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After the Storm

A charrette of unprecedented magnitude offers a new vision for the storm-ravaged Mississippi Gulf Coast.

By Hadiya Strasberg

"Recover, rebuild, renew." These words, spoken by Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour in response to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, spurred a week-long charrette that provided the state's citizens with plans and designs for a new Gulf Coast.

The Mississippi Renewal Forum was organized by the Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal, under the direction of Chairman Jim Barksdale, in partnership with the Chicago, IL-based Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). Andrés Duany, a co-founder of the CNU and principal at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company in Miami, FL, and the CNU President and CEO John Norquist invited 110 architects, planners, engineers and other professionals from across the country and the U.K., along with an equal number of local professionals and government representatives to take part in the event.

Those involved included members of CNU and The Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America (ICA&CA); PlaceMakers of Miami, FL; the Pasadena, CA-based architecture firm of Moule & Polyzoides; and the London-based Prince of Wales Foundation.

The forum, which took place October 11-17, 2005, was held in Biloxi, MS, one of the 11 municipalities along the coast that sustained heavy damage from Katrina. The location allowed participants to view the towns and their existing conditions and to meet with local officials and citizens.

The goal of the charrette was to offer Mississippians a vision for rebuilding their coast, not as it was, having already been ravaged by sprawl before Katrina, but better than it was. "We have a tremendous opportunity to improve communities while rebuilding them," said Duany at the event. "We want to give Mississippians the tools to create places that are more visually pleasing, more environmentally friendly, more diverse and more secure from hurricanes." He emphasized that "the tools that emerge from the forum will be valuable, but optional. Nothing will be imposed."

The Current Condition
Just outside the planning room at The Isle of Capri Casino Resort, the damage was evident. Carpets were water stained, the lobby was in disrepair and an adjoining building with blown-out windows was tilted at a precarious angle. Going west on U.S. Highway 90, a large casino barge was beached on the side of the road. Smaller ships were in residents' backyards, roofs had caved in and windows had blown out. In every town along the 120 miles of the Mississippi coast, homes and businesses were damaged by the fierce winds, storm surge and flooding. Structural damage was estimated at 80-90% in Waveland (which was at the eye of the storm), Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis and Gulfport, and at lower percentages in communities to the east.

Besides the obvious physical damage, the loss of community was palpable. At the time the forum convened, basic services remained unavailable, and even people whose homes were habitable had a difficult time living in the area.

The charrette was arranged into 16 teams, five focusing on general issues and one for each of the 11 municipalities or towns that make up the Mississippi coast. The regional planning, coding, architecture, transportation and environment teams took into account the general issues that were essential to the planning of each of these 11 municipalities.

"If a normal charrette might address one municipality and include a team of architects and planners with specialized consultants," said New York City-based designer Christine G.H. Franck, "this was the same model writ large for 11 municipalities instead of one. By having teams for each municipality, the specific needs of each place could be dealt with while general teams grappled with the shared issues."

On the last day of the charrette, Governor Barbour, mayors, community leaders, casino interests, business representatives, press and others gathered for an afternoon of presentations. Work from the previous six days was displayed on poster boards in the hallways and with PowerPoint.

What, Where and How to Rebuild
The fundamental questions about the ins and outs of rebuilding the Gulf Coast were tackled by the regional planning team. The three team members – from Criterion Planners/Engineers Inc., Portland, OR; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; and Smart Growth America – discussed the focus of the charrette and outlined some of the general plans.

"The charrette is about choices," said Harriet Tregoning, the executive director of Smart Growth America. "Our role is to try to translate [Mississippians'] hopes and aspirations into a physical form that we hope will give them some ideas as to what options they might have as they consider how to rebuild their communities."

Rebuilding the economy, through the redevelopment of housing, retail centers and transportation, is one of the first steps. Tregoning pushed for people to be able to return to their houses and to get businesses restarted at the earliest viable opportunity. "People need to engage in commerce and the activities of daily life as soon as possible," she said.

It is not a question of whether state and federal incentives will be offered for redevelopment, but who gets them. "There are signs that the retail centers are moving north," said Tregoning, "something that was happening already, but now at a faster rate. These new developments are quite a bit different from the historic ones closer to the coast." Tregoning also warned that this shift north, if continued, will deplete the vitality of the town centers and result in more sprawl. The regional planning team also emphasized the importance of increasing economic diversity, making the towns more attractive to retirees and tourists as well as local manufacturing. Another crucial point that was raised was development certainty. "A couple of years of not knowing where and how you'll be able to rebuild can be very devastating," warned Tregoning.

Form-Based Codes
The coding team, a group of eight architects, planners, a writer/photographer and others, focused on zoning, building and architectural codes that would maintain the integrity of the Mississippi communities.

In most of America today, the conventional existing zoning codes encourage sprawl by dividing industry, offices, retail and housing into separate districts making people dependent on their cars. "The current zoning ordinances exclude commercial stores from residential projects and mandate big parking lots and wide streets," Duany said in his presentation.

New Urbanist or form-based codes "do not ban sprawl, but enable the building of traditional towns," explained Duany. "They are about maintaining the character and value of towns," added coding team leader Sandy Sorlien, an urban photographer, lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and editor of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company's SmartCode. "They help to form community identity and cohesion" by promoting walkable neighborhoods laid out in a traditional grid pattern with buildings for a variety of uses and housing for people of all income levels. Within a quarter-mile radius there should be places to live, work, shop and go to school. The codes call for inviting public buildings and spaces, including plazas, parks, sidewalks and bike lanes.

All of the codes are evident in Pittsburgh, PA-based Urban Design Associates' (UDA) pattern book for the Mississippi coastal region, which was developed in large part by UDA principals Rob Robinson, AIA, and Raymond L. Gindroz, FAIA. The book, which describes and illustrates "the desired character of the community […] based on precedents found in the region," as UDA's web site phrases it, was completed and made available to the public soon after the charrette.

Form-based codes translate to Mississippi's towns in much the same way they would in other established areas. They code for the form of development at the block and building scale; some, like the SmartCode, also address planning at the regional scale. Of course, other issues are at play, because of the widespread destruction and the influence of FEMA and other branches of the Federal government (see "Design Decisions").

"You don't want to see temporary housing become permanent," warned Sorlien, "but the good stuff doesn't happen by accident. Good codes aren't arbitrary; they're based on patterns that work…. Some of the plans [unveiled at this charrette] might actually be possible under existing zoning codes, because Mississippians are usually open, but that allows the sprawl development, too." The team, in consultation with Mississippi lawyers, wrote legislation outlining these principles, which can be adopted by state officials.

Design Decisions
One of the major concerns of the architecture team was designing buildings to meet FEMA guidelines, which require structures to be built above advisory flood elevations. In many regions within the 11 municipalities, these elevations were increased from 3 to 8 ft. above the existing flood elevations. Depending on the elevation at grade, the net effect in the lowest areas could mean that buildings would have to be elevated 15 ft. or more above grade.

"Working on this charrette was a little unusual," said team leader Susan Henderson, AIA, director of design management at the Albuquerque, NM, office of PlaceMakers, "because we had the challenge of the elevation issue. We would design a Lowcountry-style house with a wraparound porch, but then try to figure out what happens when it goes to 22 and 30 ft. How do you make that work in the real world? It's absurd.

"There are accessibility problems, liability issues," Henderson pointed out. "Retail dies when it's not connected to the street…" Not to mention the enormous costs that come with building off the ground. At least "raising neighborhoods off the ground is not a problem for many of the main streets," said Henderson, "which are at higher elevations."

As an alternative to elevating buildings, the architecture team recommended strengthening them. "Elevating houses would make them both ugly and more expensive," said Stefanos Polyzoides, of Moule & Polyzoides, Pasadena, CA, during his presentation of plans for Biloxi, for which he was team leader. He said Biloxi really has just two options in its low-lying areas: "You scrap the town and move to the hills or you make your buildings able to take a swim every 30 years." Using masonry in place of wood, for instance, would be a major improvement.

Polyzoides also emphasized the matter of preservation. "You have to save every single scrap even if it's one last column standing in order to make this town come back," he said. "Only then can we complement it with buildings of a type and flavor that are stylistically [appropriate]." Other forms of private, public and civic buildings were also proposed by the 11 architecture team members, including manufactured, modular and kit homes; casinos; government buildings; and retail. The key issues this team dealt with in its building designs were speed of construction, affordability and durability. "We want to provide realistic, accessible and affordable designs," said Henderson.

Before the charrette even began, in fact, Duany requested designs of many of these buildings, including shotgun manufactured homes. "Based on the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew [which struck Louisiana and Florida in August 1992]," said Henderson, "we know that the temporary housing provided by FEMA often becomes permanent." She also felt that since the government is supplying the structures, they should be designed by architects, addressing aesthetics and durability.

"Those that are in the pipeline will continue to come down," Duany declared to the attentive audience. "We can't stop them; we have no right to stop them. People need housing. But at some point we will intervene and say that only certified mobile homes will be acceptable." Duany later added, "We realized that there was nothing whatsoever that prevented a manufactured home from being really good looking, well proportioned, really livable and something that you would be proud to have as your neighbor." The team presented prototypes of these homes, as well as modular homes, for a manufactured-housing summit, which was held in Mississippi a month after the forum.

The 1,000- to 1,600-sq.ft. modular home designs, which can be built in as little as three to six weeks, further fulfill the need for rapid and affordable housing. "Modular housing could grow over time from at least a basic structure built on-site as soon as possible," said Franck. "We have a favorable response from the manufacturers," added Henderson. "They say, 'we'll build whatever you give us.'"

One thought is that these certified manufactured and modular homes, as well as stock plans available to those who want and can afford to build traditional homes, could be pre-permitted to expedite the rebuilding process. "It would alleviate the permitting burden on the local building departments, though they would of course still be subject to inspections," Franck explained.

In addition, the team looked at apartment buildings and courtyard housing, "both as a means of considering more dense housing options and to address affordability issues," said Franck. A range of styles were rendered to show the numerous possibilities available; to give citizens a choice. The municipality teams sometimes requested designs for site-specific buildings from the architecture team. Franck, for example, designed a number of civic buildings, including town halls and fire and police stations for Gulfport and Moss Point. Others designed Monaco-style casinos and a new Wal-Mart storefront to replace the big box in Pass Christian. "In the past," said Henderson, "retail and other buildings have been very low-end design. Our goal is to show businesses that they can appeal to a whole other market."

Better Connections
Though the transportation team's goal of improving the roads, bridges and waterways was straightforward, the team presented varied and wide ranging plans, including regional and local connectivity for both automobiles and public transit systems. The five-minute walkable neighborhood guided all planning efforts as a means of giving people the choice of not driving. "We wanted to create streets that fit the urban context," said one team member, Norman W. Garrick, Ph.D., an engineer and associate professor at the University of Connecticut School of Engineering. This involves preserving the neighborhoods, reducing speeds and providing appropriate and attractive accommodations for bicyclists and pedestrians. In many municipalities, boulevards were designed in place of the coastal and elevated highways. "Think of the West Side Drive in Manhattan," Garrick said, "with safe lanes for cars, bikes and pedestrians and tree-lined medians."

The team was made up of four national engineers; a London-based architect; the president and CEO of Reconnecting America, the Center for Transit-Oriented America; and two local activists. In addition to developing a set of objectives, the team also provided alternatives to the plethora of roads in the form of public transportation, specifically buses, light rails, commuter rails, trolleys and water taxis. "Mississippi is one of the most auto-dependent states in the U.S.," said Garrick. "The use of public transportation is less than 1%, but residents do not have good alternatives. We want to provide it."

The public-transit plan was divided into three steps: one, to relocate the east-west CSX railroad corridor from the center of the towns to the northern reaches and to include fast passenger service on the new alignment; two, to create a public transit system that would tie the towns together; and three, to create local circulators within each town.

"We wanted to take advantage of the desire and money that existed pre-Hurricane Katrina to relocate the railroad corridor," explained Garrick. "The area needs a stronger regional train system – from Mobile, AL, to New Orleans – which would enhance inter-city connections. In place of the existing CSX tracks, we planned a boulevard and would like to see a light rail, bus or commuter rail developed.

"Local circulators, such as a trolley along the beach boulevard [U.S. 90], drew a lot of positive comments from locals," Garrick commented, "because Gulfport and Biloxi had had systems some decades ago." He said that the locals are very much on board with the team's proposals. "It will take some getting used to as it would be a huge culture change, but people are receptive to plans that support urban life."

Sustainable Solutions
The environment team included broad expertise in sustainable development: an attorney, a foundation representative and a green town planner. They met with local experts – including a head of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality [DEQ], people from Habitat for Humanity and experts on water, sewage and energy – every day to ask questions and gain a targeted perspective.

The team discussed environmental problems that existed prior to the hurricane as well as those created by the storm. Previous to Katrina, the barrier islands were being eroded by dredging, and sewage overflows made their way into the Gulf of Mexico. "The Mississippi DEQ told us that sediments containing e-coli and other pathogens can eventually trigger beach closings," said architect Doug Farr, president of Farr Associates, Chicago, IL. "This is a huge environmental issue, and also threatens the tourist industry."

Hurricane Katrina obviously multiplied the area's problems, with flooding going miles inland and picking up debris and sewage, and the resulting mold and miles of detritus. "Our response was to think about waste in a different way," said Farr. "By relocating waste plants inland, some towns could set up eco-industrial parks for nurseries and other horticulture businesses that will turn the waste into industrial raw material."

It is very important that the clean-up effort include the salvaging and recycling of building materials. "There are 30-million cu.yds. of debris, which exceeds the capacity of the landfills in all three coastal counties," said Farr. One proposal was that the debris be used to reduce flooding and risk. "We calculated that 10% of the storm debris is suitable for structural infill," he said. "That volume of fill could raise the grade of about 400 acres 3 ft." In terms of recycling, the team suggested that FEMA needs to create strong measures. While organic waste and appliances are being separated, there doesn't appear to be a larger recycling policy.

The question of whether or not to rebuild in some of Mississippi's low-lying and below-sea-level areas was one of the issues raised by the environment team. "Locals told us that some of these areas should never have been built up and for some sites, there's no sense in building back," said Farr. Of course, it's a highly emotional and political issue, but Farr points to the FEMA policy of buying out many homes in low-lying neighborhoods after the big Mississippi River flood in 1993 as a tool that might be able to relocate families out of high-risk areas.

When it came to rebuilding, the team proposed green-building methods and materials. "We need to reduce the energy cost, provide good air and natural light," said Farr. "Katrina presented an opportunity to build energy-efficient structures that meet EPA Energy Star ratings and that use healthy materials, such as those that meet LEED standards." One idea is to have a pilot green building in each town in order for these innovations to gain traction.

Overall, the group was hopeful that Katrina could serve as a wakeup call to force a change in attitudes in Mississippi. Summing it up, Farr said, "This is a once in a generation chance to shift how we think and act."

What the Future Holds
All agreed that much work remains to be done. Implementation of the plans calls for citizen reviews, adjustments and adoption, as well as the cooperation of citizens, developers, businesses and government officials on all levels.

A number of the professionals present at the forum continue to be involved. Duany and the team leaders met in Biloxi with locals for three days beginning November 30, 2005, to present seminars on New Urbanism-101 in many of the coastal towns. "There are on-going training and educational opportunities for local planners," said Sorlien. In addition, several charrette participants are planning a SmartCode Workshop, scheduled for March 2006 in Biloxi.

The final design team reports were posted on the internet mid-November 2005 in an effort to make all of the information available to the public ( Public town hall meetings have been held in numerous locations since October 19, 2005, throughout the 11 municipalities to gauge citizen reaction and to obtain feedback. "This is an important step in the process," said Henderson. "It's up to the individual municipalities to select the plans and architecture for their neighborhoods."

The Commission submitted its final report to Governor Barbour on December 9, 2005, and it was then distributed to each of the municipalities.

Opinions vary as to the likelihood these designs will be realized. Complex problems – such as coding, insurance and FEMA; private ownership; and expense – make it difficult to proceed. To address the concerns of casino and private developers, the day after the forum, 2,000 contractors were invited to join the rebuilding discussion. A few weeks later, a meeting between local citizens and MDOT attempted to get the department on board with the new urbanist plans. As for the goals of the transportation team, Garrick said that "we want to bring the Mississippi Department of Transportation's (MDOT) ideas in line with local desires, but I think we need someone with clout to be on the same wavelength with our vision. Otherwise, it seems very unlikely that it will happen. [MDOT] already has different plans." In terms of the architecture, "We expect a mix of traditional and modern design," said Henderson. Franck believes that "if the planning is adopted, the architecture will follow since Mississippians have such a strong tradition of good architecture."

On the issue of funding, Henderson is conservatively optimistic. "Biloxi and Gulfport may have some funding – mostly FEMA replacement; none will be state funded," she said. "Local civic funds may be available and hopefully we can count on patrons to contribute. I'm hopeful." In fact, a number of patrons have already come forward to supplement the Federal government's pledge of $51.8 billion.

"The real redeeming consequence of this charrette," said Tregoning, "has been to bring back the Gulf Coast better, stronger, more resilient, more competitive, more beautiful. All of us came here in an act of faith."  



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