Gulfport plans VA and harbor areas, but dithers on code

The City Council in Gulfport, Mississippi voted in January to hire Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. (DPZ) to guide redevelopment of many of its city-owned properties. Before the month was over, Andres Duany arrived and led a 10-day conference on how to redevelop a half-dozen properties, including a 92-acre former Veterans Affairs site and land in the downtown and elsewhere.

Duany said the VA site would “partially be an interesting hotel retreat,” with 200 rooms, conference rooms, apartments and condominiums, restaurants and shops,” the SunHerald reported. The conference explored how to turn a marina area into what Duany called “a first-class harbor.” Some distance inland, “one of the most exciting things is the potential of a town center near I-10,” he also said.

The city is expected to choose a master developer. One of the chief candidates is Henry Turley, who developed Harbor Town in Memphis. Turley may be hired to devise a citywide strategy for reconstruction and development of walkable neighborhoods and to help with construction on the VA property, which the federal government is giving to the city.

The national firm HDR produced planning and design ideas for Gulfport during the Mississippi Renewal Forum several weeks after Hurricane Katrina. HDR is currently working on the design of Jones Park — a large park on the waterfront — and on landscape architecture and streetscape design downtown. In 2006 HDR worked on a vision for downtown and on application of the SmartCode to Gulfport.

The code was adopted last October, but recently there has been anxiety about a proposal from Mayor Brent Warr that would allow property owners to decide — lot by lot — whether to conform to the SmartCode. The SunHerald reported Jan. 5 that Warr wants to make the SmartCode optional in the areas where it was approved.

“He’s waffling big-time,” City Councilman Brian Carriere said about Warr. Although the mayor pushed for the SmartCode, a property owner recently filed a legal appeal claiming that the code’s regulation of his property is “selective,” and arbitrarily controls the heights and uses of his buildings.

optional taken too far

Sandy Sorlien, a consultant on SmartCode implementation, said on a Gulf Coast listserv that the controversy in Gulfport shows why new urbanists “should be more careful with the term ‘optional.’” If the SmartCode is not made the exclusive code for the entire municipality, Sorlien said, it should be presented as an option that can be chosen only by developers that own more than a specified number of acres. Lot-by-lot application of the SmartCode stands little chance of producing consistent streetscapes or of generating the kinds of neighborhoods and business districts envisioned by New Urbanism.