New Urbanist Plans Bring Extraordinary Opportunities Amid Post-Katrina Challenges

Media returning for Katrina anniversary find CNU members working alongside locals

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Returning to the Mississippi and Louisana this week for the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s, the national media saw that the enormity of the rebuilding job still dominates daily life along the Gulf Coast. They also found new urbanists – among the earliest planners to coordinate post-storm efforts, first for the the Mississippi Renewal Forum covering 11 cities in October 2005 and then for a string of smaller charrettes in both states – still hard at work.

As Michael Kunzelman reported in a July 26th Associated Press (AP) article given prominent coverage in USA Today, the Washington Post and other publications, “Two years after Katrina claimed more than 200 lives in Mississippi and left behind billions of dollars in damage, teams of visionary urban planners are embedded in Pass Christian and other coastal cities, helping them draft ambitious blueprints for rebuilding the ‘New Urbanism’ way.”

The AP article and other press reports acknowledge the stubborn obstacles, from insurance setbacks to high construction costs and overwhelmed governmental agencies, that make rebuilding difficult and frustrating, but they find city officials and citizens continuing to view the storm as an opportunity to change the course of development in a dramatic way. Working with new urbanist advisors, leaders in Mississippi cities such as Gulfport, Pass Christian, Long Beach are moving forward with innovative planning efforts, including the replacement of flawed existing zoning codes with new urbanist codes designed to yield walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods of enduring character.

Andres Duany, the CNU-co-founder who led the historic Mississippi Renewal charrette, told the AP that many of these communities had either "nonexistent to primitive" zoning and planning laws before Katrina. "They have gone from zero to some of the most advanced planning and zoning in the country," he said. Duany is the originator of the SmartCode, an open-source code that is being calibrated to local conditions by most of the Gulf cities that are reforming their zoning regulations.

Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran said SmartCode-inspired changes in the city's planning and zoning laws "can't come soon enough." She told the AP, "Some people are afraid we'll have 'Hooters at the harbor,' or they'll wake up one morning and see a gas station next door to their home. That's not what SmartCode is about. In fact, SmartCode will help protect that from happening.”
The AP story turned a national spotlight to the work of CNU members Robert Alminana and Jeffrey Bounds. Bounds headed up the creation of an optional city-wide form-based code for Gulfport and is now overseeing a public planning process in the downtown and Mississippi City neighborhoods that is creating regulating maps that apply the new code to specific property, pending city council approval. In addition to serving on the planning team for the redevelopment of the 92-acre Veterans Administration site in Gulfport, Alminana – who is described in the AP story as working out of a temporary office in “a motel room overlooking Mississippi Sound, is littered with blueprints and sketches” -- is also overseeing a planning process for Gulfport’s Handsboro neighborhood that is likely to result in adoption of SmartCode maps that set the table for traditional mixed-use urbanism to emerge.

The Gulfport City Council reviewed the new SmartCode maps intended to revitalize downtown Gulffport and Mississippi City this week and the Sun Herald, Southern Mississippi’s Pulitzer-Prize winning newspaper, reports that a vote on these “innovative building standards” may come next week. In downtown, SmartCode related plans call for turning US 90 into a tree-lined boulevard and for a higher-density district along the railroad line between 25th and 30th streets. In Mississippi City, the plan calls for lively mixed-use buildings at the end of Cowan Road but the preservation of cottage-lined streets elsewhere."For years, the city's conventional suburban code made these areas second-class citizens, and they fit mostly like square pegs in round holes," Bounds told the Sun Herald. "Under SmartCode, the city recognizes the incredible assets that Old Gulfport and Mississippi City represent, and is making a special effort to manage them carefully."

In other Katrina-anniversary coverage:

  • Robin Roberts was live in her hometown of Pass Christian, MS, commemorating the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's destructive collision with the Gulf Coast by visiting a city that was nearly leveled by the historic storm. As part of her visit, Roberts welcomed Pass residents Chris & Tina Swanier and their children, Chris Jr., Alicia and Aaron to their new Katrina Cottage, pictured at right.

    The home was designed by Marianne Cusato Cottages, sponsored by Cottage Living Magazine and Mercy Housing with materials donated by Lowe's Home Improvement. The concept of Katrina Cottages emerged from the CNU-led Mississippi Renewal Forum, after charrette-leader Andres Duany asked a team of architects and designers including Cusato to come up with designs for high-quality, small homes to meet the urgent need for affordable shelter in areas hit by hurricanes. Many of the cottages are designed to grow as owners find the means to make additions.

    In the photo below Roberts and the Swaniers are pictured with Rex Perry of Cottage Living and Gayla Schmitt of Mercy Housing.

  • And following a speech by Lafayette architect and CNU-member Steve Oubre at a Smart Growth conference in Baton Rouge Advocate ran a heartfelt editorial that strongly endorsed the new urbanist approach to rebuilding damaged areas of Louisiana.

    “Our willingness to follow the post-World War II paradigm of suburban sprawl was eroding the neighborhood values that made Louisiana a great place to grow up and that nurtured — even in the most economically disadvantaged communities — a rich cultural heritage,” wrote the editorial board.

    “In a community tightly knit by compact New Urbanist design, the interaction among neighbors emulates the values of small towns. Growing up in a small town in Louisiana, Oubre noted, he couldn’t get away with anything as a teenager. Now Oubre lives in a new neighborhood with a traditional design: When his teenage son does something he shouldn’t in the neighborhood, father Oubre’s going to hear about it,” continued the editorial.

    “It might not require a New Urbanist village to raise a child, but it really helps.
    “If the argument about smart growth is to make sense to Louisianians, it cannot be limited to a discussion of building types alone. Louisiana has a subtropical climate with distinctive Cajun and Spanish colonial architecture, and a rich mix of cultural and language heritages.

    “Smart growth can provide economic and social benefits in places from the Dakotas to Jacksonville. For Louisiana, though, there is a special obligation in the wake of Katrina and Rita to build with sensitivity to a past that was being eroded before the hurricanes struck the state.

    “If Louisiana does not reach back to rebuild with a sense of values, the casualties of Katrina and Rita will include the sense of place that animated the good qualities of life in the regions hit by those hurricanes."

Images courtesy of Jim Schmitt, Pass Christian