Smart Growth and Rebuilding the Mississippi Gulf Coast

As Gulf Coast communities continue to recover from Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, residents, politicians, and developers in Mississippi are contemplating major changes in zoning. The decisions they make may shape the region’s quality of life for years to come.

gulf coast
Photo by Flip Chalfant

Only six weeks after hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the coastal communities of Louisiana and Mississippi, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour convened a smart-growth planning group, or charrette (see glossary), under the auspices of the Mississippi Renewal Forum to work on rebuilding each of the 11 affected communities.

The charrette’s purpose was to define a new vision for rebuilding the Gulf Coast by bringing together local officials, residents, and other stakeholders along with experts in urban planning and architecture.

This work may eventually lead to the adoption of new zoning ordinances, new transportation investments, and comprehensive urban plans for the affected coastal communities. One immediate result was a draft of a smart code (see glossary) planning and building ordinance that could be adopted or customized by individual cities, towns, and counties along the Gulf. Four communities have already taken steps to pass smart code–derived ordinances, and only one city, Biloxi, appears to have largely chosen not to incorporate them.

The reforms would entail changes to existing subdivision regulations, use zoning, allowable development densities, and architectural styles and materials. The reforms also affect the function, size, style, and situation of properties, from low-density rural areas to downtown commercial cores.

New Urbanism, form-based zoning, and smart codes
The person Gov. Barbour chose to lead the charrette was Andrés Duany, founder of the New Urbanism architectural movement and head of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. of Miami. The movement’s tools of choice are form-based zoning and smart codes (see glossary). The plan that came out of the charrette attempts to pay homage to communities’ unique architectural heritage and character while also incorporating New Urbanist tenets.

gulf coast
Photo by Flip Chalfant

New Urbanism aspires to build towns and neighborhoods that resemble those built before World War II and the rise of automobile-centered development. Commercial land uses are brought closer to or within residential communities. Garages are de-emphasized and where possible moved behind the home, while houses are brought closer to the street. Front porches and sidewalks are promoted to increase neighbor interaction, while large lots and deep front lawns are discouraged for the same reason.

At the same time, residences are added to the commercial area in the form of mixed-use projects in which apartments or condominiums are built over retail and office space. Storefronts are brought to the edge of the property line to encourage pedestrian shopping, and parking is relegated to the back of the lot or placed underground. New Urbanism opposes the standard strip-mall development pattern, in which a row of shops sits behind several acres of parking.

A change in zoning philosophy
Although the draft smart code, an example of form-based zoning, involves more detailed zoning, there’s more to it. This type of zoning represents a philosophical shift in emphasis beyond considering land-use issues to also considering the look, feel, and functionality of communities. Thus, smart codes not only regulate the use but the density of development, its scale, and its function.

Steve Coyle, a New Urbanist designer who worked on Gulfport’s recent plan, offered this example: “A bar may not be an appropriate use in a neighborhood, but home offices or a corner store that closes at 9 or 10 at night might be a perfect use. Current code does not allow that, but the smart code would say that use is just fine.”

To accomplish this shift in zoning philosophy, smart codes divide a city into six transect zones (see glossary) that provide a gradual transition of development intensity, from low-density rural areas at the edge of cities to high-density multistory offices and apartments at the center, the same sort of graduated building heights and density that cities had when the principal forms of transportation were walking and streetcars. Within each transect, the types of buildings (whether single-family or multifamily), the amount and type of commercial space (convenience, destination shopping), and the amount of public infrastructure are typically specified.

A Glossary of Terms
Charrette: An intensely compacted planning process that includes public meetings and brings together municipal officials, developers and area residents. The goal of the process is to promote collaboration to solve problems and to defuse confrontational attitudes between residents and developers.

Form-based zoning: Regulations that support mixed-use neighborhoods with a range of housing types. This zoning focuses more on the size, form, and placement of buildings and parking and less on land use (residential vs. commercial) and density (housing units per acre). Landowners, developers, and building owners retain the flexibility to build based on market demand as long as the building form conforms to the community’s vision espoused in the zoning codes.

New Urbanism: A relatively new design movement that emphasizes walking areas, a diverse range of housing and jobs, population density (and the resulting reduction in urban sprawl), and the incorporation of green space.

Smart codes: Building and construction codes that encourage the preservation and reuse of existing buildings while still allowing their alteration.

Transect zones: A diagram that depicts zones of varying development density. Each zone denotes a mixed-use environment with most conveniences within a short walk.

Smart codes do not necessarily mean less development. For example, Dave Dennis, a local builder who participated in the planning for the town of Pass Christian, says the smart codes draft envisions raising building heights in that city’s downtown core by almost 50 percent, from 50 to 70 feet. (Dennis is also a director of the Atlanta Fed’s New Orleans Branch; see his interview.) Dennis points out that the smart code—and an accompanying pattern book that spells out architectural styles consistent with the historic neighborhoods of Mississippi—also will be much more prescriptive for building materials and architectural finishes. But these details will likely raise construction costs.

One principal challenge in implementing these codes is that they demand a much greater sensitivity to the marketplace. As a city decides what it will allow to be built, it must take great care to ensure that a market for such a product exists. Cities with very high land values can demand high architectural standards and the inclusion of low-income housing and underground parking. A less valuable location must be more accommodating to developers’ cost considerations.

Bill Stallworth, a Biloxi council member whose district includes many poorer neighborhoods put it simply. “I like that the codes are simpler, a little easier to read. It does acknowledge more livable neighborhoods,” he said. “The question that’s on the minds of a lot of people is, ‘How much of that can we actually implement?’ ”

While successful New Urbanist builders are attuned to the real estate market, the ultimate product is likely not what the market would build in the absence of form-based zoning. Furthermore, new, attractive, and accessible communities may cause wealthier households to outbid poor households, producing the same kind of income stratification that New Urbanists such as Duany dislike in many existing suburban developments.

New Urbanism’s challenges
New Urbanism has succeeded in building attractive, pedestrian-friendly, and—if property values are any indication—desirable communities such as Celebration, Fla., and Seaside, Fla. However, implementing a New Urbanist vision for the Mississippi Gulf Coast poses several challenges stemming from landowners’ immediate needs.

With some exceptions, such as parts of Biloxi, structures within Katrina’s surge zone were largely destroyed; on the surface these areas may appear to be a clean slate for redevelopment. However, the land has already been subdivided and is owned by many people. Instead of directing the efforts of a single master-development firm, the smart code must be accessible and comprehensible to thousands of individual property owners whose principal objective is to leave temporary housing, rebuild their homes, and get on with their lives. Whether the draft smart code ordinances will succeed in the face of these more immediate goals remains an open question.

Since many of the existing properties are owned by individuals whose homes were built under the existing zoning codes, local governments may implement smart code ordinances as overlays, rather than simply replacing the existing zoning. Overlaying, meaning that builders can submit applications under the new or existing codes, may offer all of the regulation of New Urbanism without solving the underlying development coordination problem.

gulf coast
Photo by Flip Chalfant

Builders may choose to submit plans under the smart code because of local government incentives. In addition, the smart codes may offer a quicker, more predictable permit process because what is allowed, and what is not, are carefully spelled out.

“They [developers], for the most part, do not mind the more prescriptive regulations that smart code represents because it is giving them certainty,” Coyle said. “It is giving them an objective basis for submitting an application, whereas the older code tended to be more discretionary and certainly less descriptive about outcome.” By forcing the community to arrive at a common vision in drafting the smart codes, political battles over permit applications may be sidestepped, reducing application times and litigation risk.

Cities that simply replace their existing zoning with a smart code risk mandating types of structures, building materials, styles, and uses that cost more to implement than what the market can support.

For example, Gulfport envisions high-density, mixed-use housing, and retail structures downtown. But building to such heights can be costly because stronger building materials, deeper foundations, and more space dedicated to stairwells and elevators are necessary. (Presumably the ultimate structure will be built to withstand future hurricanes.) Revenue from the apartment or condominium investments may also need to support the ground-floor retail until a critical mass of stores can emerge to revive downtown shopping.

In parts of Waveland, Miss., the renewal forum envisions multifamily housing built to look like historic mansions, with associated architectural finishes. But the market for such housing is unclear. The land will be used more intensely, and at greater cost, providing each individual with less space.

On the other hand, would-be residents will get more attractive buildings and greater pedestrian-accessible amenities because the smart code allows the mixing of uses, while the higher population density can support greater retail, and the higher property values can support more parks and better sidewalks.

The future
Whether the New Urbanist vision for the Gulf Coast ultimately hinders or accelerates redevelopment will depend on the skill, care, and speed with which the municipalities choose to implement it.

In the long run, however, the stimulative or depressive effects of the new laws may be outweighed by the new flood zone maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In some areas of the Gulf Coast, insurance and mortgage companies may require that properties be built as high as 15 feet off the ground. Not only will such requirements impede the New Urbanist desire for historic-looking structures and street-fronting retail, they may simply overshadow any other development considerations.

architectural renderings of gulf coast rebuilding
Courtesy of Laurence Aurbach, Gulfport, Miss., charrette
These architectural renderings and elevations represent work based on the Gulfport and Pass Christian charrettes in planning for the rebuilding of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Andrés Duany, quoted in a recent New York Times article, estimates a cost of $30,000–$50,000 to elevate an 800-square-foot home by 12 feet. In much of the Gulf, the market for such expensive homes simply may not exist. If such a market does exist, there is a strong possibility that the people who could afford to occupy those structures would in many cases not be the people who lived there pre-Katrina.

In some locations, the New Urbanists may be better able to incorporate the FEMA elevations than individual property owners working within the existing building codes. For example, in Gulfport, the draft rebuilding plans envision elevating the entire port area over a floor of underground parking to meet FEMA standards and also to connect storefronts with the street.

Hanging over all of these decisions is the threat of another hurricane. Should another storm of the magnitude of Katrina or Camille come ashore in the same area, builder Dave Dennis says many investors would likely abandon the entire area. “I don’t think anyone with any reasonable business investment sense about themselves would attempt to come back and build again. I think the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ rule would probably come into play.”

If fears of another hurricane can be allayed, and the design challenges of the new FEMA elevations incorporated, then smart codes could succeed in creating a more attractive and functional Gulf Coast. These reforms have the potential to speed reconstruction efforts, but only if sufficient demand justifies the added construction costs, and only if the smart codes produce less political and market uncertainty than they generate.

The plan’s success hinges on the skill, savvy, and expediency of local officials and their advisers. But whatever statutory reforms are ultimately implemented, the New Urbanists may have succeeded in articulating an alternative vision for what the Mississippi Gulf Coast could be, a vision that many local officials and developers now appear to share.

This article was written by Chris Cunningham, an economist and policy adviser in the regional group of the Atlanta Fed’s research department, with Ed English, a staff writer in the Atlanta Fed’s public affairs department.

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