New Urbanism in Florida Articles

In Florida: A New Emphasis on Design

by Beth Dunlop

Back in 1981, a developer named Robert Davis set out from Miami on a sentimental journey through Florida. He had inherited 80 acres on the Gulf of Mexico in Florida’s Panhandle, and he thought he would build a nostalgic beach town there. But nostalgia soon gave way to what came to be called “New Urbanism,’’ and the result was Seaside, a tiny resort town that has attracted wide praise for its planning and architecture. Today, Florida has become a showcase for smart — in several senses of the word — development, with new towns that feature buildings by an array of illustrious architects and gifted young designers.

Florida’s New Urbanist developments — ranging from sophisticated coastal resorts to college-town neighborhoods — invoke historic architectural styles and turn developer clichés upside down. They offer houses on narrow, walkable streets that lead to parks, gardens, shops and even, in some cases, neighborhood schools.

Controversial at first, these traditional-neighborhood developments, whether new towns or suburban enclaves, are now considered by many real estate theorists to be the leading edge, especially as new studies show both growing demand for taut, livable neighborhoods, undergirded by strict principles of town planning, and better investment potential, indicating that houses in such developments appreciate better than their conventional counterparts.

These new towns include Rosemary Beach and WaterColor on the Florida Panhandle; Windsor, near Vero Beach; and the much-discussed Celebration, near Orlando. At a time when luxury sales elsewhere, even in the recently booming South Beach section of Miami, are skittish, in the New Urbanist developments, houses and cottages, apartments and town houses command a premium price with no shortage of buyers, according to the developers.

Watercolor, South Walton County

“More than anywhere else in America, development in Florida proves that architecture and urbanism can transform the whole image, the value of a place,’’ said the New York-based architect Robert A. M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, who has been involved in the design of two of the Florida projects.

What is happening in the state stems from a combination of idealism and hard-nosed business acumen. Twenty years ago, Seaside was regarded as a novel experiment, and scoffed at by developers accustomed to filling beachfronts with high-rises and suburban tracts with cookie-cutter houses on cul-de-sacs.

Today, Seaside is more often a source of admiration and emulation, and the Florida Panhandle, once derided as the “redneck Riviera,’’ has assumed a far more sophisticated identity as other New Urbanist towns grow up on the sugar-sand dunes of the Gulf of Mexico. There are three of them now, with a fourth about to come out of the ground, all within an eight-mile stretch of coastline. “I can’t think of any place else within hundreds of miles that is such a center of architectural excellence,’’ said the Miami architect and town planner Andres Duany, who with his wife, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, planned Seaside and the nearby Rosemary Beach.

Next to Seaside, which is only 80 acres, is the 499-acre town of WaterColor, which embraces both the beachfront and an inland coastal dune lake. Eight miles east is Rosemary Beach, a Caribbean-inspired cottage colony. Still to come — with groundbreaking next year — is WaterSound, to be built on more than a mile of untouched sand dunes.

“This is not some naïve ‘if you build it they will come’ scheme,” said Peter Rummel, chairman and chief executive of the St. Joe Company, the giant land company developing WaterColor and WaterSound. “This is calculated, and it starts with understanding the size and shape of the market. It is state of the art in terms of where we think community development is going, and philosophically we also believe that it’s the right way to build.’’

It is not only the Florida Panhandle where this is taking place.

Celebration, the Walt Disney Company’s much-watched new town next to the theme parks outside of Orlando, has just reached the ripe old age of 5 and has a population of approximately 5,000. Haile Plantation Village Center, with about 2,000 houses in a variety of neighborhoods connecting to a village center by wooded trails, greenways and a system of public commons, began two decades ago as a more conventional planned unit development on 1,700 acres near Gainesville just five miles from the University of Florida; its developers have recently annexed 550 more acres to continue building. And Windsor, the high-end resort town on the Atlantic coast just north of Vero Beach continues to grow slowly and garner admiration; it was the subject of the Institute for Classical Architecture’s fall “salon” last month at the University Club in New York.

Axiomatically, such towns cost more than a typical subdivision. Home builders grouse that adding porches, almost an absolute in New Urbanist towns (although some codes call for garden walls and courtyards instead), automatically adds $8,000 to $10,000 to the price tag for construction that does not show up in the square-foot count.

The costs range widely: an average house in the New Urbanist-inspired SouthWood, near Tallahassee, sells for $171,800, and the bottom price at Celebration is $242,910. Haile Plantation, which already has 4,000 residents, offers numerous housing choices, from a $150,000 town house in the village center to a $450,000 house facing the golf course.

Seaside’s cottages — there are 430 of them, with a handful for sale at any given time — are typically in the $800,000-to-$900,000 range but skyrocket into the low millions for those on the beach. At Rosemary Beach, “lofts’’ and “flats’’ sell for $315,000 and up, while a 5,500-square-foot house facing the gulf is on the market for $5.5 million. With 209 buildings completed and another 156 under way, Rosemary’s prices go from $300 to $1,000 a square foot.

At Seaside, beachfront lots (no houses) sell for $1.6 to $2.3 million. Across the state at Windsor, lots sell for $200,000 to $3.6 million and houses list for $895,000 up past $5 million. Windsor currently has 129 houses and will ultimately have about 350.

The list of those who have planned the towns reads like a Who’s Who in architecture. Mr. Duany and Ms. Plater-Zyberk, who is also dean of the University of Miami School of Architecture, are among America’s leading New Urbanists, with some 200 town plans to their credit, including Rosemary Beach and Windsor.

Mr. Stern and Jaquelin Robertson, a New York architect and former dean at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, together designed Celebration for Disney. Mr. Robertson is now the master planner for WaterColor, while Mr. Stern has designed WaterSound.

But that is just the beginning. Seaside has become a kind of architectural shrine, with buildings by architects as disparate as the Luxembourg-born Leon Krier and the late Aldo Rossi of Italy, both classicists, as well as such comparatively avant-garde designers as Steven Holl of New York and the firm of Mockbee-Coker of Auburn, Ala. There are houses and public buildings by such New York architects as Walter Chatham, Alex Gorlin and Deborah Berke, a mixed-use complex by Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti of Cambridge, Mass., and a new chapel by Scott Merrill of Vero Beach.

WaterColor’s 60-room beachfront hotel was designed by the New York architect David Rockwell, known for his memorable restaurants, including Nobu. The Cambridge, Mass., architect Graham Gund designed WaterColor’s $1.2 million beach apartments.

Celebration’s downtown has buildings by Michael Graves, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown, Cesar Pelli, Philip Johnson and the late Charles Moore. At Windsor, there are a chapel by Mr. Krier, a beach club by Mr. Robertson and houses by the Duany & Plater-Zyberk firm and Hugh Newell Jacobsen. At Aqua, a New Urbanist-inspired residential enclave under construction in Miami Beach, the list of architects includes the firm of Harriri & Harriri as well as Mr. Chatham and Mr. Gorlin.

Most buildings in these new towns are not by the famous, however, but by young architects based in Florida and elsewhere in the Southeast. “One of the things I’m proudest of is having been able to help young architects when they weren’t well known,’’ said Mr. Davis, Seaside’s developer. “I have a pretty good batting average at picking young architects when they were just at the start of their career.’’

But architectural firepower is only part of the arsenal, according to Mr. Rummel of the St. Joe Company. “It all starts with an intelligent plan that you can execute wisely,’’ he said. “It doesn’t do any good to hire great architects unless you first hire great planners. However, if you plan really intelligently and put great architecture on top of that, the top line grows.’’

New Urbanist planning relies on the form and design of American towns built before World War II, and the principles derive from careful analysis by Duany & Plater-Zyberk and many others. Streets are purposely narrow, grids well-defined. Neighborhoods are organized on the idea of a “five-minute walk,’’ which ensures that residents can get to a shop or park or tennis court without getting into a car.

Out of this derives a set of architectural expectations, based on studies of local historic prototypes. As Celebration was being developed, for example, Disney sent the architect Joseph Barnes on a trip throughout the South, asking him to photograph every interesting small-town house and streetscape he could find. Celebration’s houses are based on a range of architectural prototypes, up-to-date versions of Southern small-town domestic architecture. Current sales prices range from $242,910 for a town house to $975,000 for a seven-bedroom lakefront house.

Perhaps unexpectedly, architects say they luxuriate in working in the historic vernacular prescribed at these New Urbanist towns either by a code or a “pattern book.’’ Mr. Robertson describes it as “exhilarating and liberating, a release.’’ She added, “It’s crossbred and so curious, an architecture that is at once rustic and funky and yet imbued with grand ideas.’’

At the 119-acre Rosemary Beach, the code calls for a tawny paint palette and houses with courtyard gardens and “sleeping porch’’ balconies. House styles, based on an array of prototypes found in the Caribbean and early Spanish Florida, are prescribed and building materials are stipulated — real stucco, lap siding, wood windows — all to ensure that there is a high level of quality throughout the beachfront town. Every plan is scrutinized by the Rosemary Beach town architect, Richard Gibbs.

“You’re buying a protection scheme, almost like hiring a bodyguard,’’ Mr. Gibbs said. “You’re trusting that somebody will watch your investment. My job is to watch out for the value of everybody’s construction. We aren’t changing the course midstream, so we don’t entertain new ideas.’’

That “protection scheme’’ yields houses — the range is from full-fledged beach cottages to carriage houses — that sell for $420,000 (for a one-bedroom dwelling) to $5.5 million on the beach.

Nearby, at WaterColor, home sites average $284,600 and new houses $518,000, though the apartments on the Gulf of Mexico more than double that price. WaterColor’s house designs are based on a pattern book created by the Pittsburgh architect Ray Gindroz and his firm, Urban Design Associates, who first did such a book for Celebration. The pattern books offer what is in some ways a “kit of parts,’’ showing designers and builders what is considered to be allowable massing, detailing and construction.

Critics of the New Urbanism range from tract home builders, who argue that the economies of large-scale production offered by their approach have wider market appeal, to academics who charge that the New Urbanism deflects attention from needy center cities.

New Urbanists respond to the former charge by citing studies showing a growing preference in the marketplace for traditional town developments. To the latter criticism, Mr. Duany, Ms. Plater-Zyberk and others can point to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Hope Six program, in which much-debased public housing projects are being turned into neighborhoods and to other in-town projects (one such is in downtown Stuart, Fla.) that have relied on the ideas of New Urbanism.

Critics have also described Florida’s New Urbanist developments as not being “real’’ because they are resorts. And indeed a number of Florida’s New Urbanist towns — the four in the Panhandle and Windsor — are essentially resort towns, with just a few full-time residents, though the number is growing. Mr. Duany points out that historically most Florida towns originated as resorts — “Miami was a resort,’’ he said — that evolved. “Resorts have to be utopias, so they have to be better than normal. They are a laboratory to a higher htmiration.’’

Analysts are looking at the emerging markets of demanding buyers — such as middle-aged baby boomers with mobility, buying either second homes or seeking new places to live where the quality of life is high. A current study by Lend Lease Real Estate Investments, the giant property management firm, asserts that buyers increasingly want the amenity of well-planned communities.

“These may not yet be communities, in the full sense of the word,’’ Mr. Stern said, “but they are sounder in terms of their respect for the environment. They have more green space. The architecture is more fully integrated. And ultimately, they are aggregations of houses that make visual communities and will become real communities.’’

Rosemary Beach has a series of town greens, as well as smaller pocket parks and its own butterfly garden. Houses are linked to parks, pools and the beach by a series of sandy footpaths and wooden walkways. Seaside — the oldest of Florida’s New Urbanist towns — has shops, restaurants, offices, a new chapel and a school in addition to its 430 homes. Windsor has a widely admired new chapel and town center, as well as the more unusual offering of a polo field.

Two other towns built along New Urbanist principles — Abacoa in Jupiter and SouthWood in Tallahassee — both have outpost campuses of the state university system as additional attractions. Celebration, which Mr. Stern calls “the most important of these towns in terms of its scope,’’ has a kindergarten-through-12th-grade school as well as a lakeside “downtown’’ with shops, restaurants and a movie theater.

WaterColor not only has the hotel and neighboring beach club and its inland lake with a boathouse built and a restaurant planned. It also has a 600-foot long “central park’’ with a linear butterfly garden, tended by horticulturalists, as its centerpiece.

“The most obvious payout is the visual, the qualitative difference that results from good design,’’ said P. Michael Reininger, senior vice president for creative services at the St. Joe Company, developer of SouthWood in addition to WaterColor and WaterSound. “What’s even more interesting than the visual is the palpable value, the experiential value. Some of it comes at an obvious and overt level, but some is at a subconscious and subtle level.’’

In Florida land development, St. Joe is the proverbial gorilla. The company is the state’s largest private landowner, with holdings of one million acres in northwest Florida alone, roughly the size of the state of Delaware. The company owns more than half the land in at least six counties in Florida. This makes it a formidable force in both land development and environmental conservation.

Mr. Rummel was named chairman and chief executive in 1997, after heading the development arm of the Walt Disney Company. That, of course, included the creation of Celebration. As a result, he has become one of the country’s most articulate proponents of the soundness of the ideas of the New Urbanism, saying “it is the right way to build long-term value.’’

In Florida, the idea of a patient approach to building long-term value can be an anomalous one. Developers of high-rise condominiums can sell out quickly in hot markets and move on to another site. But for builders of towns and neighborhoods, the process is much more drawn-out, creating a greater long-term responsibility for quality.

Though Florida law requires that governance be turned over to the buyers within 10 years, developers like Mr. Davis at Seaside or Galen Weston at Windsor tend to retain ownership of the public and commercial buildings, making them stakeholders in their own developments.

Mr. Duany, who recently was co-author with Ms. Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck of the book “Suburban Nation’’ and who lectures and writes frequently on all htmects of the New Urbanism, has made a case study of land prices in the Panhandle. He has found that inland lots in conventional beach developments in other Panhandle destinations like Destin are selling at $13 a square foot. At Rosemary Beach and WaterColor, an inland lot goes for $57 and $61 a square foot, respectively, while at Seaside an inland lot is twice that, $119 per square foot.

The phenomenal escalation of land values at Seaside is almost the stuff of real estate legend. The earliest lots sold for as low as $15,000 in the early 1980’s; today a plot in Seaside’s new cemetery sells for that price. A beachfront lot goes for between $1.6 million and $2.3 million, unbuilt. Away from the beach, lots start at $300,000. Houses that cost less than $100,000 in the 80’s now sell from $499,000 to $1.1 million. Offering prices at other New Urbanist towns also tend to be at premium levels.

A recent study by John Rymer, vice president of the Texas-based Morrison Homes, examined Celebration and two other traditional-neighborhood developments (Kentlands in the Washington suburb of Gaithersburg, Md., and Laguna West near Sacramento) in comparison with nearby conventional counterparts. He discovered that though the initial investment was higher per square foot in New Urbanist neighborhoods, the appreciation over three years (1997-2000) was steadily better, an overall rate of 16.7 percent compared with 14.2 percent.

“People will pay more for well-thought-out design,’’ Mr. Rummel said. “That’s because we’re building environments that have enduring value.’’

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company.