Friday, November 18, 2005

Hurricane Katrina’s devastation along the Gulf Coast may become a boon to traditionalist architects. Advocates of “new urbanism,” a national movement to stop sprawl with pedestrian-friendly, compact communities, have hatched plans for 11 cities along the wrecked Mississippi coast.

Should their visions be realized, Mississippi’s shoreline might change from redneck to Ralph Lauren, following such tony new urbanist models as Florida’s Seaside and Montgomery County’s Kentlands.

Among the scores of traditionalists involved in the planning is a trio of architects from the Silver Spring firm Torti Gallas and Partners. In mid-October, Neal Payton, Murphy Antoine and Greg Moore flew to Biloxi to participate in an ambitious six-day workshop convened by Mississippi’s Republican Gov. Haley Barbour as part of the post-Katrina rebuilding effort.

“The governor’s charge to us was not just to think about repairing the damage,” Mr. Payton said via a video hookup from the firm’s newly opened Los Angeles office. “He wanted a vision of how to go forward for the next 20 years.”

This week, the Torti Gallas team’s long-range plans for Gautier, Miss., were presented for the first time to city officials, developers and property owners in that sprawling bedroom community of 19,500 people. Designs for a riverfront fish camp, village greens and mixed-use town centers were sketched at last month’s workshop and later assembled into a detailed master plan for the city.

“I was skeptical at first,” said Jeff Wilkinson, Gautier’s Republican mayor pro tem and council member at large, of the planning process. “We thought about recovery [after the hurricane] as just a Target and a new grocery store.”

At Mr. Barbour’s planning workshop in Biloxi, called the Mississippi Renewal Forum, Torti Gallas followed the charge of new urbanist gurus Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. The Miami-based husband-and-wife planners, who masterminded Seaside and Kentlands, were originally invited by the governor to submit their own blueprint for renewal.

Realizing that the job was too big to do alone, the duo called upon members of the Chicago-based Congress for the New Urbanism, a group of like-minded traditionalists, to brainstorm ideas for repairing hard-hit cities and towns in three coastal counties.

Such intensive, collaborative workshops, called charrettes, are routine for Torti Gallas. In the past year alone, the architects have sketched proposals for reshaping downtown Gaithersburg and the troubled Sursum Corda housing complex on North Capitol Street.

In developing plans for Gautier, a suburban area west of industrial Pascagoula and east of Biloxi, they joined forces with Mississippi architects Bruce Tolar and Jeff Elder, New Orleans landscape architect Frank Burandt and Chapel Hill, N.C., engineer Tony Sease. The team spent a day touring the 32-square-mile city with local officials.

“There were houses that were wiped out by the hurricane,” Mr. Payton recalled, “but in comparison to other cities, the devastation was not that severe because Gautier is built on higher ground.”

While other architects at the Biloxi workshop tackled the rebuilding of gambling casinos and historic main streets, the Torti Gallas team confronted a problem national in scope — characterless sprawl. The group suggested a typical new urbanist remedy of centering the city on a traditional downtown surrounded by walkable neighborhoods.

The concepts initially weren’t met with enthusiasm.

“I didn’t think they would work here,” said Mr. Wilkinson. “Our town is only 20 years old. It has a highway, a junior college and a mall. A series of developers built a lot of dead-end subdivisions here. As I told the architects, ‘Don’t be surprised, y’all, but we don’t have city blocks.’ Thank goodness, they ignored me.”

What Mr. Payton and his team did next was to do what new urbanists do best — they based their plans on the distinctive features of the place. In most areas, that means recalling regional architectural traditions, such as porches or hipped roofs, in new buildings.

Gautier’s uniqueness, the architects discovered, wasn’t its architecture but, rather, its natural beauty. Bordering the city are the scenic Pascagoula River and its bayous and the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge, all of which attract visitors interested in fishing and bird-watching.

With eco-tourism in mind, the team drew up picturesque designs for a fish-camp village and marina along the riverfront. In describing the development, Mr. Payton went so far as to suggest Orvis or L.L. Bean could outfit the buildings.

New neighborhoods for incoming residents, the architects suggested, could be built around old-fashioned village greens next to the bird sanctuary. A town common to host the city’s annual Mullet Festival could be placed next to the 1980s shopping mall, which could be turned into an open-air market. About a third of Gautier’s residents live in the northern part of the city, with access to only one major road, so the team introduced streets and boulevards to interconnect neighborhoods.

All are sound alternatives to the big-box stores, strip malls and beachfront high-rises that have stripped the Gulf Coast of character, but the master plan is far from perfect. Conspicuously absent is the type of affordable housing desperately needed by Katrina evacuees, many of whom will soon leave government-subsidized hotels when the Federal Emergency Management Agency stops paying the bills.

Riverfront fish camps and houses arranged around village greens don’t exactly look as if they’re designed for common folk. It’s easy to imagine that these ideas could end up as mere marketing ploys — complete with fish and sandhill-crane logos — for the type of gated subdivisions already in place in Gautier. The plans could self-defeatingly yield the very isolation the architects hope to prevent.

Realizing that the vision will require zoning changes and sizable investment, hurdles that have left many a well-intentioned plan on the shelf, Mr. Wilkinson said no timetable has been set for implementing Torti Gallas’ blueprint.

The council member is willing to get behind the new urbanism if it can help improve Gautier’s economy. “We’ve tried it the old way for 20 years and don’t have the growth we want, so it may be time to try something different,” he said and then laughed. “If it doesn’t go right, you can always blame it on the plan.”

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