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Driving: Florida’s New Urbanist Experiments

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Photo: Martha Camarillo

One damp, overcast Florida morning I find myself enjoying one of Celebration’s signature amenities, a string of public rocking chairs, while gazing at the alligators in the town lake. I’m talking on my cell phone to Andrés Duany himself. Celebration is not his doing: Duany is quite clear on that point. Hard-core New Urbanists regard Celebration with a degree of disdain, as microbrew enthusiasts might regard a beer with an oddball name made by Budweiser. Duany urges me to check out Alys Beach, DPZ’s "state-of-the-art" community under construction on the Panhandle, where I’ll be heading in a couple of days. He boasts that it’s the summation of everything he’s learned thus far. He also suggests that I visit Haile Plantation, designed by developers Robert Kramer and Matthew Kaskal, which, as it happens, is the next stop on my itinerary.

During our chat, I keep thinking: "Here I am in Celebration, talking to Andrés Duany." Similarly, during breakfast at the Market Street Café, a Denny’s in disguise, I sit reading the only available newspaper thinking, "Here I am in Celebration, reading USA Today." There is something about the design of the place that makes me endlessly self-conscious. The pieces are not bad: an Art Deco movie theater, a string of Floridian commercial buildings in colors like tangerine and teal, a handful of ostensibly public postmodern buildings by name-brand architects such as Robert A. M. Stern, and the cotton candy-colored Celebration Hotel (where I could only book a single midweek night because all 115 rooms are full for the weekend). But these small-town components don’t quite gel into a genuine small town; instead, they form something that’s clearly a simulation of small town. It’s very Truman Show. The one thing, so far, that I’ve found to like about Celebration is the rich variety of tropical birds I see along the town’s meandering footpaths. The birds, I’m sure, are authentic.

I subject Celebration to "the Popsicle test," a concept I find on the official New Urbanism Web site: "An eight-year-old in the neighborhood should be able to bike to a store to buy a Popsicle, without having to battle highway-size streets and freeway-speed traffic." I rent a chartreuse one-speed and pedal to outlying neighborhoods and note that Popsicle sources are few and far between. What is for sale here is real estate. I inspect a painstaking replica of a California craftsman-style cottage that’s called the Berkeley. Everyone I meet along the way tells me the same story: Disney actually has less and less to do with Celebration. In 2003 the majority on the Celebration Residential Owners’ Association shifted from representatives of the Disney-owned Celebration Company to the home- owners. According to the locals, Celebration—à la Pinocchio—is on its way to becoming a real town. On the other hand, in early 2004, Disney sold the entire business district to a company called Lexin Capital. The fact that downtown Celebration can be sold in its entirety—18 acres, 16 shops, six restaurants, some office space, and a number of apartments—explains a lot about why it doesn’t feel real.

Haile Village Center, outside Gainesville, has no hotel. I hear rumors of a small bed-and-breakfast, but it sounds more like a spare room than a business, so, on the advice of my friend Donna, a local photographer specializing in weddings, I opt for a couple of nights in Micanopy, a genuine small town just south of Gainesville. I book a room at the truly lovely Herlong Mansion, where, according to the brochure, "yesterday and today…are not all that different." It’s an 1845 Cracker farmhouse that, in 1910, was remodeled into a "classic revival imitation of a Southern colonial design." You can think of it as a precursor to New Urbanism’s faux historicism. Micanopy, supposedly the oldest inland town in Florida, is full of quirky buildings that have grown stranger over time, buildings that have character that no architect or planner could intentionally reproduce.

By contrast, the 50-acre Haile Village Center, a New Urbanist implant in the sprawling 1,700-acre cul-de-sac subdivision called Haile Plantation, is fairly predictable. It is roughly contemporary with Celebration, a product of the mid 1990’s, but the look is picture-perfect 19th century, with brick sidewalks, narrow streets, and corners that are more like kinks. The architecture is loaded with Southernisms: sheet-metal roofs, second-story porches, town houses with side yards. The businesses are more interesting here than in Celebration, where the best store specializes in teddy bears. You can actually buy Marimekko clothing or a decent bottle of wine.

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