In Mississippi, the Reshape of Things to Come

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 15, 2005

This week, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Mississippi began to design its way out of disaster.

Since Wednesday in Biloxi, Andres Duany, the visionary town planner, has been plotting the outlines of a new Gulf Coast.

"We'd love to set Mississippi up as the first 21st-century region," he said. "That's the idea."

At the invitation of Gov. Haley Barbour's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal and on behalf of the Congress for the New Urbanism that Duany helped found, the planner has engaged 100 allies and 130 local leaders in an intensive week-long brainstorming experience called the Mississippi Renewal Forum. The conference is taking place in the 12-story Isle of Capri casino-hotel, which survived while buildings across the street were leveled and the casino's own barge was thrown onto the parking garage, which collapsed. Participants are working against a Monday deadline to produce a comprehensive plan.

Commission Chairman James Barksdale, the former Netscape CEO and a Mississippi native, describes the area as a staggering "tabula rasa" stretching 80 miles, from Pascagoula to Waveland. For a mile inland, the storm surge reduced businesses to concrete slabs, shattered summer mansions and crumpled bridges and roadways. But the swath of destruction has also endowed Mississippi with the largest urban development opportunity in a lifetime. Some participants are already saying the results will provide a new model for coastal development elsewhere.

"I'm looking for big ideas," Barksdale says. "What can we do to really make a difference. You've got a wonderful opportunity, no matter how tragic it is. People should be able to look back and see this as a marvelous place."

New Urbanists advocate a utopian formula of walkable neighborhoods, vernacular architecture and access to public transit. The movement began in the late 1980s as a renegade group of architects such as Duany who opposed suburban sprawl. It now has 2,000 adherents in 20 countries, a fifth of them developers. They have compiled an impressive record of pedestrian-friendly "new towns," with leafy public squares and architecture that echoes the past. Kentlands, the neocolonial planned community in Montgomery County, was one of the first. Two Florida towns, the Seaside resort immortalized in "The Truman Show" and Disney's Celebration, are among the best known.

The anti-sprawl principles are shared by the Smart Growth Network. But critics have seized on one hallmark of New Urbanism: exploiting a yearning for an imaginary small-town America. The Congress for the New Urbanism Web site shows plenty of white picket fences and front porches. Streets are invariably safe, buildings pastel, vistas orderly and consistent. No building stands out. One gets the sense that people aren't meant to, either. Despite the planners' expressed desire to create economically diverse communities, the new towns have become synonymous with affluence.

Barksdale says he picked Duany for his experience in organizing planning sessions after Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992, rather than for New Urbanist values. But the decision has set some in the architecture community on edge.

"I don't think the answer is to bring somebody in with a canned response," says Eric Owen Moss, director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture. "There are fundamental issues of how to deal with that coastline, how to build, if you build at all."

He reads disturbing cultural messages in the quaint enclaves of New Urbanism. "It's right-wing developer-speak masquerading as populism," Moss says. "The ideological image-making would appeal to a kind of anachronistic Mississippi that yearns for the good old days of the Old South as slow and balanced and pleasing and breezy, and each person knew his or her role."

Duany had worked out a glittering scenario in advance. Over the phone from Miami, where the Duany Plater-Zyberk firm is located, he envisioned an environment free of strip malls and parking lots. Fast-food outlets, gas stations and supermarkets would be redesigned. Some communities might choose to become more urban, Duany projected, and high-rises could be lined up along a new boulevard. An old rail line that was out of place in a tourism-driven environment might give way to mass transit. Casinos, no longer consigned to the barges Katrina tossed like bath toys, would need to be worked into the urban fabric.

To discourage a hodgepodge of architectural styles as homeowners rebuild, Duany was prepared to recommend that aesthetically acceptable designs from pre-approved plan books be subsidized. He was hoping to line up a factory to produce regionally appropriate designs for mobile homes, which might give more character to emergency housing developments. But the disadvantaged would follow a time-honored script.

"Poor people end up further inland," Duany said.

Retreating from the water's edge, as some communities in Asia have done in the wake of last year's tsunami, and as some have recommended for New Orleans, was not on Duany's agenda. He was prepared to counter any environmental argument with an economic one.

"In New Orleans, the flooded areas were lower value," Duany said. "In Mississippi, they were the highest value. You can't wipe out millions of dollars of real estate value. You can pull back from New Orleans but not from the Mississippi coast."

New Urbanists lean on the powerful tool of building codes to reengineer communities and pump up property values. But Duany deflects criticism that they act as the taste police. He conducts smaller versions of the forum three times a month and experience has taught him that "in a democracy, people get the cities they deserve."

In the case of Mississippi, he said, "I'm concerned that people who may not necessarily want McMansions will not find themselves with any other choice. The default setting in America is the McMansion and the strip mall. It's what you get if you do nothing."

In a statement issued after Hurricane Rita, the American Planning Association warned of "trade-offs between idealistic goals and expediency" in any rush to rebuild. It offered a dizzying list of issues to be confronted, including environmental justice, racial equity, restoration of natural systems, infrastructure repair, property acquisition and condemnation, environmental cleanup, cultural heritage preservation, hazard mitigation, economic development and urban redevelopment "all at a scale never before seen."

David Siegel, president of the association, had flown to the forum from Portland, Ore. After a tour of Pascagoula, including the site on which Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) had lost a home, he expressed awe at the power of hurricanes. He was also impressed by the depth of expertise -- top planners, designers, engineers, environmentalists, sociologists and others -- the New Urbanists had assembled in Biloxi. When asked whether their work might produce a new model for coastal development in other states, he responded, "You bet."

With so much at stake, opening the discussion to a wider range of architects might be prudent. The new landscape will need to include the Ohr O'Keefe Museum of Art designed by Frank O. Gehry and partially completed on the Biloxi waterfront when Katrina hit.

The commission intends to file a report to the governor on Dec. 31. The charette, as designers call the session, was only a first round. Barksdale did not invite developers or casino owners.

"We wanted to get this started, to see the big picture," he said, "Then let the vested interests get in."

Between forum meetings on Thursday, Susan Henderson, a volunteer from Albuquerque, who had designed a Mississippi vernacular mobile home for Duany, reported that insurance company representatives were also missing. On Day 2, discussion had centered on the redrawing of a flood-zone map, she said, which would determine the form of new buildings that would be insurable.

"It's going to radically change the beach appearance," she predicted, regardless of which designers are in charge.

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