By Emily Ziring and Stephen Filmanowicz
December 3, 2005 -- In the wake of the Mississippi Renewal Forum - one of the most intense and productive post-hurricane planning charrettes ever - team leaders from the CNU returned to Mississippi this week to review plans with standing-room only crowds in ten towns devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
On Wednesday evening, citizens of Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Long Beach, Biloxi and Ocean Springs met with the design teams from around the country as well as the local counterparts in their communities to get their first glimpse of the recommendations. Residents of Moss Point, Pascagoula, Waveland, Gautier, and Gulfport met with their teams on Thursday evening (the D'Iberville town meeting will be scheduled for a later date). The plans were developed in the six-day forum and revised with feedback from subsequent town meetings around the Gulf Coast.
In the mid-October charrette, professionals from around the country worked with local architects, planners and public officials to create recommendations for the reconstruction of 11 Mississippi Gulf Coast communities. The forum was jointly sponsored by Governor Haley Barbour's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal and the Congress for the New Urbanism.
The town meetings are being held as part of a larger follow-up event to the charrette. The three-day event also includes a series of workshops with town officials and local business leaders, including casino operators, detailing principles and practice of new urbanism. The seminars, held at the Imperial Palace Hotel & Casino, will use examples from the plans to explain new urbanist ideas in building design, transit, and environmental issues, among other ideas.
The town meetings were covered extensively in the Biloxi Sun-Herald and the Mississippi Press, in stories that showed interaction broadening to new constituents.
• In Bay St. Louis, the nearly 400 residents in attendance responded optimistically to the idea of rebuilding their town the way it looked twenty years ago by using strict building and zoning codes that allow new architecture to work in harmony with what currently exists, the Sun-Herald reported. "These are tools for you to use to build the town you remember, and to make it better," said Bill Dennis, the architect who leads the Bay team of the Governor's Commission. The Bay plan also calls for circular intersections to slow traffic within the city, and a revamped U.S. 90 with more extensive greenery.
• Urban planner Joseph Kohl presented the plan created by a team led by Dover, Kohl & Partners to the crowd in Ocean Springs. Kohl believes that the town should anticipate a large population growth because of the survival of much of the infrastructure in comparison to neighboring cities on the Gulf Coast. "How can you deal with the development pressure without losing what is so precious to you, the charm and culture of your town?" Kohl said. The team suggested that Ocean Springs be organized as a city of neighborhoods; those neighborhoods should be no more than a five-minute walk from center to edge and should have a defined center (as reported by the Mississippi Press). Ocean Springs resident and architect Bruce Tolar, who worked with the Governor's Commission, said this kind of planning and forward thinking is what his hometown has needed for years. As reported in the Sun-Herald, Tolar said, "We're using zoning ordinances that allow you to build subdivisions, but not develop towns." Tolar was among the Ocean Springs audience members who heard the plans, which also included a revitalized harbor area and downtown, a new railroad district and a ferry and yacht club district in their community.
• According to the Sun-Herald, the crowd of over 300 in Pass Christian listened attentively as Laura Hall, the new urbanist from California leading the design efforts in their city, described bringing back the character of the tree-lined streets in turn-of-the-century Pass Christian. She emphasized the importance of instituting the SmartCode, which offers developers and property owners an easy development tool: "When you redesign your city, you think how to pose the next postcard view...and then you code for it."
• In a Long Beach high school gymnasium, over 200 residents gathered to hear recommendations that would improve the quality of life in their town, such as focusing the town on the University of South Mississippi campus, connecting roads to the beach and moving U.S. 90 back 300 feet, the Sun-Herald reported. Architect Dhiru Thadani, the leader of a group from the Washington firm Ayers, Saint, Gross Inc., said, "We're really trying to deal with this identity which is absolutely different."
• Architect Liz Moule presented the recommendations designed by her team for the city of Biloxi to the crowd gathered at the Imperial Palace Hotel, as reported by the Sun-Herald. The plans call for a more walkable city, with light-rail trolleys running along U.S. 90, and the creation of a new east-west route where the CSX railroad tracks currently run. One standout in her presentation was the idea of a centralized gaming district along the Back Bay, which would allow visitors to spend more time strolling among the casinos and taking in the views compared to current Biloxi cainos. Moule also stressed that residents need to begin thinking of U.S. 90 as "Beach Boulevard," and that by changing the roadway to a boulevard, different kinds of developments would emerge around it. "Get rid of Highway 90 as your mantra...Very few cities are graced with such a lovely boulevard."
• In Gautier, the Mississippi Press reported, residents reacted positively to a plan that would make the town commons the focus of the city, with homes and businesses surrounding it, and institute SmartCodes to redevelop the historic feel of the community. Said Gautier resident Mike McLaughlin, "I think Gautier will be one of the first cities to adopt the smart codes. We didn't have the damage (other cities had). I think Gautier's going to move forward." Neal Payton, the design team leader for the town, urged residents to understand that "This is not the final proposal. This is your beginning."
• At Moss Point High School, 130 residents and business leaders came together to hear about the plan for their town - a plan which re-establishes the downtown area as a vibrant pedestrian-friendly neighborhood with shops and restaurants and new housing opportunities. Steve Schukraft, a member of the design team from Virginia, explained, "The idea is to get ahead of the curve and guide new growth." The plan also recommends new civic buildings above proposed flood elevation and new public spaces for community events and activities. Said Moss Point Mayor Xavier Bishop, "I want you to see it as a way it can be, the way it will be" (as reported by the Mississippi Press).
• Pascagoula residents listened as urban planner and architect John Ellis of San Francisco, who headed the design team for the community, presented proposals for the redevelopment of the city, according to the Sun Herald. Ideas ranged from a new park at the south end of Market Street to a new golf course in Bayou Casotte. Said Ellis, "We propose an 18-hole course with the Country Club property being used for a new neighborhood park and high-end housing." Pascagoula Mayor Matthew Avara stressed, "We have an opportunity to rebuild our community with your voice a part of it."
• The Sun-Herald reported a crowd of nearly 300 gathered in Waveland, where Robert Orr, leader of the Waveland design team, described the proposals for rebuilding their devastated city. He urged residents to consider Waveland's "heart and soul" - its over 200 artists - and devote their efforts to creating more art studios, restaurants and shops. Another highlight of the Waveland plan is a proposed trolley line along the CSX railroad that would connect the Coast, with three stops in Waveland.
• Jim Barksdale, chair of the Governor's Commission, proudly told the audience in Gulfport that "The Commission is well set to help implement the grand dreams laid out by architects and urban designers." As the largest of the 11 communities undergoing a redesign, "Gulfport could be rebuilt as one of the premier destinations in America, with a vibrant downtown and port with casinos to rival Monte Carlo in terms of beauty and grandeur," said Robert Alminana, a representative of the Gulfport design team. The plans call for making the downtown and the port into one continuous area with large, tree-lined boulevards showcasing casinos, hotels, shops, cafés and retail all within walking distance of each other. An amphitheater would also be built near the water at Jones Park, and an elevated roadway would allow trucks to take containers directly from the shipping port to a storage area near Interstate 10, eliminating the need to store goods at the port itself, reported the Sun-Herald.
Despite their differences, all of the plans are influenced by common tenets of new urbanism, which encourage cities and neighborhoods where residents and tourists can walk, ride bikes and drive to nearby shops and mixed-use districts that build on the character of South Mississippi. Complete details of the plans may be found on the final reports page.
Once the remaining town meetings are complete, the commission will present its final plan to the governor. It remains to be seen what will be done with the plan, due by the end of the year, once it is turned over to the local communities. As was stressed at many of the meetings, each community must evaluate the recommendations and decide for itself the best course of action. George Schloegel, a member of the transportation committee for the Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal, told the crowd in Ocean Springs (as reported by the Mississippi Press), "We have no authority whatsoever. We are merely recommending. It is up to you and your community to decide what you want to do with it."