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Seaside with a Vengeance

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA Editor-in-chief

Watercolors town center

Photo: Courtesy of Arvida

I’ve always had a soft spot for the Emerald Coast. That’s the Florida euphemism for the strand alongside the northern Gulf of Mexico from Pensacola to Panama City bordered by clear, blue-green water and dunes of blazing white sand. After years of languishing away under an indolent cloud, the sands are sizzling. In the last 30 years, the region has morphed from somnolent and unpopulated to hyper-kinetic urban fringe, so much that in three years, Highway 30-A, which follows the coastline, has become almost unrecognizable—a succession of 4-story pastel, stuccoed mini-malls and tasteful New Urbanist enclaves. Seaside has caught on with a vengeance.

Did the owner of those 80 acres, Robert Davis, ever dream what implications his ideas might have? The original plan, conceived by Duany/Plater-Zyberk, quickly captured the national imagination, fostering a generation of further work for the planners and widespread recognition for their principles. For Davis and that unique quadrant of Florida, however, the ideas have worked almost too well. Spurred by the public clamor, other developers have confiscated his original idea (a dreamy small-town vernacular vision), and built it all around him. Hemmed in, he literally had no where else to go.

If he can do it, why can’t I, they seem to be saying, while the property prices and land values continue to climb. Witness his neighbor, the St. Joe paper company, which owns the surrounding 499 acres around Seaside. They have contracted with the Arvida Corporation to develop a Seaside-inspired upscale community called Watercolors that literally encircles the original. It’s hard to tell where one stops and the other starts. Such is the character of an idea: once out of the box, who controls it? Who owns it? In this case, no longer Davis, but a large corporation.

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Thank goodness that company had the foresight to hire Cooper-Robertson, a distinguished architectural firm, as planners. The expansion they designed fits with the original scheme, though in a more expansive way. They and other talented firms, including Graham Gund, the Rockwell Group, Looney Ricks Kiss are setting the mark for the quality of the buildings, and it appears to be solid, if not wildly imaginative—but such a capital-intensive development would be astonishing if it fostered wild originality.

Watercolors is just the tip of the iceberg, or the sand dune, as the case may be. Further down the coast, in both directions, you find yourself surrounded by other exemplars of 90s prosperity translated to New Urbanism: Carillon Beach, Rosemary Beach, with the occasional real-live town thrown in, although they’re under huge pressure to convert. It’s almost as if everyone wants in, and unfortunately not everyone can replicate the design level achieved in the original: many of the new structures are merely cheap copies of the first New Town with the Old Ways.

With so many people moving in, and tourism rampant, infrastructure seems overstressed. Already both natives and arrivistes are complaining about the lumbering succession of Mercedes and Cadillac SUVs that dominate the roadways. Highway 98, formerly a 2-lane affair, is being widened for heft and speed. Fast food is knocking at the door. With accelerating power, New Urbanism may be dropping the “New” as the Emerald Coast outgrows its old ways. Such is the power of a single, strong idea.

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