Condo development at Frogtown brings residents back to historic neighborhood off

I just learned the term Frogtown recently, but I suspect we’re all going to be hearing it a lot in the near future.

Frogtown is the traditional name for the high-density neighborhood near the old Union Station, just west of MLK where Interstate 16 comes into the city. Irish Catholics and Jews were the bulk of the original residents, but by the time the flyover was built, the population was largely working class African-American.

Just a few days ago, the banner for the Lofts at Frogtown appeared on a sturdy mid-20th century building on Selma Street near Savannah Station. The banner can be seen pretty easily from Interstate 16 and MLK.

Last week, I discussed the project with principal investor William Cogswell of Charleston-based Standard Precast Walls and his architects at Lominack Kolman Smith on Broughton Street.

“There’s a market for infill, affordable, green product,” Cogswell said as we looked at the plans for the 39-unit condo development. The existing building’s modernist elements set the tone for the rest of the project, which includes another building on Selma and two larger, longer structures on Berrien. All units will have off-street parking either under or beside the new buildings.

The existing structure dates to the 1940’s, when it was used as a switching station adjacent to the grand train station.

Ten years ago, it would have seemed outrageous to plan a large, LEED-certified condo development on a triangular lot west of MLK.

But times have certainly changed.

“We really liked the area,” said Cogswell, who is working with Starland’s John Deaderick and Greg Jacobs. (Cogswell was also involved in the recently completed Starland Lofts, which are also constructed with his company’s precast walls.)

“I’m a big fan of what is happening on MLK,” added Cogswell. He and architect Jerry Lominack emphasized the incredible potential of the largely empty neighborhood. It’s just a few minutes walk to the heart of the Historic District, and the size of other vacant lots make it a prime area for redevelopment.

Lominack noted that the site is within the Historic District, but that the relative emptiness of the area and the lack of any dominant architectural style gave his firm more freedom than most other sites downtown.

Ranging in size from 400 square feet to more than 1,600, the units are going for about $240 per square foot, which makes them considerably cheaper – in some cases dramatically cheaper – than more traditional-looking condos just a few blocks away. With construction about to begin, Cogswell said that 29 of the 39 units were already under contract.

The price is undoubtedly attractive to some prospective buyers, but I suspect that the modern design and the fact that the entire project will be “green” are major selling points as well.

I’ve noted before that Savannah is putting itself out there as a national leader in environmentally sustainable design and construction, and the Lofts at Frogtown look to be another great example of that trend. By the way, Cogswell said the precast concrete walls should be able to withstand even the most powerful hurricane winds.

“Up in Charleston, this would be difficult,” Cogswell said when we were discussing the cutting-edge elements of the project. He said flatly that Savannah is “more up-to-date in style” than our competitor to the north.

The lofts will also have the word “Frogtown” emblazoned vertically on the MLK side of the project. Cogswell, Lominack, and architect Kevin Rose all emphasized this was just one step in honoring the area’s history and in resurrecting the residential character of the neighborhood.

Renderings of the buildings, which have already met design and zoning approval, can be seen at the Web sites of Standard Precast Walls (www.standardprecastwalls.com) and Lominack Kolman Smith (www.lksarchitects.com). The development Web site at loftsatfrogtown.com should be active any day now.

With new SCAD construction down the hill off Boundary Street, with the preservation work ongoing at Battlefield Park, and with the efforts of SDRA and other groups to revitalize the entire corridor, Frogtown is likely to be in the news a lot in coming months and years.

And where does “Frogtown” come from anyway?

It apparently comes from the frogs that would inundate the neighborhood when the nearby canal flooded.

But there’s another interesting theory that the name picks up on the slightly derogatory slang use of “frog” for a French person.

Indeed, the historical marker at the 18th-century Jewish cemetery behind Savannah Station – probably the least- visited historic site in the city – discusses the French encampment on that very spot before the nearby Battle of Savannah in 1778.

Since some theories suggest that the slang term “frog” originated from the French proclivity for eating frogs, there’s a fun – if really, really remote – possibility that “Frogtown” had dual origins in the abundance of frogs and in the historical presence of frog-eating French soldiers who fought – and died – in the neighborhood.

So “Frogtown” might have been the first really good Savannah pun.

Anyway, whatever the source, it’s a word – and neighborhood – that seems certain to have a sort of renaissance.