Tuesday, October 18, 2005 -- Even before presentations began on the last day of the six-day Mississippi Renewal Forum in Biloxi and even though many of the design specialists had pulled all-nighters to finish presentation projects, the energy level was high on Monday. James Barksdale, chairman of the Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding, and Renewal, described the week's activity as "architects on steroids."
Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said, "My hat is off... This charrette process, this Forum, has been everything I hoped it would be and far, far more.
"...At the end of the day, local people are going to make the decisions... But I think this has been a tremendous start."
What happens next is crucial. The Governor's Commission will take ideas from the six-day charrette directly to local leaders and citizens in town meetings in the 11 towns and three coastal counties examined during the Forum (the town hall meeting schedule can be found at www.governorscommission.com, filed under "Events"). It will then be up to the mayors, aldermen, and county supervisors to choose among proposals developed this week - or not.
Andrés Duany, leader of the design team, challenged officials on Monday to raise the bar for developers. "If you give the impression that you are a beggar, they'll give you their low-end model," said Duany. The point is not to just say no. "You say that you'd rather it be done this way."
The locals applauded.
Over the course of the six days, the local and national teams became more and more comfortable with one another. Even the governor, who led off the week joking about the out-of-towners' use of the word charrette to describe the Forum, seemed comfortable with the language by Monday. Asked if he'd added charrette to his vocabulary, Gov. Barbour said, "I still can't spell it, but I got where I can say it."
As the introductory remarks gave way to the various municipal presentations, Waveland residents met the renewal plan for their city with tears and applause. Evident amidst their comments was a fierce pride in their community and a desire to revive their built environment. Rebuilding Coleman Avenue was top of mind, as was the new FEMA zones and how they would affect individual families who may want to rebuild on their existing properties (Andrés Duany's comments on the challenges of building in flood zones can be read here.) Beach Boulevard will be a big issue for a lot of folks, said one attendee, stating that the road was a primary reason for people moving to the coast. At this point, FEMA maps don't forbid people to rebuild on Beach Boulevard; it's a question of whether residents want to do so, although team leader Robert Orr cautioned against stilt houses on Beach Boulevard. But whether it's new residents or a reclaimed downtown, one point is abundantly clear, however: The success of Waveland's future depends heavily on the public's involvement.
Much confusion still remains among residents of Bay St. Louis and others when it comes to the issue of the new FEMA zones. Questions included whether the town is now in the Velocity Zone (parts of it will be), and whether the new minimum elevations apply to commercial and residential were raised (yes, they apply to both).
Concern is also evident regarding Hancock County's elected officials, none of whom were present at the presentation. In their defense, said one attendee, they're being pulled in many directions. An effort needs to be made to keep them informed. The unincorporated areas of Hancock County were also on the minds of many. The Governor's Commission is heading the effort to keep them in the loop, beginning with the town hall meetings scheduled for later in October.
In Pass Christian, high levels of emotion marked the presentation. Applause rang out when team leader Laura Hall pointed to a rendering of a town-friendly Wal-Mart and asked, "Why couldn't Wal-Mart look like this?" Another attendee asked how important was the rebuilding of St. Paul's Church.
"Let's ask the town members," suggested Hall, and was met with a resounding "VERY IMPORTANT!"
"Thanks, I just wanted that on the record," said the attendee.
More concerns about FEMA were voiced, including whether the recalculations would affect the entire Gulf Coast or just the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Team architect Stephen Mouzon replied that since the recalculations are based on Katrina, it's "all about y'all," a statement that was met with protestations as to the fairness or logic of the recalculations.
Overall, though, the mood of the meeting was upbeat -- to a point. Henderson Point resident Martha Murphy offered insight into the state of mind of most residents. "It's an enormous challenge to engage us in any meaningful way right now," she said. "That's because we're shocked, we're traumatized, we're experiencing post-traumatic stress. We barely have the energy to ask the engineering and aesthetic questions. We're spending our energy just trying to stay buoyant. We need a psychologist."
But beneath the emotional exhaustion, Murphy assured the team that the locals were grateful: "We want to body-slam you all with big hugs for all your work!"
Audience response to design team ideas on how to rebuild in Biloxi suggests that a number of the proposals will enjoy considerable public support. The large crowd listening to team leader Stefanos Polyzoides reacted with instant understanding to the team's proposal for constructing a mixed-use fishing village in a waterfront area that's used by Vietnamese shrimp fishing crews. When Polyzoides observed, almost in astonishment, "You have no fishing village in a place dedicated to fishing," laughter erupted from the audience, which apparently felt he had hit the nail on the head.
The audience also seemed receptive to Polyzoides' argument that it would be a travesty to require much housing to be raised far above the ground, as FEMA is urging. Elevating houses would make them both ugly and more expensive, according to Polyzoides. He said Biloxi really has just two options in its low-lying areas: "You scrape the town and move to the hills or you make your buildings able to take a swim every 30 years." He said it is possible - and would make sense - to build houses so that they can survive flooding. Nobody offered a dissent, at least in the public discussion. A councilman representing the Second Ward, which would be affected by any requirement for putting houses on stilts, agreed that elevating the houses would be undesirable. In the lower-income sections of the city, Polyzoides said, "the only way to make houses affordable is to make very simple bungalows and cottages," placing them close to the ground.
A representative of the Beau Rivage casino cast some doubt on the proposal for establishing transit service on the current CSX rail tracks, asking whether people traveling that route would find coastal casinos like his. Polyzoides replied in droll understatement, "I'm not trying to be flippant but you're very visible," drawing more laughter from the audience.
An especially far-reaching part of the proposal for Gulfport was the concept of bringing much more development to the port area, which now has what the design team considers a surplus of blacktop parking. Team leader James Moore explained that the western portion of the port could serve industrial purposes, while the port's central finger could accommodate public and cultural uses. The idea of a grand hotel and of converting much of the port area into an urban grid of development seemed especially intriguing.
Replying to an audience member who wondered who might shop in the urban zone at the end of Rt. 49, Moore said, "The whole area is under-retailed" and consequently should be capable of supporting commercial activity. Another particularly interesting idea was that of redeveloping Jones Park with a variety of uses, making it the "perfect place" that residents will need during the long recovery from Katrina.
There seems to be great enthusiasm over prospects for commercial development in D'Iberville. Team leader Jaime Correa pointed out that with highway projects such as construction of Rt. 15, D'Iberville will be increasingly at the center of the region. City Manager Richard Rose said the result could be "good sales tax revenue." Correa also spoke about the advantages of designing the casinos in a more campus-like way, with the casinos, hotels, and cabanas forming appealing plazas.
Probably the most intriguing part of the Long Beach design team's presentation was the concept of creating a beachfront park perhaps a mile and a quarter long. Team leader Dhiru Thadani said that since part of the waterfront sits in the vulnerable "V Zone" identified by FEMA, it seems logical to move Highway 90 slightly farther inland from the Gulf. The road would have a long, gentle arc, which Thadani said "would make people feel more comfortable" about walking or lingering in its vicinity. An audience member suggested that moving Highway 90 would be relatively easy, since the buildings along it were wiped out by the hurricane. There could be retail close to the beachfront park, Thadani said. Like some other teams, the Long Beach planners argued that there is a need for a wider variety of housing. "We need other, intermediate products between high-rise buildings and single-family houses," he said.
View scenes from
the October 17