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Rebuilding the Mississippi Gulf: Architects Respond

The Mississippi Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding, and Renewal aims for no less than an "economic renaissance for coastal Mississippi," said its chairman Jim Barksdale, a former president and CEO of Netscape. To help create a physical plan, state officials invited New Urbanist Andres Duany, FAIA, to lead a charrette last month in Biloxi, one of Hurricane Rita's hard-hit targets. Joining him were 100 members of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), including transportation planners, environmentalists, code writers, sociologists, and representatives of such large AE firms as SOM, HOK, HDR, and UDA. General teams will deal with regional issues, and 11 specialized teams will fan out to the three-county area's 11 municipalities, Duany said in an interview prior to the charrette.

The immediate goal will be to "get our codes and land-use planning online," said Leland Speed, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority. Speed voiced the hope that local residents would leave the charrettes "informed, optimistic, and clear about their rebuilding possibilities and directions." He said he also wanted to "offer tools for creating the kind of coast we want 20 years from now."


The CNU will proffer a kit of architectural parts, Duany said, including designs for temporary cottages and permanent mobile homes (with contractors offering to build models), a selection of locally compatible house plans from catalogs of working drawings, models of pedestrian-oriented strip developments, and sketches for new casinos that would allow "participation in street life." Design, he added, won't be imposed but "given the incentive of pre-permitting." Duany hopes landowners who choose not to rebuild will be allowed to merge their properties and sell to highrise condominium developers. He envisions "great waterfront avenues." Urban Design Associates, meanwhile is helping Mississippi Habitat for Humanity design sturdier houses in keeping with the coast's climate and culture.

A report to be published three weeks after the charrette will comprise a major portion of the commission's report to the governor, which is due by the end of the year.

While local groups pondered reconstruction strategies, here's what several designers had to say:

Belinda Stewart, AIA, Belinda Stewart Architects, Eupora, Mississippi: What concerns me is the word "new" in New Urbanism. I think it needs to be more of a vernacular urbanism. The charette leaders really have to know our vernacular, define it for themselves, and know how we should use it to inform what we put back. The magic happens when you bring the vernacular and the zeitgeist together. We don't need Seasides all over the coast. We need towns that look like the towns that were there.

Terrance Brown, FAIA, ASCG Incorporated, Albuquerque, New Mexico; chair, AIA Disaster Assistance program: There's going to be a lot of push for communities to rebuild exactly as was, which would be a mistake. With two hurricanes coming back-to-back, we're in a whole new weather realm, and the first question that should be asked is, should rebuilding occur along coastal areas. Federal money will have to go into breakwaters, but there's a limit to what we can protect. To build and rebuild in low-lying areas puts people in danger and affects us all through insurance rates. I hope communities that do rebuild do it smarter, make egress plans, and implement standard building codes.

Robert Tannen, New Orleans artist, consultant in urban and regional planning to DMJM-Harris: After Hurricane Camille nearly leveled this area in `69, Metasystems Corporation of Cambridge, Massachusetts, for whom I was the point man on the ground, recommended not allowing low-lying areas to be rebuilt. We favored placing new development north of the beaches along Interstate 10 and that low-lying areas be reserved for public parks and the like. Owners of beachfront properties weren't interested in selling at discounted prices to public entities. We also recommended a unified building code for a narrow inundation area, using Camille as a benchmark--150-mile-per-hour wind speeds and 25-foot tidal surges. What was implemented was a more modest code used in Florida. The thought was that the cost of our code would be too onerous.

Overall, our recommendations were implemented only where dictated by cost or federal requirements.

Ray Manning, AIA, Manning Architects, New Orleans (temporarily in Baton Rouge): In the Gulf people tend to not want to adhere to codes. Most of the residential construction wasn't built to current building codes. Developers and builders are going to have to be mandated to build quite differently than for suburban or tract developments.

Hindsight being 20/20, coastal erosion is what needs to be focused on. That's the thread common to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The barrier islands that were shock absorbers for tidal surges have been totally eroded. How do you create buffers against tidal surges?

I think rebuilding will be largely driven by multi-national AE corporations that already have contractual relationships with FEMA, such as Flour Daniels, Halliburton, the Shaw Group, and DMJM-Harris.

Frances Halsband, FAIA, whose firm Kliment/Halsband, New York, designed the Dan M. Russell, Jr. United States Courthouse in Gulfport, (2003): After a disaster, the sense of loss encourages conservatism, wanting to just get back what is lost. People who've lived in a place generation after generation won't want a visionary 21st century town, and governments are least able to move in visionary ways.

I don't think that we build communities in America. We build pieces of communities in a messy way. I have yet to see New Urbanist charettes lead to anything. Our democratic processes are so slow and inefficient, there'll be five years of discussions

Michael Barranco, AIA, Barranco Architecture, Jackson, Mississippi, who convinced state officials to invite Duany to organize the planning charette: The Mississippi Gulf Coast is no longer; it's like Pick-up Sticks. You drive down Coastal Highway 90 and you see beautiful wooden steps leading to nothing. When I toured the area with a church group, people were about their business. They weren't complaining. They're really resilient. I believe the majority will be back. It's exciting.

The charette process won't be outsiders coming in and telling the locals what to do. It will introduce principles that can make our places better.

To bring some structures up to stricter codes won't be affordable. Maybe we build less expensively but design schools to be hurricane shelters. There are issues like that and how we capture the very unique aspects that were the Gulf Coast.

Richard McNeel, AIA, Johnson Bailey Henderson McNeel Architects, Jackson, Mississippi: We don't want a rushed process, and we don't want to rebuild the coast exactly as it was. A lot of people agree.

You have to understand the dynamics of the Gulf Coast. It used to be a vacation and resort area for Louisiana and then changed with casinos building on barges. The casinos own land and will want to start building immediately. You also have to understand that each community has its own identity and each lost so many older homes that helped shape identity. Charette organizers will have to send many teams to work with each community.

To plan the entire Gulf, about 120 miles of coastline, is overwhelming.

Andrea Oppenheimer Dean