Almost Perfect

The rise and fall of Perfection, South Florida's biggest and boldest New Urbanist community

Although the movie presented its town, Seahaven, as a symbol of oppressive conformity, in reality this depiction did nothing to diminish the popularity of Seaside. As buyers snapped up the quaint pastel cottages sometimes described as "neo-Victorian," their market value skyrocketed. Today, homes in Seaside sell for as much as $3.6 million.

Though commercially successful, the much-celebrated community also has its detractors. Critics call it "Hotel Seaside" for the high number of second homes. Others deride Seaside as an exclusive, utopian enclave that holds no answer for real-world problems.

Seaside's designers insist that, at the very least, the fact that the small-town style could demand big-city prices proved the market demand for New Urbanism was greater than anyone had imagined. DPZ, the husband-and-wife team of Duany and Plater-Zyberk, went on to design Kentlands, another TND, in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Kentlands had grid streets, but its town centers housed "big-box" retailers like PETsMART and Kmart and large parking lots to accommodate the crowds.

A ring of strip malls sprouted up to serve the booming region around Perfection. The result was suburban sprawl all over again.
Michael McElroy
A ring of strip malls sprouted up to serve the booming region around Perfection. The result was suburban sprawl all over again.
Though some residents declined to talk about Perfection's problems, everyone could see the writing on the wall
Steve Satterwhite
Though some residents declined to talk about Perfection's problems, everyone could see the writing on the wall

Laguna West, a suburban Sacramento project designed by Bay Area developer Peter Calthorpe, likewise diverges from some of New Urbanism's dictates. Streets are not built on the grid pattern; many are cul-de-sacs. Rather than alleyways behind homes, Laguna West features garages in front, a design antisprawl activists decry as "snout houses." Despite New Urbanism's ardent devotion to decreasing auto dependency, some Laguna West models boast four-car garages.

Though largely undefined, New Urbanism continued to grow in popularity. In 1993 its proponents, including architects, planners, designers, engineers, and other concerned citizens, founded the Congress of New Urbanism (CNU), an organization created to define the tenets of New Urbanism in a charter. In 1996 then-HUD secretary Henry Cisneros signed the CNU charter, giving New Urbanism a de facto government sanction.

It was the private sector, however, that contributed the most controversial New Urbanist development to date. In 1994 the Walt Disney Company opened Celebration, a $350 million community in Osceola County, Florida, just outside Orlando. A neotraditional development built from the swamp up, Celebration was as anticipated for the scale of its experimentation as it was reviled for its Disney origins.

Over the years Disney has discreetly moved into the background. Marketed on its Mayberryesque merits, Celebration is well-known as the only place in the Orlando area where you cannot buy a Mickey Mouse T-shirt. But just as Disney has subtly removed its name from Celebration's roadside billboards, New Urbanists are reluctant to wave their banner over the controversial town.

Disney officials have likewise sidestepped comparisons to other New Urbanist developments. Celebration has a mixed-use town center with apartments, restaurants, and shops, but the 9600-acre development has a sparse population density, at approximately 1000 per square mile. Though New Urbanism no doubt influenced Celebration, it does not define it. By contrast the impact of Disney's grand experiment extends well beyond Celebration's famed white vinyl fence.

With more than a million acres in Florida, the St. Joe Company is Florida's largest private landholder, wielding more power to shape the state's landscape than even Disney. St. Joe chairman and CEO Peter S. Rummell came from the Walt Disney Co., where he was chairman of Imagineering and a key figure in the planning of Celebration. Rummell now oversees an endeavor St. Joe calls "regional place-making," in which he conjures images of iconic places like Nantucket and Santa Fe. Some of St. Joe's projects have the trappings of New Urbanism, but the company avoids the moniker, preferring its own carefully constructed corporate vernacular.

Abacoa, on the other hand, embraces the New Urbanist ethic with enthusiasm. The 2055-acre development built outside Jupiter was South Florida's first large-scale New Urbanist experiment. With a sports stadium, a branch campus of Florida Atlantic University, and a town center, it was hailed as a community of the future. However, Abacoa was not without its troubles, including a faltering retail area and disputes over the scope of development. Residents couldn't have known it, but more than a decade later, their struggles paved the way for Perfection.


A balding man with curly, graying hair and an omnipresent cigar, Joe Antonio looks out of place amid the rubble of unfinished houses at the far edge of Perfection, the very place he created, as his face, tired and drawn, indicates.

"I don't understand..." he says, his voice trailing off as he surveys the latest indignation. On the wall of a partially completed home in this abandoned phase of development, a vandal has made a comment in red spray paint: Your own piece of Infection.

"How could anyone do this?"

Antonio's mustachioed mouth droops in a frown. Though unremarkable in appearance, he is famous for spurning the luxurious golf-course communities he made a fortune creating. After accidentally attending a conference on New Urbanism (he mistook it for a trade show) in Portland, Oregon, Antonio became one of the movement's most ardent backers. He returned to Florida with the fervor of the newly converted. With his vision of the new New Urbanism, Antonio began to think of himself less as a developer and more, as he likes to put it, as a "town forefather."

"I really thought we were onto something here," he says, wearily looking out over Perfection's aborted final phase.

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