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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.

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Amy Roe

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