Notes on the Geography of The Eastern United States: Seaside
What does Seaside, the bellwether of the New Urbanism, look like? Here's a peek from about the year 2000.
From the Mexican border to New York, the East Coast consists of a coastal plain, nearly all of which of which is edged by sandy beaches. (The mangrove swamps of South Florida are the chief exception.) Tides range less than two feet in the Gulf of Mexico, where mean minimum surface-water temperatures are above 60 degrees Fahrenheit even in winter.
Freshwater ponds form within the dunes, indicating a water table both fresh and high enough to support a forest.
Developers have been working this coast for a long time, with very mixed results. Here, not far from the previous pictures, is the condo lineup at Fort Walton, part of what promoters call "the Emerald Coast."
It's certainly one way of doing things.
Here's another: it's a path between two rows of freestanding houses at Seaside, the better part of an hour's drive to the east and about midway between Fort Walton and Panama City.
Everything here is post-1980, but the houses mimic the wood-frame houses built here a century ago.
Yes, there are plenty of variations from that historic baseline; some, like the tower here, are designed to create a beach view.
Other houses hunker in the trees. Lawns are forbidden, according to the dictates of political ecology.
The whole development sits on only 280 acres. Twenty years ago, the landowner, Robert Davis, began working with two architects, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Andres Duany, to create an "urban village" on this land--a place where nobody was more than 800 feet from the town center. In the background here, Seaside Chapel.
The town center does grow denser.
Some of the buildings look as though they might be rooming houses from company towns in 1900.
Some of the stores in the commercial center have a surprisingly rough feel.
Other parts are seriously cute.
Beachfront businesses are fastidiously casual.
You can't buy a snack that isn't foodie-approved.
The central commercial district has residential flats above shops comprising an official artist's colony. It's even named Ruskin Place, as if an artist like Turner, so admired by Ruskin, could afford to live here. A 2,400 square-foot pad runs about $1.3 million. (Prices circa 2000.)
That's the fly in the ointment. The average 2,000-square foot cottage in Seaside sells for $900,000. Such prices keep shop clerks and carpenters at bay. They also explain why half the 300 homes are on short-term rentals. Rentals rates are high, too, starting at $200 nightly for a 2-bedroom, or $300 nightly for a 3-bedroom, place. Are there permanent residents in Seaside? Yes, but they occupy only a tenth of the homes. For those who really like the place, however, there's space in the Seaside cemetery. Plots are $15,000: minimum two, tombstones extra. This particular "cottage," named Proteus, appears to have been designed by an engineer last employed in 1880 by the Public Works Department of Madras. Except the color then would have been ocher, not white.
Just east of Seaside, the St. Joe Company has begun a sister settlement on 500 acres. St. Joe owns about a million acres in Florida--and some 39 miles of coastline. There are more profitable things to do with it than chop trees and grind them into paper. Jaque Robertson, who had a hand in Disney's town called Celebration, was hired to do some town planning here, on a site with the stratospherically toney name of "Watercolor."
The signage (shame on you: you don't think an architect would say "sign," do you?) hints at the price level.
It's a long way from Fort Walton condos.
About as simple as you can get in new American housing, but a 1,260-square foot Watercolor cottage runs $370,000. A two-bedroom cottage rents for $3,000 a week in summer, $2,000 in winter.
A line of new shops. The Chairman and CEO of St. Joe speaks feelingly of "place creation" and how his company aims to built a "true place," another Nantucket, Napa Valley, or Santa Fe--with "authenticity, history, craft, boundaries and community."
Who's in that "community"? Not the men who built the houses. They live 50 miles away in houses that probably need some paint.
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