Almost Perfect

The streets breathe heat. Wavy vapors liquefy distant sights. A stop sign ahead evokes the work of Salvador Dalí. In the rear-view mirror of Bernard Benson's silver 2009 Saab Nomad, things are closer -- and stranger -- than they appear.

"The Persistence of Memory," Benson mutters, recalling the famous painting with the melting clock. He checks his watch, a Rolex thus far unaffected by the sun, and shifts his weight in the driver's seat. "Or something like that."

Bernard Benson is right about the painting's title; his memory is good, almost unforgiving. In his 44 years, the orthodontist has come to like things just so. His khaki Dockers are pressed in a knife-sharp crease; his cell phone hangs from its usual place on his belt.

When he motors the Nomad up to his home, the family neo-manse into which he and his wife, Sharon, have sunk the bulk of their life's savings, Benson allows a heavy sigh. Mortgages are a fact of life, but this, a sprawling, two-story, six-bedroom house with a pool, patio, and Jacuzzi, is one fact he'd rather forget.

Camera crews swarm the red-brick sidewalk; satellite trucks flank the street. Through the tinted glass of his SUV, Benson stares at the scene with resignation; long gone is his disbelief. Even if he could forget the problems that plague his once-tony neighborhood -- the looting, the rioting, the community under siege -- the media would remind him, running the unrest on an infinite loop.

"Just once," Benson muses, "I'd like to hit rewind."

He's not the only one. Front yards are dotted with "for sale" signs, but families are only moving out, not in.

Things weren't always this way. Nearly a decade ago, in 2003, some of the same reporters attended an event called "Homecoming." It was a debut for a new community built on the western outskirts of Palm Beach County, at the edge of the Everglades. The land was cheap; the plan was bold. Building a town on the prewar model would banish urban sprawl and its attendant woes, such as social isolation and automobile dependence. People would live, work, and play locally. Children would attend neighborhood schools and ride their bikes to the corner store, handlebar streamers fluttering in the breeze. It was the latest in a spate of New Urbanist developments, but its size, more than 5000 acres, raised the stakes.

The buzz was deafening. Like some hot new celebrity, the project was ubiquitous, appearing on the covers of Time, Newsweek, and even People. Perfection, as it was optimistically named, would be different.

It was perhaps all too different. In many ways Perfection has turned out unlike any New Urbanist project ever built. The community, designed mostly in variations on the Mediterranean style, now looks more like bombed-out out Beirut. Stately stucco homes have burned to the ground. The streets, tree-lined and pothole-free, provide a venue for graffiti.

Underneath his mirrored wraparound shades, Benson rubs his eyes at the apocalyptic sight. The sunglasses, which he often wears perched atop his head, give him an impassive air as they shield his eyes. He seems impervious to the pointed questions reporters hurl as he emerges from his air-conditioned, glass-and-steel cocoon. Now in an entirely different climate, Benson dabs at the tiny beads of sweat on his brow with a neatly folded handkerchief and hurries past the press. "It's hot," he mutters, then rephrases, using his daughter's favorite slang: "Crazy hot."

Sprawl, not palm trees or flamingos, defines Florida's landscape. Thus, at its inception Perfection seemed to its planners and prospective residents like a heat-induced hallucination. The approach to master-planning appeared innovative compared with most local developments, but the New Urbanist ethos the founders of Perfection espoused was in fact nothing new. Nonetheless, Perfection bears little resemblance to its ancestors.

The concept of New Urbanism came into favor in the late 1980s, when planners and architects returned to development patterns used prior to World War II -- before car culture, superhighways, and megamalls dominated the landscape.

Conceived as an alternative to suburban sprawl and the "Wal-Marting" of America, New Urbanism championed pedestrian-friendly streets with mixed-use developments that put shopping, transit, and public buildings within walking distance of homes. Affordable housing was to be sprinkled among pricier digs. Roadways were to be narrower with on-street parking, creating compact districts with a distinct center. Moreover, these features were to be sensitive to the environment, be planned in conjunction with neighboring regions, and include parks and preserves throughout.

Although some New Urbanists turned their attention to the old, redeveloping existing inner cities in efforts called "infill" projects, the movement got its greatest boost when the first project, called a traditional neighborhood development (TND) was built, an entire town where there had been none. Erected on 80 acres of land along the Gulf of Mexico in Florida's Panhandle, Seaside was the vision of founder Robert Davis, who inherited the land from his grandfather. He wanted to create a place based on his childhood memory of vacations on the Gulf.  

Collaborating with Miami architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Davis chose to build a small town. The town's neo-nostalgic look proved photogenic, too, appearing as backdrop for the movie The Truman Show.

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.

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.

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."

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.

Farnsworth just snickered. With her as instigator, CACS and its sympathizers launched a covert "monkey-wrenching" scheme to discourage Towne Centre shoppers. They picketed. They held sit-ins. Yet when a few store windows were shattered by bricks, CACS members insisted they had nothing to do with it.

All the while Farnsworth's rhetoric grew increasingly militant: "We will take back our neighborhood," she promised, arching an artfully penciled eyebrow, "by any means necessary."

Among these means was a team of gatekeepers called the New Neighborhood Watch, a radical arm of CACS. The group hired people to pose as construction workers, Florida Power & Light employees, and landscapers. These fake laborers, many of them aspiring actors from a nearby university drama department, were posted all over Perfection, poised to ask "questionable-looking" passersby for the day's password. It was real-estate profiling. If someone failed the test, on-call militiamen would move in to expel the individual, forcibly if need be, from the premises.

To fortify this strategy, the renegade neighborhood watch blocked grid streets to create those familiar, beloved cul-de-sacs. Without through traffic, passersby could also be more easily monitored by the tiny surveillance cameras installed in mailboxes.

The tactics were effective. Much to Antonio's dismay, even a few real Perfection residents were temporarily barred from the development. These incidents quickly convinced the few who had previously failed to cooperate with CACS to change their ways. Or else.

Antonio wanted to fight back, but he was trapped. Because no one wanted to diminish the houses' market value, Perfection's problems remained unknown to outsiders. Fearing increased security would draw negative publicity, he instead hired private investigators.

The battle over Perfection escalated. With two private armies pitted against each other, Mayor Grunwald cut ties to the area. Venus Springs' police had nominal jurisdiction over Perfection, but the cops, who wanted no part of this suburban guerrilla war, simply stopped responding to calls from the development. The message to residents was clear: You're on your own.

Outside Perfection, national media hype had nonetheless made proximity to the celebrated development a selling point for other builders. The first look-alike project, Reflection, upped the aesthetic ante by filling natural wetlands to make room for idyllic Japanese-style water gardens replete with lily pads and real, albeit nonnative, goldfish. In order to promote chi, or positive energy, throughout the neighborhood, shiny, reflective banners were hung near Reflection's east-facing entrances. "Feng Shui from $475,000!" boasted advertisements.

The more expensive Perfection and its environs became, the more residents came to view its New Urbanism-mandated affordable housing as a waste of valuable space. Residents resented being forced to mix with less affluent apartment dwellers; new neighborhood watch operatives who had infiltrated Perfection's management group saw an opportunity to make a profit and keep out "those people." Rather than renting the townhouse apartments above the empty Towne Centre stores, the moles within Perfection management sold them to other residents, who then knocked down the walls to create penthouse suites -- ostensibly rented by phantom low-income tenants. Cunning homeowners, abetted by insiders, also surreptitiously cashed in on government-subsidy programs by counting tool sheds and doghouses as affordable housing units.

Just past the palm-lined entrances to Perfection and Reflection, a similarly sinister development began. A ring of strip malls spread out to serve the burgeoning population. Since the housing developments all but banned retail to their shared periphery, that's exactly where such businesses cropped up, creating an exurban circle of commercial developments with copycat names like "Perfection Junction," and "The Shoppes at Reflection." The growth came so quickly that, even after Antonio funded a road-widening project, traffic was clogged and accidents were frequent. It was déjà vu -- suburban sprawl all over again.  

Many Perfection residents resented such perceived eyesores, and some even refused to shop in the stores. Their antigrowth campaign was bolstered by the entrepreneurial efforts of one of Perfection's youngest residents, 32-year-old software executive Blake Bentworth. The boyish redhead launched "," Perfection's online concierge that recalled an earlier era, when grocery stores and milk trucks offered home delivery. (His trucks always traveled with a neighborhood watch escort.) It also eliminated the need for residents to shop in Perfection's struggling Towne Centre, which irked its few remaining retailers. They appealed to Perfection management but did so to no avail. In 2007 the last store, Lickety Splits Candy and Ice Cream Shoppe, closed its doors. Perfection's Towne Centre has stood empty ever since.

The disconnect between Perfection's outer image and inner life was, for many residents, too great to bear. With no center, retail or otherwise, to hold the community together, Perfection residents became all the more isolated. Neighbors avoided one another for fear of conflict over their politicized home. They rushed to and from their cars, and front-porch chats were a thing of the past. Some parents even forbade their children to play outdoors.

Then something amazing happened. All of a sudden, a house "accidentally" caught fire, and Perfection was put to the test. Earlier the development had lost service from the area fire department, and Perfection residents had purchased their own used truck and equipment and formed a volunteer fire department. But the ad hoc crew was slow to respond and ill-equipped to quell the blaze. No one was injured in Perfection's first major fire, but the home burned to the ground.

The helpless onlookers and lapping flames were a harbinger. Before long, another house caught fire, then another. Perfection's formerly sunny skies became perpetually cloudy, filled with a sooty gray haze. Homeowners complained about the poor air quality and the lack of services that allowed small fires to get out of hand in the first place.

They were smiling, though, when they cashed their insurance checks.

Benson sips a Scotch beside his swimming pool. The sky is bruised with sunset, casting a pinkish glow over the patio. It might have been the perfect emblem of relaxation, but black smoke billows in the distance, and Benson is bitter and tense.

Nearby another house has been burned and robbed. Someone carts away a DVD player. Whom can he call? The cops won't come, and the neighborhood watch is too busy sabotaging public telephones and restrooms.

Benson reclines in his chair, which makes a disconcerting scrape on the concrete patio. The chair is broken; Benson has attempted to fix it with duct tape. The Bensons didn't bother buying new pool furniture, he says, stroking his neatly trimmed beard. By way of explanation, he nods in the direction of the pool. Drained of water, it is pale and unsettling, bereft of refreshment.

Instead of swimming, Carrie, Bernard's 16-year-old daughter, rides her skateboard up the pool's sloping sides and back down again, grinding the board on the edge of the pool, swinging back and forth like a pendulum. Carrie dropped out of the Perfection School and is now home-schooled by her mother. Bernard doesn't mind that her skateboarding may be scraping away the surface of the freeform gunite pool.

"Skateboarding's not a crime," he says, chuckling darkly. "Besides, the pool's not worth anything anyway."

Over the years crime and destructive infighting prompted property values in Perfection to plummet as sharply as they had risen. The Bensons are among the few holdouts; most original residents have long since left Perfection. Bernard Benson sought a place in Perfection in large part for the sense of community and, like Antonio, was slow to admit that the experiment wasn't going to work.

Meanwhile Rebecca Farnsworth dug in her spike heels, clinging desperately to her role as New Urbanism's opposition leader. While many residents were being burned out and relocating, Farnsworth hunkered down in her basement turned bunker. "I'm a survivor," she snarled. CACS members were afraid to travel to meetings at her home, so she held real-time meetings via the Internet. Though the audience couldn't see her, Farnsworth continued to dress the part. She wore a black T-shirt with "Never Surrender" spelled out in rhinestones.

Farnsworth vowed never to admit defeat. Benson is not so stalwart. With a gaping yawn, he stands up and stretches. He climbs the stairs and goes indoors, to bed. Things will be better, he says, in the morning.  

At 8 a.m. the family leaves early for the beach. They return to a shocking sight. The distant fires must have somehow spread to their home, which is singed, smoldering, and wet.

The Bensons race out of the SUV. Carrie screams in surprise. (Or is it delight?) Perfection's volunteer firemen reel in the hoses. The pavement is slick and damp. Bernard fills out an accident report as Carrie hugs her skateboard to her chest and stifles a smile. Bystanders offer consolation. The air is choked with smoke, a dissipating cloud of gray that adds to the confusion.

"The cause of the fire?" Bernard asks, reading the form aloud. Then he turns, glances at his wife and daughter, and smiles: "Unknown."

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