When 170-some New Urbanists convened the Mississippi Renewal Forum in Biloxi, Miss., to brainstorm the Gulf Coast reconstruction, they knew it would be a long row to hoe. Two years and dozens of charrettes later, work is still under way to rewrite planning codes that support thoughtful, mixed-use development, and funding is just starting to trickle in. But while large-scale planned communities remain stuck in the pipeline, there is real progress on a smaller scale. With or without funding, a handful of New Urbanist firms are moving from sketches to sticks and bricks. They're going block by block, getting affordable, high-quality architecture built on infill parcels, and in the process, they're showing cities what good design can accomplish.
“People always say, ‘What can I see?' In the case of New Orleans, it's a restoration of whatever was there before,” says Congress for New Urbanism co-founder Andrés Duany, FAIA, who also serves as a principal of Miami-based Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. (DPZ). “It's kind of unglamorous: something gets patched together or a group gets funding.” One highlight is the work of Cypress Cottage Partners, a development group led by DPZ. Under a $75 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Alternative Housing Pilot Program, the group (which includes Lowe's and designer Marianne Cusato) has teamed up with manufacturers to produce the new emergency housing—all of which is permanent—and is developing sites across Louisiana on which to build 500 homes. The Katrina Cottages, which range in size from 600 square feet to 1,000 square feet, are shipped in four containers and designed for single-family sites. Higher-density “carpet cottages” interlock to fit 27 to 35 to the acre, depending on the addition of pavement and parking. “I think it will influence the housing in this country extensively,” Duany says.
Undeterred by slow-moving bureaucracies, other firms are moving ahead in anticipation of New Urbanist-friendly code changes. Ocean Springs, Miss.-based Tolar LeBatard Denmark Architects, a co-designer of the Katrina Cottages, is developing a model 17-home cluster on two commercially zoned acres in Ocean Springs. Cottage Square demonstrates how the houses can be attractively grouped to create a traditional mixed-use neighborhood. “Because it's zoned commercial, we were able to build it like you would a professional office park, where you have individual buildings and don't have to subdivide and sell them all,” says principal Bruce Tolar. “Current codes don't allow people to live there yet, so for now they will have to be leased to businesses.”
Robert Orr, AIA, principal of Robert Orr & Associates in New Haven, Conn., says people are taking a wait-and-see approach to investing in their communities. “Residents have received their insurance money, but insurance companies are refusing to offer policies on anything along the Gulf Coast,” he says. After heading up the charrette for Waveland, Miss., his firm developed 28 cottage plans for Waveland and beyond. A lone wealthy client built one, without insurance coverage, as a vote of confidence. “I think there will be a tipping point where people are feeling confident and the phone is ringing off the hook,” Orr says.
Tolar is forging ahead under the same assumption. “You can't drag people with you; you have to show them how,” he says. “We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and they say, ‘I get it now.' There's a never-ending process to continue on to the next step.”