Remaking the Gulf Coast

Remaking the Gulf Coast

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a group of New Urbanist architects and planners gathers in Biloxi to begin designing the future. KARRIE JACOBS reports

Along the stretch of U.S. Highway 90 that follows the contours of the Biloxi waterfront, the casino-hotels that sprang up after gambling was legalized in 1990 had been stripped of their windows. Their concrete façades looked as if big dogs had gnawed on them. Several of the dockside casinos—gargantuan floating gambling barges—unmoored by Hurricane Katrina sat alongside the road like beached whales. Inside the Bimini Bay Ballroom of the hotel Isle of Capri (lately nicknamed the Isle of Debris), Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour had just delivered a speech about the resilience of the people of Mississippi. "Those kind of people are depending on us," he said, choking with emotion, to a room full of architects and planners—many of whom were also moved to tears.

Disasters, I decided, make strange bedfellows. Under what other circumstances would Governor Barbour, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, have invited a swarm of New Urbanist architects, planners, and building-code wonks to Biloxi?Regardless of their political leanings, these professionals have dedicated their lives to designing developments that favor mass transit and bicycles over automobiles and to an aesthetic that requires the implementation of endless nitpicky regulations. Not customary Republican turf. But six weeks after Katrina tore the Gulf Coast to shreds, here was planner Andrés Duany, guru of the movement that has planted white picket fences, pastel-colored Victorian cottages, and manicured footpaths from coast to coast, holding a massive New Urbanist charette—an architectural brainstorming session—in a garish casino-hotel ballroom. Here was Duany playing Patton, issuing urgent design commands. "We need to act quickly," he told his assembled troops as he urged them to disperse across the region and ask people questions: "What would you want to see brought back? What would you rather not see brought back?"

The Mississippi Renewal Forum, as the charette was called, was ostensibly about rebuilding what had been lost, but it was also about conjuring up a Mississippi Gulf Coast that never was, transforming a necklace of mostly quiet, historic Southern towns into the sort of charming, quasi-historic tourism magnets—think Seaside, Florida—for which the New Urbanists are known. Here in Biloxi, Mississippi was staking its claim as the new Florida, only better—as a destination for retirement-age baby boomers who hunger for the "authenticity" that the overdeveloped Sunshine State lacks. "I see us offering a combination of Biloxi, Charleston, South Beach, Key West, and Las Vegas…all rolled into one," I was told by Leland Speed, the Jackson-based real estate mogul who heads the state's development authority and who brought Barbour and Duany together. "I think you'll find a mood down here of 'Hey, this is an opportunity now. We've suffered the pain. We have a real opportunity to do something good.'"

The phrase Mississippi Renewal (redolent of "urban renewal") was a signal that the charette would have to tackle a remarkably thorny set of problems. Given the unfathomable amount of damage caused by Katrina—estimates range from $25 billion to $125 billion—it will be a superhuman undertaking to simply make the Mississippi Gulf Coast habitable again, but the desire to make it anew, with an ambitious set of goals and priorities, adds another layer of complexity. In Mississippi, as in New Orleans, many low-income people were displaced by Katrina and may not be able to return. And much of the region's history has been literally erased. So how do you re-create the architectural tradition of a place without going the Disney route?Does redevelopment have to mean high-rise condos and big-box stores?Could the New Urbanists, who have mostly developed pricey suburban enclaves, deal with a set of problems that are genuinely urban in scope?

Looking to answer some of these questions, I visited the town of Bay St. Louis, tagging along with one of the 11 teams of architects and planners the charette dispatched to localities all along the coast. The team was headed by Bill Dennis, a Rhode Island-based planner best known for his work on Mashpee Commons, a Cape Cod strip mall that was transformed into a faux–Main Street business district. I picked Bay St. Louis because I'd heard two things about it: that, with a vibrant arts scene and a lively waterfront downtown, it had been one of the most appealing towns in the state, and, because it was so close to Katrina's second landfall, it was battered beyond recognition.

The central business district looked at best as if it had been visited by Gordon Matta-Clark, the artist famous for splitting houses in two. And at worst, well, many buildings and even entire neighborhoods were reduced to concrete foundations and rubble that covered the ground like hellish garden mulch. An old railroad depot that still stood had been turned into a city hall and relief center. Outside, I chatted with a crew from the Army Corps of Engineers. They were working on the "blue roof" project, covering the gaping holes in roofs with blue plastic tarps. The tarps were everywhere, blue Band-Aids on the landscape.

A motley group of citizens had gathered in the depot's upstairs meeting room, where poster-sized satellite photos of the town lined the walls. "We're here to help provide tools to help you get back together," Dennis said. His quiet and self-effacing style seemed to go over well. Clearly, he was not Howard Roark, the architect from The Fountainhead.

Dennis asked a set of questions that Duany had suggested the day before: "What do you love about your town?What have you lost?What have you lost that you didn't like in the first place?"

Listening to the answers, I found myself wishing that I'd come to Bay St. Louis before Katrina. Actually, I'd driven through it 20 years earlier and had been struck at the time by its somnolent beauty, which seemed very exotic to me, like something out of The Andy Griffith Show. As I drove along the Gulf Coast in the mid 1980's people actually waved to me from their porches. I'd always meant to come back.

The biggest collective loss in Bay St. Louis, most people agreed, was a restaurant called Trapani's, where locals and tourists alike went for fried green tomatoes topped with crabmeat or crawfish étouffée. "We can't have a Bay St. Louis without a Trapani's on the beach," declared city councilman Jim Thriffiley, who also mentioned that he'd personally lost more than half of his 810,000-piece baseball-card collection. Another major loss was the galleries and studios. Gwen Impson, president of the local arts association, went on at length about the monthly art parties and about Alice Moseley, a local Grandma Moses who'd died in 2004 but whose home had remained a draw for tourists. That house survived the storm; Mayor Eddie Favre's house was one of hundreds that were simply swept away. "I'm still sleeping at the fire department," he said. "I'm sleeping in the chief's office."

After the meeting, we all piled into a van for a tour of what were once Bay St. Louis's proudest neighborhoods. Along Beach Boulevard, where picture-book mansions had been nestled among live oaks, mile after mile of houses were gone. The concrete foundations that remained were spray-painted with address numbers and the occasional message: Looters, if you come again, you will be shot. Or, All is well. Thank God and State Farm.

Many people, however, had no reason to thank their insurers. Mayor Favre, talking about his own lost home, said, "The insurance companies claim the water got it before the wind." In other words, Favre, like many of his neighbors, didn't have flood insurance, so his losses may not be covered. "What some folks are talking about is just walking away," he acknowledged. So what exactly were all these architects and planners designing?Was the renewal intended for the townspeople with whom they'd spent the day or for the commercial developers who sooner or later would snap up waterfront properties as the locals ran low on resilience?

Back in Biloxi, the Bimini Bay Ballroom had been converted into a giant architecture studio, with rows of long tables and eight-foot-high bulletin boards dividing the room into work areas. After an exhausting day of disaster tourism, Dennis and many of the others went straight to work. By Friday morning, the vast atelier looked like something out of M.A.S.H. It was exciting—inspiring, even—to watch the architects and planners sketching at breakneck speed, smoothing tracing paper over zoning maps and drawing what looked like crop circles but actually indicated five-minute walking radii from proposed new town centers.

But there was a moment when the whole thing—the optimism, the energy, the can-do spirit—threatened to implode. At 2 a.m. on day four, FEMA delivered a new set of flood-zone maps, documents that would likely dictate what could be built and, more to the point, what could be insured. By 11 a.m., everyone knew that the news wasn't good. Duany called the team leaders together for a tense meeting.

"I think the problem is totally recalibrating the aesthetic," Duany said to his generals, "not taking antebellum houses and cranking them up. The aesthetic has more to do with lighthouses. It will be like Tahiti. Totally cool."

But Stefanos Polyzoides, a Pasadena-based planner whose team was struggling with Biloxi's determination to build the maximum number of casinos, realized that if FEMA is, in effect, declaring large areas to be uninhabitable, or very expensive to inhabit, many residents, especially the poorest ones, are going to be forced out. "There is in this a political decision which is incendiary," he argued. "This is not a technical argument. This is a political argument." And the problem was that for all the talent in the big ballroom, no one there could design a solution that would avoid the coming conflict between public good and private development, between the interests of rich and poor.

The charette did generate an encyclopedic collection of well-thought-out, beautifully rendered plans. Polyzoides and the Biloxi team came up with drawings of sophisticated, pedestrian-friendly casinos that would line the street with shops instead of parking lots. An architect named John Anderson from Bay St. Louis drew a clever solution for the worst of the flood zones, a waterfront district with an open-air marketplace at street level—with stalls that could be emptied in advance of a storm—and housing units high above. Bill Dennis's team tried to tackle economic hardship by designing new beachfront antebellum-style mansions with rental properties out back, a strategy to offset the costs of rebuilding and better enable local home owners to hang on to their property.

But how will any of it happen?Who will pay for it?At the charette, Governor Barbour had declared that "the private sector is going to be more decisive on how the coast comes back than the public sector." But by the time he delivered his state-of-the-state address in January, he was boasting of a $10 billion allocation from the federal government, including $4 billion earmarked as grant money for underinsured homeowners whose houses were destroyed by the storm surge. Around the same time, former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale, a native Mississippian who serves as chairman of the Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal and who personally put up half of the $2 million budget for the charette, issued a report that was a call to arms for local leaders to "own the challenge of shaping a landscape and a legacy."

Certainly that's what Ocean Springs mayor Connie Moran is doing, owning the challenge. She's been trying hard to implement the New Urbanists' dreamy vision, but has wound up butting heads with the Mississippi Department of Transportation, which insists on rebuilding the highway bridge across the bay to Biloxi with extra lanes, in essence routing an interstate-sized highway right through the heart of her town.

Other communities are not quite ready for legacy shaping. In Bay St. Louis, "We're still dealing with the day-to-day stuff. We don't have all the utilities. We have a single open grocery store in the entire county," Allison Anderson, a local architect who participated in the charette, told me. Indeed, during the time I spent in Bay St. Louis, I drove for miles looking for something to eat and wound up lunching on a gas-station microwave sandwich. But that night I ate dinner at a barbecue put on by the local chamber of commerce and was deeply grateful for the saucy beef, the coleslaw, and the beer. Also, I was amazed by the cheerfulness of the townspeople, even as they told me stories of how they'd lost everything. When it comes to the part about resilience, I thought, the governor is right on the money. I bet that on my next visit to Bay St. Louis, I'll be able to eat at Trapani's.

Karrie Jacobs is a frequent T+L contributor.

How can Gulf Coast buildings better withstand floods?Radically elevated cottages, designed to meet new FEMA regulations, seem impractical. But other ideas explored at the Mississippi Renewal Forum include a new city hall in Pass Christian (top center) raised above an arcaded first floor, which could be used for a weekly farmers' market. Another idea: Turn storm debris into landfill, raising elevations in low-lying areas.

Pedestrian-friendly design is a tenet of New Urbanism. One of the key ideas to emerge at the Forum—and one that would impact communities all along the Gulf Coast—is the proposed realignment of U.S. Highway 90. Moving this coastal road farther inland would allow for the development of a scenic Beach Boulevard, welcoming foot traffic and allowing bicycle access. Trolley service would connect towns along the coast.

Casinos are one of the economic linchpins of the Gulf Coast region, yet they have not been integrated into downtown areas. Architects at the Forum proposed smaller-scale "boutique" casinos, set back from the water, encouraging pedestrian traffic.

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