be the beginning.

This summer, the Jekyll Island authority also invited developers to apply to become the authority's private partner in overseeing redevelopment of the entire island, including more hotels and condos.

In its official request for proposals, the authority told developers that "the ultimate potential opportunity ... could substantially exceed the first redevelopment project."

And in addition to redeveloping existing properties, the authority noted, another 108 acres of the island are now vacant but available for development.

As Donohue points out, redevelopment wouldn't have to mean more density. Hypothetically, he said, "an old 200-unit, two-story hotel could be torn down and replaced by a four-story hotel of the same size. You'd cut the acreage in half, and more undeveloped acres could result."

However, without a ceiling on development, that's not likely to happen, as a real-life example demonstrates. Jekyll's aging 206-room Buccaneer Beach Resort is being torn down. But it's being replaced on its 9.7-acre site with a 300-room hotel and 120 two-bedroom condos.

Combined with the Linger Longer project and existing rooms, that would bring Jekyll's room total to almost 3,000, with a lot more redevelopment yet to come. And with all those additional rooms will come demand for more restaurants and bars, more shopping, more recreation.

Without the discipline of a rigid limit on how much development Jekyll can sustain, the best intentions in the world won't be enough to withstand the inexorable economic pressures to do more and more and more.

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