Economic Development

Mississippl's Urbanist Odyssey

The ravaged Gulf Coast has a rare opportunity to recreate itself. But it has to decide what it wants to look like.
by | September 2006
 

One evening recently, the downtown business owners of Long Beach, Mississippi, met with local elected officials in a cramped school board chamber to talk about urban planning. Just outside in the sticky night, a small village of FEMA trailers was parked on the grass. A few miles away, Jeff Davis Avenue, as close to a Main Street as you'll find in the Gulf Coast sprawl of Long Beach, looked as if Hurricane Katrina had blown through only yesterday. Shells of gutted buildings still stood in some places, but closer to the water, nothing was left but a ragtag army of beaten oak trees and concrete slabs where houses used to stand.

Planner George Carbo started the meeting by describing the sort of downtown that Smart Code, the zoning credo of the New Urbanist planning movement, would make possible. It would encourage exactly the thing that current zoning in Long Beach doesn't allow: compact development along the sidewalk with a mix of shops, restaurants and apartments or condos above them. Joe DeFazio, a member of the Long Beach planning commission, picked up the torch there. "The downtown should be pedestrian-friendly," he said. "We want everyone to park once and walk to several things."

One alderman chimed in that he wanted downtown Long Beach to resemble Paris, at least in terms of its stroll-worthy ambiance. Others suggested models closer to home, such as the French Quarter in New Orleans or Ocean Springs, a quaint Gulf Coast neighbor whose sidewalk boutiques and sushi counters survived Katrina pretty well intact. It was then that a faction of merchants who had been grumbling quietly to themselves finally spoke up. "We aren't those places," one of them shouted. "We live in Long Beach, Mississippi." Another opponent piped up. "The fact is, people don't want to walk," he protested. "It can't happen here."

By the end of the contentious night, the only conclusion was that another meeting with the downtown merchants would be necessary. "You have to buy into this," Mayor Billy Skellie told them, "because you're the ones spending the money to rebuild." For better or worse, there was--and still is--time left for deliberation: Water and sewer lines in this part of the Katrina zone are still broken, and nobody's building anything until they get fixed. So Long Beach has a little while longer to figure out just how it wants to emerge from the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. "When we get water and sewer back in January or February, we oughta be cookin'," the mayor said. "And we better not still be talking about a plan then."

ILLUMINATING THE CHOICES

It's been an intense and tiring year of urban planning in Long Beach, as it has been up and down the Mississippi coast. The planning odyssey began just three weeks after the August 29 storm, when Governor Haley Barbour appointed a blue-ribbon commission charged with recommending how to build back "bigger and better." Then in October, Miami architect Andres Duany and a cabal of town designers descended on the Gulf Coast at the Republican governor's unexpected invitation. What ensued was a week-long planning session--a "charette," in the parlance of New Urbanism--intended, as Barbour put it, to "illuminate the choices" local governments face for starting over. The forum produced sprawl-busting plans for each of Mississippi's 11 coastal communities, filtering everything from transportation to zoning rules through a soft-focus lens of walkability and old-fashioned town-planning values.

In Long Beach, a few points of genuine consensus emerged. Hardly any of the 16,000 residents (2,000 fewer than before Katrina) wanted to follow the path of nearby Gulf Shores, Alabama, or Fort Walton Beach, Florida, where sterile rows of hi-rise condos swarm the waterfront. Nor were many comfortable with the vision unfolding just up the road in Biloxi, Mississippi, which is poised to emerge as an even bigger gambling destination than it was, a sort of southern Las Vegas with golf, sport fishing and humidity to go along with the heat.

But it's a lot easier for a bedroom community such as Long Beach to agree on what it wants to avoid than on what it wishes to embrace. And so what's happening now is the hard part: translating visions and concerns into real public policies that respect what was lost and special--antebellum mansions, for example--while re-shaping what wasn't so special--fast-food joints surrounded by parking lots.

The difficulty isn't just that Mississippi is trying to think unconventionally. It's also that one year after the storm, the adrenaline of crisis has worn off and frustration is settling in. In Mississippi alone, more than 100,000 people still live in cramped tin- can trailers. Not as much rebuilding is happening as most people had hoped to see by now. Meanwhile, local governments face a looming property tax crisis: For the first time next year, the tax rolls will reflect the loss of almost every building on the state's most valuable waterfront land.

"Time is moving too fast, and time is moving too slow," says Alison Anderson, a Gulf Coast architect. "Too slow because we don't yet have guidance documents and regulatory actions that will help us rebuild in the way we want. And too fast because developers are taking advantage of this and moving quickly to get stuff done before regulations come into play that will limit their options. It's an age-old issue: Who will build first and worst?"

FEMA'S NEW RULES

There's a popular storyline about Mississippi's response to Katrina that some people on the Gulf Coast are tired of hearing. It's that Mississippi handled the storm and its aftermath with exceptional competence, and that Haley Barbour, a former Washington lobbyist and a confidant of President Bush, used his capitol connections to snag a generous relief package for his state. There's truth to both of those statements, and the smattering of "now open" signs in front of a few hotels along U.S. 90, the beachfront highway, are symbols of hope. But the recovery is really just starting. In some places, there's still debris to pick up. "I have family in Atlanta and Charlotte, and they're like, 'Everything's fine now, right?'" says Ellis Anderson, a coastal development watchdog who lives in the decimated town of Bay St. Louis. "People don't have a clue. The media's over it, they figure we're all back to normal. We're so many years away from normal it's not funny."

For the first time, Long Beach, Biloxi and other Gulf Coast towns are being forced to reckon with the unfortunate realities of their location in a hurricane shooting gallery. Whatever they decide they want to look like in the years ahead, they're forced to make choices that involve either pulling back from the coast or at least acknowledging the dangers of building in a hazardous location.

The hardest thing for many to come to grips with is that some people simply can't come back to the places where they once lived. One reason is because FEMA, which underwrites the national flood insurance program, is pushing to mitigate damage from future hurricanes. Using data on how Katrina's storm surge washed over the landscape, FEMA is drawing new maps showing where rebuilt structures must be elevated to storm-safe heights in order to qualify for flood insurance--and mortgages.

In particularly low-lying parts of the Gulf Coast, FEMA's preliminary maps suggest that anyone who wants to come back will have to live atop pilings as high as 17 feet. "Down here, we've got a lot of 80-, 85- year-old ladies," says George Lawrence, a Biloxi councilman who represents parts of the flattened peninsula east of that city's downtown. "They can't walk up 25 steps six times a day. People can't live like this."

Councilman Lawrence, who survived Hurricane Camille in 1969, thinks the federal government is overreacting. "If you're going to make this big change to protect everyone living near the water, then start at Brownsville, Texas, and run all the way along the coastline to New York," Lawrence argues. In fact, however, state officials in Mississippi are backing FEMA on this one. "If people choose to live in an exposed area, they have to recognize there's a cost associated with it," says Leland Speed, Mississippi's top economic development official. "We can't keep looking to the American taxpayer to pick up the tab." And so, as they contemplate their future, towns such as Long Beach and Biloxi must factor in not only what they want to become but what the federal and state governments will allow them to become.

THE LONGER, HARDER PATH

If Mississippi turns even a little of its coastal sprawl into a New Urbanist experiment, the transformation will owe much to Leland Speed and to his chance encounter with a book. Back in 2004, Speed was doing some Christmas shopping. While waiting to check out at a bookstore, he grabbed a copy of Andres Duany's New Urbanist manifesto, "Suburban Nation," flipped through it and bought it on a whim. Speed was a real estate developer before Barbour asked him to run the Mississippi Development Authority, and Duany's ideas about returning to traditional town planning rather than unplanned sprawl appealed to him. He later bought 50 copies and began handing them out to mayors around Mississippi.

So Speed was already convinced when, after Katrina, a Jackson architect asked him if he would be interested in having Duany come to Mississippi. Duany met with Speed and Jim Barksdale, the Netscape software entrepreneur whom Barbour had tapped to run his rebuilding commission. "Barksdale had to be sold on it," Speed recalls. "We all got together--he and Duany bonded. Then we went in to see the governor. He'd never heard of a charette. But he said, 'Barksdale, if you and Speed are for it, I guess I'm for it, too.'"

The October charette brought together 200 New Urbanist planners, local architects and designers, elected officials and citizens from each of the 11 coastal communities to draw up plans for each town. Casino and condo developers were not invited, in order to prevent them from dominating the discussion. Some who were involved now believe that was a mistake. That's because Biloxi, whose size (more than 50,000 prior to Katrina) makes it crucial to the coast's future, never took the New Urbanists seriously.

Biloxi did hold its own local planning sessions and brought in Living Cities, a New York-based firm, to sketch a vision for what a neighborhood built to FEMA's elevations might look like. That plan, which the city council is considering, leaves the lowest-lying areas as park land and proposes dense blocks of mid-rise housing that might have to stand atop one or two decks of parking.

But the dominant presence in Biloxi will be a crescent of casinos ringing the waterfront. The Mississippi legislature passed a law allowing coastal casinos to move from barges onto dry land, as far as 800 feet in from the water. The law, which may do more to shape Biloxi's future than any urban planning work, kicked off a flurry of land-buying as the old casinos build back on shore and new entrants plan large-scale casino resorts. According to Mayor A.J. Holloway, "Biloxi will have 18 to 20 casinos in five or 10 years."

With the exception of Biloxi, however, all of the cities built upon the October forum by inviting the New Urbanists back. To further refine the plans, they held more charettes--so many, in fact, that some weary local officials who have grown tired of all the meetings now call them "bull-charettes." But many are sold on the idea of using Katrina as an opportunity to make a clean break with suburban sprawl. Almost all are at some stage of adopting the Smart Code.

In Gulfport, where Katrina demolished several blocks of downtown buildings and hollowed out many more, Mayor Brent Warr beams when showing off the city's waterfront plans. The idea is to anchor a dense new grid of condos around a new park and harbor. The plan also makes way for rebuilding one of Gulfport's two wrecked casinos as a pedestrian draw but looks to Monte Carlo for inspiration rather than Las Vegas. Warr admits that he's "charetted-out," but says Gulfport's plans are already drawing interest from developers. "It's working," Warr says. "It's the harder path, that's for sure. It's the longer path. People get frustrated waiting for you to show something. But I think it'll keep us from ruining ourselves in our redevelopment. It'll give us an opportunity to come back as something far better than we'd ever dreamed."

In Ocean Springs, the least-damaged town on Mississippi's coast, New Urbanism was an easy sell. That's because there's still enough old urbanism left under the shady oaks of Washington Avenue for people to understand the goal of all the planning work. Mayor Connie Moran is focusing much of her attention on the town's main thoroughfare, U.S. 90, whose four lanes of traffic are currently a racetrack lined with strip malls and drive-thrus. The town recently passed stringent design guidelines that Moran says will reshape the highway's character over time by forcing parking to the rear of buildings and requiring high- quality landscaping and building materials. "Ocean Springs is fiercely protective of its historic character," Moran says. "We don't wish to adopt a growth pattern that just puts us in the ubiquitous realm of tacky urban sprawl."

Moran lost her highest-profile fight, however. Katrina wasted the bridge that had connected Ocean Springs to Biloxi along U.S. 90. It was a narrow four-lane span, and after the storm, the Mississippi Department of Transportation proposed super-sizing it to six lanes plus four breakdown lanes. Moran appealed for a smaller bridge, arguing that the plan would undermine the pedestrian-friendly environment Ocean Springs was trying so hard to cultivate. In the end, MDOT agreed to include a biking and walking path and to add design touches intended to make the big bridge more aesthetically pleasing. But the New Urbanists still call it "bridgezilla."

"It turns our community into a speedway to the casinos," says Moran. "Their mission is to move people," she says of MDOT. "Our mission is to build places."

A MESSY SLATE

Long Beach hasn't taken to New Urbanism with quite the same gusto as some of its neighbors. That's because none of the local elected leaders have emerged as disciples of the movement in quite the way Moran and Warr have. It's also because Long Beach is having a harder time wrestling with competing notions of what sort of a place it really wants to be.

Part of Long Beach's identity problem is its location. To the east sit Gulfport and Biloxi, as big and workaday as cities get on the Mississippi coast. To the west are the retirement, resort and artist communities of Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis and Waveland. In a weird way, Katrina's aftermath mirrored this divide. The resort towns were so completely obliterated that they have no choice but to start over from scratch. Meanwhile, fiscal stability in the bigger cities-- Gulfport's sales taxes are soaring and Biloxi's gaming revenues are rebounding nicely--gives them room to breathe.

By contrast, Long Beach was neither unlucky enough to be completely destroyed nor fortunate enough to be saved by a diversified economy. Next year, when the property-tax rolls reflect the loss of just about every structure located within 1,000 feet of the Gulf of Mexico, Long Beach will lose about $2 million in revenue from its $9 million annual budget. "It's very critical," says Mayor Billy Skellie. "As far as a solution goes, I have none. I don't know what we're gonna do to backfill it. We'll have to do all we can to make it work, and I don't have all the answers."

Alderman Allen Holder thinks he has an answer: He wants to put a casino on the city's most prime waterfront lot. Long Beach "not only has to do something," Holder says, "but it has to be something that gives us a quick hit." If there is one thing Katrina proved, it is that casinos may be the most resilient industry to site in a hurricane zone, if only because they have the cash and the incentive to hustle back to business. That's not something that people who loathe gambling like to hear. But the proof from Biloxi is hard to ignore: One casino there had reopened by Christmas and seven are back in operation now. Holder says that a Long Beach casino "could be a place for locals who don't want to get down in the concrete jungle of Biloxi."

Long Beach voters rejected casinos in 1993 by a 2-to-1 margin and have stayed cold to them ever since. It seems that Katrina changed a lot of minds. When Holder put a referendum on the ballot endorsing a casino in June, it won with 55 percent of the vote. The gambling question remains controversial, however. Some aldermen remain opposed to gambling, as does Mayor Skellie. Some doubt that a lone casino would want to locate so far from the action in Biloxi. The casino plan led the Sun Herald to editorialize that "Long Beach is stumbling into the future rather than planning for it."

Still, the urban planning process is going on, just on a separate track. In February, a citizen-driven steering committee invited the New Urbanists who had previously worked with Long Beach back for another charette. Additional hearings all summer long refined a proposed master plan that envisioned a revived Jeff Davis Avenue terminating at a new park on the Gulf. The draft plan foresees mid- rise condos as a waterfront hub around the park, stepping gradually back down to the single-family houses with yards that are the suburban norm here. A version of Smart Code, calibrated to the streets and architecture of Long Beach, would guide developers to see the plan through.

In Holder's view, a casino resort is completely compatible with the traditionalist visions that the New Urbanists have come up with for Long Beach. "We can build in a way where you know it's a casino, but there's not the glitz," Holder says. "We can coexist with gaming and still maintain our small-town charm." Mike Barbera, pastor of the Church of the Good Shepherd, disagrees. "There used to be a lushness here: the oaks, the azaleas, the antebellum mansions," he says. "I'm concerned Long Beach will become like Las Vegas."

As the downtown merchants' response to the Smart Code showed, Long Beach has a way to go. One business owner characterized the whole effort as "people from the outside telling us what we can and can't do with our property." Jacqui Lipski, a citizen volunteer on the local steering committee, disagreed with him. She countered that the community as a whole had to make decisions about the use of its land because so many properties had been wiped clean. "People have three choices," she said. "They can leave their properties the way they are. They can rebuild. Or they can sell."

That's the cold calculus of redevelopment everywhere. But urban planning is an emotional business. It's even more volatile in a place where so many people have lost their homes and businesses, and where there are still more questions than answers about what comes next. Many have said that Katrina created a "blank slate" upon which a new Gulf Coast could be drawn. It is, in fact, quite a messy slate, cluttered not just with title deeds but also with memories of places that were loved despite their flaws--perhaps even more now that they are gone. Mayor Skellie understands this as well as anyone. "It's hard in the United States," he acknowledges, "and in Southern Mississippi, to shove anything down people's throats."

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