Katrina two years later

Published 8:56 pm Saturday, August 25, 2007

Hurricane Katrina erased much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s past, but the deadly storm also created a blank canvas and a historic opportunity for reinventing cities like this once-quaint beach community.

Two years after Katrina claimed more than 200 lives in Mississippi and left behind billions of dollars in damage, teams of visionary urban planners are embedded in Pass Christian and other coastal cities, helping them draft ambitious blueprints for rebuilding the “New Urbanism” way.

New Urbanism — an architectural movement to transform sprawling city blocks into compact, walkable neighborhoods with old-fashioned features — is only one of the dynamics that could define Mississippi’s coastline.

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Traditionalists are pursuing a competing vision: Rebuilding the coast largely the way it was before the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane. Part of what has been called the Redneck Riviera, it was an eclectic assembly of glitzy casino barges, brightly painted beach shops and aging motels occasionally broken by stretches of stately old homes with oak shaded lawns overlooking the sandy, manmade beach.

Which vision will the coast resemble in 2015, when Katrina is just a painful, 10-year-old memory?

Questions like that loomed over a recent planning workshop in Pass Christian. Dozens of home and business owners gathered at dusk in a storm-ravaged library to hear city planner Jeff Bounds illustrate his vision for rebuilding Pass Christian’s devastated downtown.

Smaller city blocks with narrower, pedestrian-friendly streets. Buildings that yield better views of the harbor. “Pocket parks” for more green space. Those were some of his ideas for turning the crippled city center into a thriving commercial district.

“You may not agree with us. You may say, ’No, no, don’t change that. Leave it like it is.’ And we’ll live with it, and that’s fine,” Bounds told the audience. “We’re basically here to point out from a planning perspective what we see as the shortcomings, things that can be improved.”

Bounds ended his presentation with a caveat: “Obviously, money is not growing on trees.”

“Amen!” a voice from the back of the room shouted. Bounds paused a beat, then grinned when he realized the voice belonged to Mayor Leo “Chipper” McDermott, who leaned back in his chair and propped a foot up on a folding table.

Many cities along Mississippi’s 70-mile coastline are grappling with the same dilemma as Pass Christian.

Two years after the storm, harsh economic realities are tempering the pace of rebuilding. Many projects are hamstrung by the soaring costs of construction and insurance in Katrina’s aftermath, while federal funding has been slow to flow to cities. Some other economic indicators are down — population and employment in the coastline region are both still below pre-Katrina levels, and a housing shortage is stunting the region’s recovery.

Economics aren’t the only concern. Some local officials are reluctant to experiment with new zoning and planning codes — and that’s exactly what New Urbanism’s adherents are asking cities like Pass Christian to do.

Andres Duany, a Miami-based architect and New Urbanism pioneer, convened a gathering of like-minded planners in Biloxi less than two months after Katrina made landfall.

Some of the experts who attended that forum are now paid consultants for coastal cities, helping them draft rebuilding plans directly influenced by New Urbanism’s anti-sprawl principles.

Robert Alminana, a San Francisco-based city planner, is helping Gulfport implement new zoning codes.

His office, a motel room overlooking Mississippi Sound, is littered with blueprints and sketches for how the city could look a decade after Katrina.

“The choice was to rebuild the way it was or say, ’Let’s be bold and do it better than it was before,”’ Alminana said.

Many people prefer the former option, he conceded: “People hate change.

They would rather go with what they’re used to rather than throwing everything out the window and starting from scratch.”

Duany, whose design for Seaside, Fla., in the 1980s is arguably the first and most famous New Urbanism development, said his colleagues have helped bring sweeping reforms to communities that had “nonexistent to primitive” zoning and planning laws before Katrina.

“They have gone from zero to some of the most advanced planning and zoning in the country,” he said.

Duany’s ambassadors also have introduced a new vocabulary to go along with the new concepts. Public planning forums are called “charrettes” (or derided by skeptics as “charades” or “bull charrettes”), while some cities have adopted “SmartCode” zoning plans that govern development with New Urbanism’s sprawl-fighting principles.

In Gulfport, a proposal to build a 17-lot subdivision of bungalow cottages is on hold while the city irons out its SmartCode plans. After Katrina, the project’s developers tinkered with the design, shrinking yards and moving homes closer to the street to encourage more interaction among neighbors — a New Urbanism ideal.

“The financing is there,” said the project’s real estate agent, Melissa Warren. “We’re just waiting for a set of rules to be adopted that we know we can go by.”

It will take years for many SmartCode-inspired ideas to yield tangible results. For now, casinos bathed in neon and a smattering of glossy condominium developments dominate the coast’s storm-scarred landscape at Katrina’s second anniversary.

Some cities have set limits on the height of construction projects so the coastline isn’t crowded by rows of high-rise condos.

At the same time, the state is clearly banking on casino resorts to fuel the region’s economic recovery.

After Katrina, Mississippi enacted a law allowing floating casinos to move ashore. Today, 11 casinos are open on the Coast and are raking in more revenue than the 12 that operated before the storm.

Eight of those casinos are in Biloxi — the same number operating in the city before Katrina — and more are on the way.

It may not be a coincidence, then, that New Urbanism has gained less traction in Biloxi than in neighboring cities.

Duany said Biloxi wanted to “clear the deck” for gaming and didn’t want to impose any limits on casino operators’ plans. Jerry Creel, Biloxi’s director of community development, said the city balked at adopting a SmartCode because it wants to review projects on a “case-by-case basis.”

“There’s an outside perception that the only thing in Biloxi is condos and casinos, and that’s not true,” Creel said. “We’re looking at better development in Biloxi with a variety of structures and a variety of uses.”

The outlook is much different in Ocean Springs, which shared a bridge with Biloxi before Katrina washed it away. Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran said SmartCode-inspired changes in the city’s planning and zoning laws “can’t come soon enough.”

Paige Riley opened an art gallery in Ocean Springs after Katrina damaged the old store, in downtown Pass Christian. She wants to return, but fears Pass Christian is ripe for overdevelopment in Katrina’s aftermath and could lose its small-town charms.

“We’re going to have to grow into being what we were before,” Riley said following the recent planning meeting at the old library.

Pass Christian Planning Commission member Walter Ketchings is losing patience for workshops like the one Riley attended. “We need to stop talking and start hammering,” he said.

Urban planners have received a warmer welcome from Pass Christian’s mayor, but McDermott says the city’s blueprints aren’t worth much if developers don’t want to follow them.

“Who’s going to pay for it?” he asked. “You can draw something. I can draw something. They can draw something. The bottom line is, the market will determine what happens.”

A lack of affordable insurance is widely seen as the biggest obstacle to private investment on the coast now and in the coming years.

A recent study by the RAND Corp. think tank found that the soaring cost of wind coverage has nixed or delayed some commercial projects.

Given the modest pace of new construction, many experts say it’s premature to accurately forecast what the Gulf Coast will look on Katrina’s 10th anniversary.

“It will not be the same Mississippi Gulf Coast, I can tell you that,” said Tommy Walman, Gov. Haley Barbour’s housing adviser. “Things already are changing — some for the better and some not so. It depends on how you look at it.”