Almost Perfect

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

Antonio conceived Perfection as a hybrid of the New Urbanist communities that had come before it, designed to showcase the best features of each. "It's a patchwork," he had crowed, "just like your grandmother's heirloom quilt."

But unlike Granny's handiwork, Perfection was tradition made anew. Its version of New Urbanism was trickle-down. Well-liked aspects of older TNDs, such as Celebration's celebrated front porches, were incorporated while others, such as the functional but often unpopular alleys behind homes, were eschewed.

Other examples of New Urbanism set a precedent, but Antonio was unfazed: "We don't have to build a carbon copy of any other place. Perfection will take what works from New Urbanism."

No comment: For Bernard Benson (right), coming home to Perfection means dealing with a barrage of news media
Michael McElroy
No comment: For Bernard Benson (right), coming home to Perfection means dealing with a barrage of news media
Perfection resident Rebecca Farnsworth, the development's most outspoken opponent of New Urbanism, recruited homeowners to oppose a planned general store
Michael McElroy
Perfection resident Rebecca Farnsworth, the development's most outspoken opponent of New Urbanism, recruited homeowners to oppose a planned general store

Though he fancied himself New Urbanism's biggest champion, as a developer he remained attuned to market demands. He made compromises. Discreet garages, for example, didn't work in a neighborhood where most families had three vehicles. "People like their cars," he argued. "They want to have easy access to them."

When residents virulently resisted the opening of a convenience store near Perfection's entrance, which is marked with a coat of arms, Antonio was torn. The opposition was led by the Coalition Against Convenience Stores, or CACS, a homeowners group that argued a mini-mart would bring major problems: crime, drug sales, and those pesky in-line skaters.

Katie Grunwald, mayor of the nearby town of Venus Springs and an early New Urbanism advocate, expressed concern that residents were not living up to their responsibility as inhabitants of a New Urbanist development. "Do people realize that Perfection is more than just picture-perfect houses? Whether they like it or not, whether they understand it or not, residents need to cooperate with Perfection's New Urbanist goals."

Mixed use is a mandate of New Urbanism. Still, Antonio concluded, residents were, after all, his customers. And in the free market, he said, the customer is always right.

Antonio's toughest customer, Rebecca Farnsworth, was also the most outspoken opponent of his attempts at New Urbanism. When she seized leadership of CACS, the group teetered on the brink of rebellion.

Farnsworth's efforts were literally underground. Concerned that nonresidents might infiltrate the group, she convened meetings at odd hours in a dim, windowless room in the basement of her Colonial Revival-style home. A long-time Mary Kay consultant with a pink Cadillac in her garage, Farnsworth knew a thing or two about networking and what she liked to call "quality control." She was five feet, ten inches tall; her high-heeled pumps made her all the more imposing. Striding back and forth in front of a dry-erase board, she persuaded many homeowners association members to abandon all other allegiances.

Conventional homeowners groups were useless, she argued, because they were too closely tied to the community's developer. What Perfection needed was a coup. Residents should run the development themselves, she told the rapt audience. Firing up a PowerPoint demonstration and gesturing with a perfectly manicured red fingernail, Farnsworth was as persuasive as a preacher.

She cackled coldly at the mention of the Neighborhood Crime Watch. "Who are they watching?" she demanded rhetorically. "They're obviously blind to the real crimes here." Farnsworth proposed CACS start its own neighborhood watch, looking out for so-called "freeloaders" and "those hippie-dippy types who want to turn our home into some sort of commune!

"None of us want Perfection to be overrun with outsiders," she continued, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "I think we're all a bit disturbed by the fact that residents from the nearby subdivisions and apartment complexes use Perfection's jogging trails." She paused so the weight of this revelation could sink in. An elderly woman let out a dramatic gasp. Farnsworth smiled knowingly and suggested, to considerable applause, that residents be issued identification cards.

It was all too much for Bernard Benson. Visibly frustrated, he stood up quickly, knocking over a couple of metal folding chairs, which clanged loudly to the floor. "I didn't come to Perfection to live in some gated community," he said angrily. "That's not what this is about. We're supposed to be a town," he continued, pleading with the crowd, "and towns don't put up a fence and keep other people out."

Benson's impassioned statement didn't make a dent in residents' collective fear. They clamored to point out the need to maintain property values, and besides, shouldn't each homeowner's investment entitle him or her to some guarantee of privacy? After listening impatiently for a few minutes, Benson skulked out of the room.

Farnsworth, on the other hand, was just getting started. That fateful evening she persuaded CACS to nix all mixed-use buildings, despite the fact that a Towne Centre was part of the original master plan, "Perfection Vision 2010." Though Perfection was originally designed to include a 125,000-square-foot general store with valet parking, Farnsworth feared the store would cause too much noise and draw outsiders, tourists, and "undesirables" to the area.

Ever faithful to New Urbanist ideals, Benson alerted Antonio to the opposition. Antonio snapped open his cell phone and tried to dissuade the dissidents. Once again, with patience, he explained that mixed-use buildings were vital to diversity, a key goal of the New Urban community.

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