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Driving: Florida’s New Urbanist Experiments

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Photo: Martha Camarillo

Eight miles out of Seaside, I hit Main Street in Rosemary Beach, another DPZ-designed development, a series of tightly spaced West Indian-style brown houses that’s almost deserted. The only sign of life is construction work on Hotel Saba, a 56-room property scheduled to open this summer. I’ve been fantasizing the whole way about a plate of grilled fish and a beer, but the only restaurant I can find is shuttered until dinnertime. Rosemary Beach is about to fail my version of the Popsicle test, "the beer test," when, north of 30A, I discover the Summer Kitchen Café, a tiny casual restaurant with tables on a shaded porch. I order grilled salmon and a Corona. I like this place—I decide that I need to spend a night at the Pensione, the development’s modest eight-room bed-and-breakfast.

But first I have to spend a night in WaterColor, a neighborhood built by Arvida, a branch of the St. Joe Company, Florida’s largest private landowner. The backstreets of WaterColor are adjacent to the backstreets of Seaside, immediately south and east of it, but don’t actually connect. It’s a bit like East and West Berlin, but without the wall and sentries. WaterColor is 499 acres to Seaside’s 80, and within Seaside there is a fear that WaterColor somehow intends to swallow its smaller neighbor. A young woman behind the counter at Sundog Books tells me there’s a rumor that St. Joe is going to buy out Davis, and complains that WaterColor regards Seaside as its downtown. "We like to think of WaterColor as our suburbs," Davis responds, when I quiz him about the rumor. "The developer of WaterColor is a friend. He refers to Seaside as WaterColor’s Historic District."

The WaterColor Inn, an example of a style I think of as Panhandle Gothic, has interiors designed by David Rockwell, a New York architect known for his tasteful fantasies. Indeed, I’m in an extremely pretty hotel room, with a balcony overlooking the dunes and the Gulf, and a shower with a window at eye level that lets me enjoy the view as I bathe. Reluctantly, I leave my room for dinner at Fish Out of Water, the inn’s restaurant, and take a seat at the sushi bar, where a chef who hails from Atlanta makes exquisite maki rolls. Down the bar is a local couple who complain to me about how overdeveloped and overpriced the Panhandle has become and how, despite all the new houses, there’s still nothing to do here.

In the morning, the beach flag has changed from dangerous red—hurricane backwash has closed the beaches here for days—to cautious yellow. I decide to go for a swim in the Gulf. Somehow, despite my persistent cough, I don’t think about the red tide as I happily jump in. Suddenly my eyes sting and my skin burns. I dash back to my room and spend a long time in my beautiful shower looking wistfully out at the water as I scrub.

Compared with the plush WaterColor Inn, my room at the Pensione in Rosemary Beach is monastic—white concrete-block walls, simple blond wood furniture—but well made; I feel as though I’ve teleported to Denmark. The highlight of my stay is dinner, directly downstairs at the Onano Neighborhood Café. I eat scallops with lemon risotto and fresh herbs. It’s a simple dish, but the quality of the ingredients is so high, and the preparation so restrained, I’m convinced it’s the best Italian food I’ve eaten outside Italy. My affection for Rosemary Beach grows with every bite.

And that’s the strange thing. I do not want to leave the New Urbanist Highway. Despite the fact that the beautiful beaches are in a sorry state, roughed up by too many hurricanes, I don’t want to go. But it isn’t until I reach my next stop, a development called Longleaf in the town of New Port Richey, that I fully understand my attachment to 30A. Longleaf turns out to be one subdivision in a long string of subdivisions, and at dinnertime it feels depopulated in a way I find unsettling, like I’ve just wandered into an M. Night Shyamalan movie. I stand on the central green, where there is a bungalow outfitted with Doric columns and unoccupied white rocking chairs on the porch. On the wall is a sign: LONGLEAF TOWN HALL, BUILT 2001.

Longleaf is just another dull suburban place in New Urbanist drag, but it makes me realize that the developments along the Panhandle are unusually urbane. Taken individually, they might be as stilted and dull as Longleaf, but taken together, the communities along 30A feed on each other’s vitality and creativity. They relate to one another and enhance one another, as do neighborhoods in a city. This cluster has grown dense enough and interesting enough to be a real place, a sort of linear Brooklyn.

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