Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Successor: Rosemary Beach

 Throughout the week, I'll be making the most of a trip to the Florida coast to post on several of the New Urbanist towns and developments in the area from an 'Old Urbanist' perspective. Today's piece examines Rosemary Beach.

Rosemary Beach's origin dates to 1995, a time when the New Urbanism was in rapid ascendance.  The Congress for the New Urbanism had been formed two years before, Seaside and Kentlands had already enjoyed great success, and as real estate began to enter its 10-year boom period work was abundant.  Given the chance to design another coastal Florida town, DPZ might have simply copied Seaside's successful formula, but as the designers themselves explain, they chose not to:     
"Fifteen years after the design of Seaside, Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company was given the opportunity to return to the Florida Panhandle to create another new neighborhood on Scenic Highway 30-A. A New York-based investment firm had purchased a 52-acre property just seven miles east of Seaside, hoping to reproduce that project’s success. Given this objective, the clear mandate was to differ from that earlier model as little as possible. However, the opportunity to revisit the concept of the coastal resort town after fifteen years of experience allowed the design team to apply techniques that distinguish Rosemary Beach from Seaside in several fundamental ways. ...

Since most residents of Seaside use their cars rarely, the plan of Rosemary Beach introduces a rear alley system so that cars can be parked in garages that are not visible from the street. About half of these garages are topped by granny flats, small apartments that can be rented out to help finance the construction of the main house. The presence of alleys also means that not every house needs street access at the front, allowing many of the smaller streets to be replaced by boardwalks. The wooden boardwalks, inspired by northern seaside towns like Fire Island, allow direct pedestrian to access the beach and bring the beach experience deep into the plan. Two public squares on the southern boundary further focus the neighborhood’s activity on the ocean."
So right away we have a fundamental reconfiguration of the street network -- or do we?  In fact, both Seaside and Rosemary Beach share the same pattern of having a paved street on one side of homes, and a pedestrian path on the other, as can be seen by comparing the photos below with those from Tuesday's post:

"Back" and ...

... "Front."
So perhaps no "alley" has been introduced after all. Only the names have been changed.  The logic of the decision to add garages is a bit obscure: because cars are used rarely, does it follow that large and expensive garages should be built to accommodate them?

The garage-facing side with its 30-foot wide flush road surface and lack of green space presents a far more traditional urban appearance than the side that has now been designated the front, yet the designer does not appear to consider this a virtue, noting approvingly that the garages "are not visible from the street," in spite of the fact that we've just been told that in many cases there are no streets, only boardwalks.  Still, the arrival of the garages has, intentionally or not, created a traditionalist feel distinctively different from that of Seaside along certain of the so-called alleys, albeit one which depends heavily on the existence of homes above the garage to enliven and humanize the space.

The suggestion that the boardwalks were inspired by Fire Island is intriguing.  Let's take a quick look at Fire Island's plan:

Do you notice anything unusual here?  Access to Fire Island homes is only by boardwalks and pedestrian paths for a very simple reason, as the Fire Island website explains:
"There are no paved roads on Fire Island and only service and emergency vehicles are allowed on the island. Free of cars, traffic, pollution, and noise Fire Island offers a peaceful getaway unlike any other vacation destination. ... Walking, biking, and golf-carting are the modes of transportation and help to preserve our island’s natural beauty."
Here is a Fire Island "street," "alley," call it what you will:

Flickr/Joe Shlabotnik
Now, like Rosemary Beach and Seaside, Fire Island is largely a vacation getaway, but one which accommodates over four thousand housing units containing a summer population in the tens of thousands, all without cars!  Could that be a viable planning model?  The design statement for Rosemary Beach shows, I think, the ambiguous role of cars in New Urbanist projects.  It is understood that cars are not an asset to the development and the feel of the community, yet they are guiding fundamental design choices.  The mode of accommodation changes, but this unresolved design tension persists.  The car-free option remains unexplored despite its obvious viability in the context of vacation destinations.

Moving on: here is the main commercial corridor of Rosemary Beach:

The architecture is of an outstanding quality, even exceeding the standard set at Seaside.  Each building shows a meticulous attention to detail and proportion in every part, and in its relationship to its neighbors (complaints about New Urbanist developments such as these often point to the alleged "fakeness" of the architecture, as though use of historicist elements and detail were somehow insincere.  I reject these arguments completely -- architectural beauty is not only a legitimate but highly important end, no matter how or through use of what styles it might be achieved).  There is a wonderful lack of large surface lots or garage parking -- a tremendous improvement over almost any other development in the surrounding area.  Notice again, though, two features of the design that have been seen before in Seaside: an excessive width of the street, and a reappearance of Christopher Alexander's "subtle mechanical character" in that the street, although angled NE/SW in defiance of a strict orthogonal plan, is perfectly straight, and of a regular width along its length.

The streets of Rosemary Beach do bend a bit more than those in Seaside, however.  The overall plan has a pleasing asymmetry, yet the surveyor's aesthetic is still evident here.  The 19th century pattern of large-scale, attached commercial buildings and detached single family homes persists, although in an extraordinary architectural form that is a delight to explore and take in.

A final point concerns the drastic difference in the way Rosemary Beach and Seaside incorporate Highway 30A (which both towns span) into their designs.  At Seaside, establishments are set back only 15-20 feet from 30A, which, despite its name, is only a 22-foot wide roadway with no shoulders.  Seaside does not shy away from this road, but encroaches upon it and tames it, inducing drivers to slow naturally in response to pedestrian activity.  Rosemary Beach, on the other hand, drops everything and runs away:

At the right hand side is the 22-foot wide 30A, appearing wider due to gigantic turning areas.  Grass buffers extend for 20 feet on either side, followed by ten-foot bike paths, and then another 35 feet of grass for a grand total of 150 feet of sun-baked open ground between buildings at the narrowest point.  On either side, the grassy buffers widen, creating a yawning gap of over 200 feet.  There is no shade at the crosswalk.  At high noon, the feel is of a no man's land, and I saw very few people bold enough to attempt this crossing on foot.

Why Rosemary Beach chose to abandon Seaside's approach and turned its back on this humble state road as though it were the Cross Bronx Expressway, I don't know.  But it need not remain that way -- a solution is as easy as constructing additional homes and shops to link the existing areas north and south of the road.

Overall, Rosemary Beach feels like a place torn in two directions: between a traditionalist European village and a 19th century American resort town with its boardwalks and scrub plants, and between excluding and indulging the automobile.  The clash produces an interesting, if not entirely harmonious, result.  In terms of creating a consistent style and successfully integrating the automobile, Seaside comes out on top -- which is not so much a critique of Rosemary as a compliment of Seaside.

In the next post I'll take a look at the third and latest of DPZ's towns along the coastline -- Alys Beach.


  1. Thanks so much, looking forward to Alys.

  2. Charlie,

    Thanks for these unusually interesting "tours" of Seaside and Rosemary Beach.

    I realize that both communities are, as you (and most other observers) say, essentially resort communities, but as someone who is a New [Sub-]Urbanist skeptic, I'd be interested in knowing a bit more about the "lifestyle" and the commerce that does exist. If you have the time, can you go into a bit more detail about some of the following?:

    What kinds of businesses do exist, who is the clientele, where they come from (other communities?), etc.? Do the people who work in these communities live there or elsewhere? How do outsiders get to these communities? How far away are conventional commercial/manufacturing areas?

    Also, where do residents of these communities go for the WIDE RANGE range of things that people normally need to buy (not just groceries and restaurant meals, etc.)? I see there are plenty of restaurants, but are there any bars, movie theaters, places to buy socks, shoes, furniture, household appliances, etc.?

    And where are the schools and other institutions (e.g., hospitals, etc.) that residents, especially year-round residents, would likely use?

    Plus, how do people handle garbage collection (and where does the trash go?), recycling, etc.


    Benjamin Hemric
    Thursday, Aug. 18, 2011, 10:05 p.m.

  3. Benjamin -- thanks for the comment. The year-round population of these communities is very small, although many or most of the homes are owned by families as second homes rather than rented out by management companies. That said, given the mild climate there are probably always at least several hundred people in the town.

    There is not much of a non-tourist economy to speak of, at least as far as I can tell. Almost all businesses cater to the tourist trade, both in the communities and in the surrounding area. Many of the employees are there on seasonal assignments, while others are retirees who've decided to take jobs in the local shops to stay occupied (I met a gentleman fitting that description at a local bookstore). Some live in the communities themselves. As for basic needs, Walmart has triumphed along the Gulf Coast as surely as it has elsewhere in the country. There is no effort in these towns to compete with what the big box stores have to offer.

    There is a hospital just up the road on 30A, and Seaside itself has a small charter school. I'm afraid I don't know the answer as to trash pickup.

    I tried not to get too hung up on the particulars of how these communities operate since I get the sense that they are intended above all as showpieces of a New Urbanist design method. A resort town is ideal for that purpose, since the number of people who cycle through there and experience the place is enormously high relative to the number of houses that are actually built. That is one reason why I've focused on design elements rather than looking at how the community actually functions (which, as it turns out, is much like any other American resort town, with all the limitations that implies).

  4. Overall, I think this is quite successful. I would agree with most all of Charlie's comments -- there is a real confusion here between the "back" of the houses (which I immediately interpreted as the front), and the funny walkway in the "front", which I interpreted as the back. Despite the wall of two-car garages at street level, the overall impression is rather nice, due I would say to the lovely building fronts including second story balconies. I would eliminate the setback of about 5-8 feet in front of the houses. However, I note again that we have a typical Really Narrow Street layout, with no sidewalks and Green Space, and a nice 16-20 foot width for the main roadway although another 10-15 is effectively added to this with setbacks on either side. I am fascinated that they end up with this sort of solution even though their supposed design goal is to make a road for the exclusive use of automobiles!

    I would also ask: are two-car-width garages really necessary? For some reason, this has been assumed to be some sort of necessity. You could easily have a one-car-width garage, possibly with room for two cars end-to-end. That would reduce the "wall of garage doors" effect considerably.

    The pedestrian lane ("alley" whatever) is lovely. However, the normal use for a pedestrian lane such as this is to provide access to buildings (residential or commercial) that do not have parking. Instead, we have the continuing strange confusion of having two independent roadway systems, and consequently no backyards.

    The "commercial corridor" looks very nice. I would give a big thumbs up for the buildings and overall character. However, we have a strong sense of "Small Town America-itis," or a 19th Century Hypertrophic Character, or more practically speaking, a big automobile roadway and parking lot (onstreet parking) right in the middle of what should be a pleasant place for humans to gather. It would be an easy matter to make the roadway about twenty feet narrower and make it a 100% pedestrian place, with a few hours of access in the morning for deliveries.

    For example:

  5. Given Charlie's comments about Fire Island, and the present treatment of Rt. 30A, it makes me wonder what could have been if they had just put some multilevel parking garages on 30A, and a nice bus depot, and made everything on the seaward side of 30A into a pedestrian-only zone.

    Now that would have been interesting.

    You could add a few golf cart taxis for moving luggage.

  6. Nathan: as to the "strange confusion" of the two independent roadways, it gets even stranger with regard to the "granny flats," quoting here from the DPZ description:

    "About half of these garages are topped by granny flats, small apartments that can be rented out to help finance the construction of the main house."

    So there are actually two separate units, one on the pedestrian path (the "main house") and one on the alley (the "granny flat"). The only outward physical distinction between having two houses of separate ownership is that the granny flat is made to accommodate both the garage for itself and for the main house, rather than having one garage for each. This permits the use of the pedestrian path on every other right-of-way.

    I find this fixation on "granny flats" extremely odd. If the goal really is increasing affordability (taking DPZ at its word), if the owner can afford to construct an entire "accessory" dwelling first, why not just move into that house and sell off the other half of the lot? Splitting the lots in half will do much more to increase affordability than this awkward scheme of renting granny flats, which most homeowners, who probably live in Atlanta or Dallas during most of the year, are probably not much interested in doing anyways.

    As to your car-free solution, it sounds totally sensible. There are many resort communities and towns that function on a golf cart/bike/walking transportation paradigm. Many resorts in Cabo San Lucas, for instance, or Catalina Island. More importantly, the Sandestin Resort, just down the road from Seaside has a pedestrian-only "village," although it has the character of an outdoor mall rather than a living town:

    Resort in Cabo San Lucas (parking lot in upper left; paths are for golf cart taxis):,-109.930143&spn=0.003628,0.006866&sll=30.389772,-86.325138&sspn=0.003396,0.006866&vpsrc=6&t=k&z=18

    Seaside does implement that concept in the area south of 30A, but Rosemary Beach does not really have an equivalent.

  7. Hello Charlie, It's always interesting to read a visitor's observation of our unique linear community known as 30A. You might want to pick up a copy of the recently published book, 30A Style, that explores the historic communities and new urbanist towns and features interiors of 22 homes -- mostly full-time residents. Best regards, Lynn Nesmith

  8. Charlie,
    Looking at the photos on Google Maps, most of the residential buildings are 2.5 or 3 stories (with the third story in the dormer, or as a smaller part of the whole structure). Most houses have verandas or porches around them which makes it difficult to estimate the square footage from the satellite imagery. But the roof area is usually 40x40, 30x60 or even 45x45 feet. That means almost all of these houses are over 3000 square feet, and some are over 4000 square feet, not including garages. Clearly, we are not looking at affordability if these are single family homes.

    Re: the lack of backyards, the lot shape varies quite a bit, but most are about 80 to 100 feet deep (not including the street or the path, which would add another 25 feet), and 40 to 60 feet wide. With a 40x40 house and a 25 x 25 foot garage/granny flat that doesn't leave much space for a yard. This photo shows the small patio possible: . Some of the longer lots do have a pool or yard, but leave out the separate garage:

    In many cases, there really is only 8 feet of landscaping on each side of the 6 foot pedestrian walkways, rather than a formal front yard. This is a good example:
    There are only about 18 to 24 feet between the "fronts" of these houses:

    This is one of the lanes (alleys?) with carports and garages:
    A couple of the streets are wider, with a sidewalk:

    The more I look at photos of this place, the more I'm impressed by the architecture.
    Why isn't there anyplace this nice on the coast in California? Instead, we get crappy, cheap apartment complexes with the entire ground level devoted to parking.

    The only big mistake is the huge blank space on either side of the highway. Seeing that US 98, to the north of town, is the real main highway, I don't see why they couldn't have built more closely to the main road. In the satellite imagery, the grass is brown:,-86.014586&spn=0.001404,0.002411&t=h&z=19&vpsrc=6

    Overall, it looks like the place has been built with a FAR (floor area ratio) near 1.0, if we exclude the "green space" and highway. About 1/3 of the land is built to 3 stories. That's pretty close to a traditional town or village, which usually will have a FAR around 2.0. (Big cities like Paris have a FAR of over 4.0 in some areas, but most of the city is 1.0 to 2.0 on this map:

  9. Charlie, thanks for the additional information!

    Given what you say (and given what I've read elsewhere), it's hard to see the applicability that the designs of these resort communities have to genuine city districts, though. They do make for very nice suburban neighborhoods (at least in areas with the right kind of climate) -- but even here they seem to accomplish this feat by leaving the messy realities of everyday living (and earning a living) to nearby conventional suburban areas and genuine cities.

    While it's nice that people are developing different kinds of suburbs (that are somewhat denser and somewhat less auto-dependent than conventional suburbs -- and possess a different kind of beauty), it seems to me to be false advertising to claim that this is "urbanism" rather than "sub-urbanism" (i.e., via the movement name, "New [Sub-]Urbanism").

    It also seems to me to lead a confused discussion of genuine urbanism and to distract from a problem facing genuine cities: how to successfully allow for the the densification and urbanization of existing semi-suburban and suburban districts.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Sat., August 20, 2011, 8:15 p.m.

  10. Benjamin: I would certainly agree -- the New [Sub-]Urbanists seem to shy away from any meaningful sort of real density. I joke that they keep talking about Small Town America which is a VERY low density arrangement of perhaps 2,000 people per square mile.

    Instead of moaning about stupid Small Town America, they could look at some very successful coastal villages which are now topclass worldwide destinations. I would suggest Santorini, Greece and Positano on the Amalfi Coast, Italy.

    Joseph: I would say there is a lot of difference between a FAR of 1.0 and a FAR of 2.0. Basically, it is the difference between 1/3 of the land built at three stories, and 2/3ds of the land built at three stories -- which, as you say, is close to a "Traditional City" format, with the footprint/land area ratio sometimes rising to about 85%. Big difference!

    For you Traditional City fans, I will put this link in. Can you figure out where it is?

    Viva Traditional Cities!

  11. Joseph: great observations. The houses are almost all very large as you point out. Zillow confirms a range of 3,000 to 4,500 sq. ft. with prices in the $1-3 million range. The handful of properties offered at less than that are apartments over the shops. The "granny flats" are not sold as separate units, apparently. With homes of this size, population density will probably be less than the FAR might indicate. Seaside's houses are smaller on average, but have greater variation, especially at the low end.

    Benjamin: I agree with much of what you've said. Seaside is not "urbanism," but it doesn't pretend to be. At the time it was conceived, the term "New Urbanism" was all but unknown. I don't think the idea was that Seaside was the only model for a town, it was simply a model that was contextually appropriate and which the town's founder was personally fond of. The confused discussion dates from some ten years later, when the Seaside model effectively became the model for the entire NU movement:

    Even so, Rosemary Beach is clearly more "urban" in nature than Seaside. It has created a setting of luxury single family homes at high density, which does have potential applicability to infill and densification of inner-ring suburbs.

    I'm trying not to make too much of the resort setting, as I've said. After all, the entire Gulf coast economy relies heavily on tourism (driven by the scarce "natural resource" of pristine white beaches). It's no less of an economy for that. DPZ has also carried over its methods to nearby Panama City, although it looks to be greenfield development rather than densification of existing areas.