Developing dreams for Katrina towns

Sunday, January 22, 2006

PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss. -- Dreams of the future here are just sketches: Friendly streets lined with a welcoming mix of homes, stores and sidewalks. Neighborhood parks for play, picnics and a shady respite from the Southern sun. A bustling waterfront.

Reality lies on the ground, for mile upon mile of this hurricane-blasted stretch of Gulf Coast, a mess of splintered homes, flattened trees and tent cities housing hundreds still homeless nearly four months after Katrina.

Many people are neck-deep in that reality, scratching for the basics of meals, shelter and a job. But a high-powered group of community leaders, elected officials and architects are busily hammering out an ambitious framework for what could come next -- to rebuild the entire 80-mile stretch of Mississippi's coast in a way that could produce a new model for small towns.

They are creating a test case for a different vision of America, one that seeks to turn away from the suburbs of the past half-century and instead embrace an idealized life of small towns and compact cities. It aims to resurrect the best of the past -- evening promenades, neighborhood groceries, even trolleys -- with the promise of the future's technology, jobs and transportation.

New Urbanists

The ideas come from architects who call themselves New Urbanists -- a group committed to the idea that smaller, walkable communities work better. They emphasize densely built downtowns with thriving Main Streets, neighborhoods that mix commerce and homes, a range of transportation options and a style that relies on a region's history. They spurn suburbs and sprawl.

"You don't want to call it a blessing, but it is a chance," said Jim Barksdale, the former Netscape president and a Mississippi native who heads the state rebuilding commission. "You need hope and a sense of place. These ideas have provided that. They seem to be resonating with an awful lot of people out here."

There are plenty of doubts -- about the costs, jobs, casino gambling and the return of the poor and minorities who have built homes here. And many architects say the New Urbanists' vision is unrealistic for some towns. But leaders here are pushing for change, and quickly, hoping to jump-start Mississippi's rebuilding while arguments have left New Orleans hamstrung.

Elected leaders, newspaper publishers and developers are enthusiastically backing the proposals. Residents are still learning about the ideas. But what will determine the real shape of rebuilding here will come together through the incremental, unflashy steps of local government and private development, from building codes and road plans to housing blueprints.

Quick proposals

The proposals came together remarkably quickly. Katrina hit Aug. 29, and while much of the nation's attention focused on the tragedies in New Orleans, the devastation in Mississippi was sweeping. Fewer people died here, but the storm's fiercest winds and waters flattened the cities of Bay St. Louis, Waveland and Pass Christian. Devastation was tremendous farther east, too, in Biloxi, Gulfport and Ocean Springs.

Within days of the storm, rebuilding talks were shaping up. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour welcomed a rebuilding proposal from one of the most prominent of the New Urbanist architects, Miami-based Andres Duany. Separately, Barbour moved quickly to allow the coast's casinos to rebuild on land, eliminating an earlier requirement that they must be on the water.

11 individual plans

In mid-October, scores of architects from met for a six-day meeting at a ravaged casino in Biloxi. Working with local architects and community leaders, they examined the damage and weighed each of 11 communities' mix of residences, business, transportation and history.

They produced 11 individual plans tailored to each town. Overall, they aimed to create more transportation options, strengthen downtowns and build a network of neighborhoods. Each town will choose what pieces to put in play.

Among the bigger proposals:

* Put a beachfront boulevard in place of Highway 90, a busy waterfront road that runs the entire coast. Cars would share space with people, with a median, trees and others ways to lure pedestrians, with hopes for evening promenades.

* Move freight-train lines that run close to the coast miles farther away, north of Interstate 10, and turn the rail lines into mass transit or bike paths.

* More range of use for the waterfront, including ferry service and water taxis for recreation as well as for working shrimpers.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: