Monday, August 22, 2011

Alys Beach: The New Urbanism Samples the Old

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, the third and final, examines Alys Beach.

Alys Beach, even in its current embryonic form, is the most promising New Urbanist project of the three I've visited over the past week.  Promising, in that it discards the New Urbanism's 19th century American small town planning model in favor of an unapologetically traditional format, at least in part, and has the potential to show the way forward for subsequent developments.  However, the issue of cars and parking -- the planning challenge of the day -- remains in flux, and it's not clear whether Alys Beach has made much of an advancement in that key area.

Courtyard townhouse under construction: The exterior
walls consist of concrete blocks which are filled with
rebar and solid mortar.
The project is the newest of the group, having been designed in 2003.  In a difficult economic climate, less than 20 percent of all lots have been sold, with even fewer homes actually built.  The developer (Birmingham-based EBSCO) has limited initial sales to a third of the project area and has engaged in very little speculative building.  Homes are largely custom built by purchasers of individual parcels.  With so little completed, there wasn't much to photograph, but enough has been constructed that it's possible to extrapolate the built areas to the remainder of the development.  Encouragingly, several homes were under construction at the time I visited.

The description of designer DPZ focuses mainly on architecture rather than urban form:

"In the tradition of nearby Seaside and Rosemary Beach, Alys Beach will be a model resort town-- a place where the best concepts in town planning are applied to create an ideal urban experience in harmony with nature. ... Seeking to achieve an overall feeling of calm and simplicity for the town, the design team turned to a number of sources for inspiration. A trip to Bermuda led to the discovery of the perfect architectural style for the project. The simple volumes of whitewashed masonry and stucco typical of the style possess an uncomplicated, organic beauty. Buildings are grouped into small compounds and unified by perimeter walls, which are higher and more formal in the urban zones, lower and more rustic in the rural areas. The Bermuda style is combined with a patio house type that originated in Antigua and a courtyard building type that came from California."
The courtyard house is a traditional form, and the streetscape that results from these attached U-shaped dwellings is one which is unmistakably traditional as well:

There are several elements here which are unprecedented, or nearly so, for the New Urbanism.  The exclusive use of attached residential dwellings -- of an outstanding quality -- is one. The flush street surface, with no sidewalk or lane differentiation, is entirely for the person on foot (promotional materials show children biking down a similar street, but when I tried to do the same it somehow did not feel appropriate -- the natural urge, reinforced by the level of architectural detail and glimpses into interior courtyards, is to walk the bike).  The "subtle mechanical order" of Seaside and Rosemary Beach is avoided by a gradual widening of the street as it leaves a public square and by a use of a fina-like design concept in which buildings extend outdoor stairways, window shutters and large planters two or three feet into the right of way.  The street, less than 30 feet at its widest point (lower image) narrows to under 20 (upper image).  The combined effect is entirely traditional, and the resulting streetscape 100% "place," even if it could stand to be narrowed just a bit more.

To observe how Alys Beach deals with the automobile, take a turn down a narrow lane leading off the street in the above photos (an appropriate width for the two-story courtyard format):

At the end of this lane, behind the courtyard homes, we encounter ... a parking lot, complete with nature band-aids, to borrow the terminology of James Howard Kunstler:

Turning left to face the lot:

It's an unusually nice parking lot, but a parking lot nonetheless, making car storage more prominent than at either Rosemary Beach or Seaside.  There appear to be at least two spaces provided for each courtyard house.  These common lots are a fundamental design element of the Alys Beach plan, appearing below as the tree-dotted areas. 

In this plan, we see that there are actually three different types of street: the pedestrian street, vehicular ways with raised sidewalks, and the paths leading between and around the network of parking lots.  Only half of the courtyard homes open onto pedestrian ways, while two thirds of the street network is primarily or exclusively for the car, a proportion similar or greater than at Rosemary Beach. 

An example of one of the vehicular streets is below, showing a 30-foot right-of-way:
The building lots in this area have a refreshing variety that characterizes the development as a whole, with dimensions including 60'x50', 30'x80' and ranging up to 40'x110'.  Zero lot line designs are the norm.  On the narrowest lots, suggested designs show a large townhouse, abutting the street, separated from a loft unit at the rear of the lot by a spacious courtyard (the photo shows such a design).  Unlike the mini-cottages of Seaside or the granny flats of Rosemary Beach, these loft units will not be available for separate rental, according to the sales office.  One doubts how much use they are likely to receive.

The area immediately adjacent to the beach incorporates a somewhat more irregular, if not organic, plan, and it turns out this area was not actually designed by DPZ, but by Porphyrios Associates,  the firm of classicist Demetri Porphyrios:

In this area, lots sizes are as small as 30'x40', yet the insistence on providing two parking places per unit prevails even here, in the form of on-site parking rather than common lots.  The overall plan provides for increasing lot sizes away from the beach, but it's not clear if this distribution actually reflects market demand since -- as the very helpful realtor at the sales office informed me -- subdividing lots will not be permitted.  The smallest lots seem undersupplied, while the 40'x110' lots, offered at such high prices, look like strong candidates for partition.  The designer explains that the distribution of lot sizes is attributable to the "urban-to-rural transect," yet the practical effect is to flatten the price distribution for lots, compensating for lower land values farther from the beach by setting larger minimum lot sizes. 

One final point: like Rosemary Beach, Alys Beach shies away from embracing Highway 30A, adding large landscaped buffers with blocking hedges and broad bike paths and/or access roads which are nearly as wide as 30A itself.  At 120 feet between facing buildings, the gap is not quite as large as at Rosemary Beach, but given the modest and traditional scale of the pedestrian paths and elegant buildings, the contrast is even more jarring.  Although traffic noise from the road was a design concern here, the effect of drawing back from 30A in this manner will be to encourage higher traffic speeds, partially negating the intended benefits of the setback.

Despite quibbles with street layouts and lot dimensions, Alys Beach appears to be a true breakthrough for the New Urbanism.  The architecture hits a high note of elegant simplicity, the pattern of attached courtyard dwellings is a welcome change, and the presence of narrow, pedestrian-centric streets shows a confident embrace of traditional urbanism.  One nagging concern, though, is whether this community represents a turning point in design, or is simply a magnificent one-off, the product of a particular architectural vision that is unlikely to be repeated.

The issue of cars and parking, though, needs some creative rethinking.  In a community envisoned as "a place where our feet will take us where we want to go," as the Alys Beach exhibit proclaims, surely the designers imagined feet taking residents elsewhere than the driver's side door of a conveniently-parked SUV.  Nathan Lewis in previous comments suggested the idea of a single parking garage at the edge of the community from which residents could proceed on foot, bike or golf cart -- an approach which has been implemented in other resort towns, and which is especially feasible in Florida's mild climate.  Seaside's founder Robert Davis suggested valet parking some years ago to deal with a crush of cars there.  There are many potential alternatives, but a community explicitly designed around walking, the notion of prioritizing access to the car above all else must be reconsidered. 

That about wraps up my look at these three fascinating communities on the Florida panhandle.  Thanks for reading! 


  1. I have generally been critical of the "New Urbanist" tendency to make two separate roadway systems for cars and pedestrians. However, in all three of these examples, the addition of the pedestrian system doesn't take much space, so it is not so much of a problem compared to the other examples we've seen where there is a full-size 19th Century Hypertrophic roadway of perhaps 80 feet plus large setbacks on either side. I think there is still some work to be done here, but perhaps the idea of simply separating cars and people, rather than trying to find some way for both of them to coexist, has some merit after all. I wouldn't say "better" or "worse," since as we have seen they can coexist quite nicely in the various Tokyo examples that I am fond of, but the recent Florida examples show this is perhaps viable.

    The other thing that I would note is the conflict between very high-value uses of land (attached townhouses, narrow streets) and the very low-value use of land as open-air parking. Another possibility would have been to make a shared garage -- in essence, it is identical to the present layout except with a concrete roof which can then be built upon, to provide either a park/garden space or room for more units. I am going to work on this theme in more depth myself, but apparently some townhouse developments are already trending in this direction. A reader wrote in from Toronto saying that this has already become a common format.

    The "streetscape" with pedestrian street looks promising, but my impression is that it is a little "cold," which I would attribute to the lack of recognizable building fronts/entrances. This is typical of the Mediterranean courtyard house layout in which street faces are often blank white walls, so perhaps they have inherited this characteristic. We haven't seen any commercial areas here so it would be interesting to see how that would be treated. The Mediterranean layout is softened by the addition of commercial (restaurant, bar, shop, etc.) here and there or at least a commercial area within close distance.

    The vehicular roads ("arterials") strike me as a little wide. The designers seem unsure whether they are making a road with or without onstreet parking or shoulders.

    There seems to be a bit of hesitancy regarding the embrace of truly urban levels of density. The average plot size looks to be around 3000sf (60x50). This is related to the difficulties with finding a good solution for parking I would say.

    All in all some excellent progress I would say, although there is still more to do.

  2. Nathan – thanks for the comments. My objection was more to the size and ubiquity of the surface lots, and the presence of two spaces per house, rather than the segregation of pedestrians and automobiles, which is definitely a valid choice. Consider that Alys might have adopted Rosemary's approach, building garages under the loft units opening onto Tokyo-scaled residential streets, with entirely pedestrian streets on the side of the "main house," and no vehicular (i.e. wide, raised-sidewalk) streets at all. Constructing a network of vehicular streets in addition to a network of parking lots seems to waste more in land than is gained by losing the garages, and detracts from the traditionalist feel the designers are aiming at. Alternatively, space for cars might have been carved into courtyard spaces, as you've shown examples of from the Tokyo suburbs (and as I've seen done, quite successfully, in Mexican cities).

    For a warm-climate resort town, though, the separate community garage is an especially viable choice. If the community is designed to be pedestrian-centric, and the use of cars infrequent, is it asking too much that residents should have a three minute walk/ride though extremely pleasant surroundings to their cars, no different than the walk to the beach, or to the coffee shop, or to the restaurant? If it is asking too much, can the town really be called pedestrian-centric?

    As to the "cold" feeling of the streetscape, my photos don't really capture the presence of see-through doors opening onto courtyard spaces, which provide tantalizing glimpses of interior fountains and columned patios. These dramatically open up the space and provide a lot of visual interest to the person on foot, but only to the person on foot, as the bicyclist is gone by too quickly. My only complaint was that the street could stand to be another 5-10 feet narrower, at least. The fact that trees have been planted in the middle of the street is design evidence of this, I think.

  3. Could the parking lots and "arterial" type streets, along with what look like a more typical street/alley paradigm farther north on the site be a concession to emergency and service access to each property? With the pedestrian ways being blocked by trees and other obstacles, they're not available for any vehicular traffic except possibly motorcycles, so they probably had to provide some sort of alternate access for emergency vehicles, trash collection, deliveries, etc. anyway.

    The idea of having parking built at grade with a platform above for the pedestrian and living surface is intriguing. As a beach aesthetic, a system of interconnecting boardwalks between buildings would seem to make sense, though whatever the construction method, care would need to be taken to make sure the parking area below doesn't become hopelessly dank and grotesque. In fact, shouldn't elevated construction be necessary here to begin with? As a coastal development, shouldn't these houses be a full story above grade for hurricane storm surge protection anyway?

  4. The design looks lovely and innovative . . .

    but . . .

    How will it actually be used? Will pedestrians and cyclists use those no-car streets to get around, or will they be semi-deserted alleyways while all the real traffic is between the parking lots and the back doors?

  5. Just spoke with a blogger just back from Alys. Except around the pool I've never seen people in the Alys Beach pictures. She said yes, it was a virtual ghost town when they were there. That's just a couple of observations, I wonder what it's like there at peak times?

  6. Jeffrey: the design definitely could be a concession to the needs you mentioned -- in the entire plan, there are only one or two lots which do not open onto either a vehicular street or a parking lot. There's no need for elevated structures here since a large dune system shields the town, as it does in Seaside.

    Cambias: Great questions. It would be interesting to learn how traffic of all kinds has been conforming to the pattern the designer envisioned. Once the trees grow taller it is entirely possible that walking though the parking lots will be more pleasant physically, if not aesthetically, than through the largely non-shaded car-free streets.

    Terry: The guy I spoke to at the sales office mentioned that the plan is to concentrate on residential before moving into commercial development, which partly explains the lack of activity. With only 50 houses or so completed, the amount of foot traffic is bound to be very low. My photos were also taken on a blazing early afternoon in mid-August, when all but die-hard urbanists had the good sense to be either at the pool, in the ocean or indoors.

  7. Cambias,

    I agree. There is a sense here of being a "better looking suburban townhouse development," in which nothing much happens at the site and people get in their cars and go somewhere else for pretty much everything, from a coffee at a cafe to the post office, supermarket etc. This is very different from making a "village," in which I think the commercial (retail/restaurant/etc.) part is perhaps the focus and the residential part in a sense built around that.

    This also leads to the perceived desire to have parking right by all residences, since you have to get in your car to accomplish just about anything. The kind of neighborhood where parking could be concentrated at some site and most of the area is a pedestrian-only place is one where you could arrive for the week, park the car once, and spend pretty much all your time at the "village." Many resort hotels are already aim for this ideal, and it is part of the "ski village" plan I talked about on my site earlier this year.

  8. Charlie,

    As usual, I am writing before reading everything. Your comment that this project is far from completed and has a very low population (50 houses not continually occupied) thus far certainly contributes to the quiet mood. Any business wants to see some customers in the area before opening.

  9. The article isn't really clear: IS there commercial space in this village? That makes a heap of difference.

  10. Cambias -- the darker shaded areas on the map show where commercial space is planned. None of it has been built yet, though.

  11. Great review of this New Urbanism development. The location (beach-side) seems to be ideal. It is intriguing to see how differently NU projects are developed in different parts of the country. We can't wait to see what the finished product will be. @Charlie-are there any signed tenants for the proposed rental spaces yet?

  12. Charlie.. thank you for your posts on Seaside, Rosemary & Alys. I have been to all three several times and each time, there are subtle things that grow on me and make me appreciate them more. Your critique was pretty spot on. I am a card carrying new urbanist and sometimes get frustrated with your posts... not because you are wrong... generally I agree with everything you say. I get frustrated because virtually everything you talk about on Old Urbanism is in the new urbanist toolbox. The problem, as you know, is regulation and practicality. The car is the tool of the day. Most NUs agree that it won't always be the tool of the day. However, just as you don't build a house by taking away all the hammers, you don't build a neighborhood (today) by taking away the car. Most NUs would make the streets and setbacks much narrower if they could.

    That being said, some designs are better than others. Getting back to your post... I had the privilege of taking a tour of Rosemary and Alys with Andres Duany earlier this year. He was unabashedly critical of the 30-A setbacks. He also felt that the town square in Rosemary didn't work as it was too narrow, was separated from the buildings by far too much road/parking and in general didn't provide a useable space for either recreation or congregation. There were many regrets on the visibility of the garages but he was very proud of the effect the boardwalks created by taking the car away from the front of the homes. It is actually quite nice and you do feel like you are in an outdoor room. He was extremely critical of the lack of visibility of the gulf from the beach entrances. He said that the DPZ design allowed for views directly to the gulf but after the plan was done, a landscape architect was hired to dress up the entrances. Another issue is that there is no public access to the beaches like there is in Seaside. The commercial component suffers because of that decision. You may have noticed the strange appearance of the roads... worn down, eroded and patched... apparently the 'pervious' pavement solution they used to be 'green' turned out to be a nightmare to maintain and is now very costly. He was also very happy with the way the 'six-pack' apartment buildings fit in right in the middle of multi-million dollar single family homes. Having had a tour with Duany, it is definitely obvious that mistakes were made and lessons were learned. He kept going on about the learning progression that took place in the evolution of each of the three developments.

    The Alys Beach tour was a little shorter as there just isn't as much there. I will say that Duany was extremely happy with the way the courtyards turned out as they do a great job shielding the cars from the important aspects of the public realm. One of the major lessons that he was harping on was that of utility boxes. They are very visible in both Seaside and Rosemary (contributing to the unsightliness of the alleys). However, they took painstaking efforts to remove these from view in Alys. Most are in the courtyards and even then are hidden behind structural components of the buildings themselves. We were able to go in two of the townhomes (AMAZING). Duany was extremely conscious of how a great deal of privacy could be achieved even in high density living (a major complaint of the anti-density crowd). We also got an unexpected tour of the town founder's home and got to meet Alys herself who is the town founder's grandmother.

    Duany felt that upon completion, Alys will be the crown jewel of the new urbanist movement and I don't disagree. It's not perfect but it gets a lot closer than any other major development (social aspects aside). They have a very nicely done flyover on youtube...

    Mike Hadden |

  13. Mike -- thanks for the kind words. What a treat to have had Duany lead you on a tour of these towns! I've never met him, but Suburban Nation was one of the books that got me started thinking about these issues and about New Urbanism specifically. By looking at Seaside, Rosemary and Alys side by side, you can't help but come to the conclusion that the movement has avoided falling into a design rut and has continued to learn from its previous projects, as you mentioned. The New Urbanists, and Duany no less, I find especially admirable for being intensely pragmatic and really non-ideological, for not making the best the enemy of the good.

    I've had commenters here point out that NU has been working behind the scenes on challenging certain municipal standards for street widths, setbacks, parking minimums and the like. Those are absolutely key objectives, since without those changes traditional urbanism is essentially impossible. When I critique New Urbanism on this blog its not because I fundamentally disagree with it, but because I want it to live up to its highest principles. I know that the New Urbanists want to, also -- Sandy Sorlien was amazingly gracious enough to not only give me the time of day, but actually listen to my ideas for some slight modifications of the SmartCode street configurations to permit narrow/shared space streets. It's a work in progress, and it was my hope to add one more perspective from a somewhat different angle. Again, thanks very much for your comments.

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