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Driving: Florida’s New Urbanist Experiments

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Photo: Martha Camarillo

With that thought in mind, I head to my final destination. I pass through Sarasota and zoom east across the Everglades to Miami. I’m eager to reach Aqua, the newly opened enclave built by Craig Robins, one of the original engineers of the South Beach revival and the inventor of Miami’s Design District. I’ve been following the development of Aqua for years, excited that Robins is using some of the best of America’s younger Modernist architects. I even visited the site, a peninsula jutting into Indian Creek a few miles north of South Beach, just after Robins started construction, and examined the scale model of streets lined with elegant Modernist town houses. It looked like something the Bauhaus might have built, except much more expensive: starting at $799,000 and topping out at more than $7 million. But given its location in Miami Beach and Robins’s credentials as someone who understands urban places, I assume that this will be the highlight of my trip.

I want to stay in Aqua, but there is no hotel and no bed-and-breakfast, and the only way to rent is by the season. So I settle for a hotel in Miami Beach, the Astor, and make an appointment for a tour. Aqua, as it turns out, is in violation of one of the key tenets of New Urbanism: it’s a gated community. If you don’t live there, if you aren’t an invited guest, you can’t get in. It also fails the Popsicle test, although I’m assured by my tour guides, provided by Robins’s development company, Dacra, that a store selling gourmet olive oil and coffee will soon open.

There are 101 condos and 46 private residences. On the façade of Chatham—named for its architect, Walter ­Chatham—there’s a colorful "public" artwork by Richard Tuttle. The town houses we visit are generous, full of great spaces and pleasant views. It’s all perfect. Perfect. But because it’s private, off-limits to the public, there is no life here. Even in sleepy Longleaf, I saw the occasional child on a bicycle and guys shooting hoops in a park. But Aqua is like the antithesis of South Beach—maybe it’s intended as an antidote—a retreat from the vital urban culture of Miami Beach.

In the end, after 1,600 miles of driving, despite the incomparable pleasure of swimming in Miami Beach’s stretch of the Atlantic, I still want to go back to Seaside and Rosemary Beach. Even though I don’t much like the idea of designing communities with a faux aesthetic—be it Cracker or West Indian—what’s happened as a result of Seaside’s success is that something surprisingly genuine has emerged from all the fakery. Because Robert Davis was willing to experiment with urban form, and because he proved successful, other developers similarly willing to experiment have been attracted to that one 10-mile stretch of highway, and over time a place is emerging, incrementally, that is as quirky and authentic as the towns Davis once visited in his red convertible.

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