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Driving: Florida’s New Urbanist Experiments

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Photo: Martha Camarillo

Best of all, there’s the Third Place Pub & Grille. In its sunny dining room and at its bar—autographed by local celebrities—people who look like they live and work in town hang out, eat lunch, and hold informal meetings. The menu, before it gets around to the po’boys and the salads, features a sermonette about the restaurant’s name. It comes from The Great Good Place, a book by Ray Oldenburg. "Oldenburg paints a picture of society before the majority owned two automobiles per household," says the menu. It goes on to explain that the first place is home, the second place is your job, and the third place is where you go to socialize, like the front stoop or the corner store. "That sense of community and support of the local economy is important to us." Oldenburgian wisdom notwithstanding, Haile Village Center isn’t exactly a travel destination, but it’s an interesting spot to stop for lunch.

Finally, I point the blunt nose of my Aveo toward Seaside, a long day’s drive north and west on Florida’s Panhandle, on state highways that noodle through small inland towns untouched by the development fever that has reshaped coastal Florida. I pass through Apalachicola, a funky waterfront town on Florida’s "Forgotten Coast," cited by A Guidebook to New Urbanism in Florida 2005 as one of "the successful precedents for today’s New Urbanism." I can picture Robert Davis gliding through in his red convertible. Today, however, Apalachicola is a bit of a ghost town, because a severe red tide has closed the oyster beds. Still, it exudes authenticity. It’s exactly the sort of place I’d seek out on a less focused road trip. I’m beginning to wish that I weren’t on a New Urbanist mission: it would be more fun just to stop in normal places. But that changes when I hit Seaside.

On my first visit, in 1998, I was surprised to discover that though the town, with its colorful cottages and precious details, is famous for being cute, it is actually better than that. Seaside, with a superb beach, yards thick with native foliage, and a street plan so well thought out that it’s possible to lose yourself within its 80 acres, is genuinely beautiful. On this trip, I begin to think of Seaside as Duany and Plater-Zyberk’s first novel, the product of all their best ideas, a place into which they poured endless youthful enthusiasm. Seaside is the original that became a best-selling formula. Now, some eight years after that first visit, I’m astonished by the amount of development that’s happened around here since, all of it triggered by Seaside.

At first I’m put off by the traffic and noise. It’s Saturday night: a bar band is playing on the green in the center of town, and Ruskin Place, a narrow plaza north of the green, has been taken over by a wedding. I can’t believe how many people are here. My lodging is in an apartment building called Dreamland Heights, designed in 1984 by architect Steven Holl. It’s a duplex, with the bedroom on the lower level and a kitchen so chic that it’s funny: stainless-steel Bosch dishwasher and mammoth Sub-Zero refrigerator, empty but for a tiny box of Arm & Hammer. On my balcony, I can watch the life of the town from first thing in the morning—when a fiftysomething man arrives at Modica Market, Seaside’s destination grocery store, on a beach-cruiser bicycle with a cup holder on the handlebars—until evening, when a brilliantly pink sunset ends the day.

Determined to continue probing New Urbanism on its own terms, I rent a Schwinn and set out down the bike path that now runs the length of 30A, slowly inspecting a whole new way of life under construction. I encounter architectural curiosities such as the massive "gatehouse," a building shaped like a jumbo gable, a neo-traditional hallucination marking the entrance to a fledgling community called WaterSound. I pass by the beginning phases of Alys Beach, a cluster of brilliant white Bermuda-influenced houses marked by an Alice in Wonderland-style formal lawn. Because of Duany’s enthusiasm for this project, I make a point of visiting with developer Jason Comer, who shows me how the concrete-block walls of the houses he’s building will be reinforced with more concrete to make them into hurricane-proof bunkers. He also points out that these houses are, by New Urbanist standards, heretical. "A lot of people like front porches," Comer says. "We don’t use them." Instead, the homes will feature private courtyards. On the day I see it, Alys Beach consists of a couple of model houses, the beachfront town green, and a diminutive white cottage housing the Fonville Press, a well-stocked newsstand (Comer’s family is in magazine distribution), and coffee bar.


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