Florida's new frontier

Development of neotraditional towns on the state's Gulf coast is transforming the Panhandle region

If it were possible to build the ideal beach community from scratch, what would it look like?

One vision exists in Seaside, Fla., the neotraditional resort town featured in the movie "The Truman Show." Seaside, on the northern Gulf coastline, is all pastels and picket fences.

An intriguingly different vision, however, is emerging about eight miles away at Rosemary Beach, where the architecture is described as "Pan-Caribbean."

Although houses range from $400,000 to $2 million, the project is among those influencing a new wave of development and redevelopment in the Florida Panhandle. (See page 14 for an interview with the CEO of Florida's largest private land holder.)

As Walton County, between Pensacola and Panama City, metamorphoses, development holds the key to its future character. Already, the general pattern is emerging in new communities that emphasize walkability, human-scale buildings, and visual cohesiveness.

Nearly half the 500 Rosemary Beach housing units have been built since a striking Dutch-Caribbean-style town hall was erected to anchor the 107-acre project.

Town architect Richard Gibbs says residents and would-be homeowners frequently ask, "When is the downtown coming?"

There's already a post office, two restaurants, a bed-and-breakfast inn, an ice cream shop, a gallery, and a logo-wear shop in separate small buildings.

"We put these there to incubate the downtown area," says Mr. Gibbs. Future tenants could include a dry cleaners, pharmacy, bookstore, antiques store, and gourmet market.

So what's different about Rosemary Beach? Its combination of colors, architecture, and landscaping.

Many Florida developments favor pastels, inspired by sea and sky. Rosemary Beach looks to the earth.

"We made a conscious decision not to approve pastels, but to draw our colors from the landscape," Gibbs explains.

Besides echoing the colors found in nature, the color choices are practical: They can camouflage the mildew prevalent in this high-humidity area.

The development draws its architectural influences from coastal cites such as St. Augustine, Fla.; New Orleans, Charleston, S.C.; and the West Indies.

Large shuttered porches and windows, high ceilings, deep eaves, and galvanized tin roofs help define Rosemary Beach's style. These lend shade, aid air circulation, and, in the case of the metal roofs, make buildings better able to withstand hurricane-force gales.

The town designers have established nine basic housing types, including townhouses, beach houses, and carriage houses.

Typical buyers, Gibbs says, are people in their 30s and 40s looking to eventually live full time in the town and possibly open their own businesses. Presently, however, there are only 40 full-time residents, including children. Many of the houses, about 20 of which are owned by architects, are second or vacation homes, which may be rented out by an on-staff agent when not in use.

Besides the cost and the distance to the nearest sizeable cities (30 minutes to Panama City or Destin), the chief drawbacks to living at Rosemary Beach may be the transient population, houses that demand more stair-climbing than some might like, and possibly too much residential compactness.

"The toughest things in my job are proximity issues," Gibbs says. The houses are close together. Rather than individual lawns, neighbors share scattered greens and vest-pocket parks, as well as a handful of swimming pools and a tennis complex.

To make efficient use of the prime real estate, houses are staggered, keeping the gulf views as unobstructed as possible. For walkers, there is an intricate network of footpaths and boardwalks. Streets are narrow, and parking is restricted to garages and alleyways behind the homes.

Rosemary Beach was named for the herb that grows wild in the area. Stephen Poulakos, a staff landscape architect, says that a site study was conducted to determine the natural vegetation.

To cultivate a sustainable landscape, save on watering, and be true to the environmental heritage of the area, Rosemary Beach requires 100 percent native plants such as scrub oak, sand pine, and wild rosemary in public areas and 70 percent on private property.

"We try to do a lot of walks for homeowners because they're not familiar with the natural landscape," Mr. Poulakos says.

"There's a real temptation for homeowners to plant palm trees [even though they aren't indigenous to this region of the state]."

Elevated walkovers have been built to protect the dunes, measures taken to attract migrating butterflies, and efforts made to protect nesting turtles, which can become disoriented by lights on the beach. Included in the environment-protecting measures are special glass for beach-facing windows and low-impact street lights.

This is not a gated community. It's open to the public, a fact Gibbs doesn't anticipate will change when the governance of the completed development is handed over to the homeowners' association.

So where, from here, might design go, stylistically, in Florida?

"I'd like to go back to the Sarasota school of the 1940s and '50s," Gibbs says, speaking of a regional architectural style that is modernist, yet environmentally sensitive. "It's quite wonderful."

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