Cottages are lightning rod in storm over Gulf's future look
Many Mississippi towns want the tiny homes gone by next spring, but some envision them as a cornerstone of the post-Katrina coast.
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With the Mississippi cottages as the flash point, various communities are in the throes of defining their identities. One is Pass Christian, a town of 3,000 whose name became known nationwide for the terrible blow it took from Katrina. The town lost a third of its beachfront mansions in the storm. It is one of the communities that expects the cottages to be gone by March.Skip to next paragraph
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"There's a desire by citizens here to not change the character of the city too much [from prestorm days], and even though they sympathize with a person's plight, do you want your town dominated by little cottages?" says Lou Rizzardi, a city alderman. "If you look at it from the tax base, the character of the town, livability, appearance, the question is: What do we owe it to people to try to accommodate them? How far backwards do we bend? We're seeing a whole change of character, a change of lifestyle, and that is extremely difficult for many people to accept."
Those are difficult questions, made harder by the fact that, since the storm, living costs have doubled and construction costs have nearly tripled throughout the region. It doesn't help that many cottage residents, uncertain whether their domiciles will be staying or going, are treating them as trailers – no pictures on the walls, bare porches, no landscaping.
But the deeper question is whether the state should subsidize, in the form of cottage handouts furnished with everything from bathroom towels to silverware, those people who now can't afford to rebuild on the pre-Katrina scale.
Janet Densmore, a Pass Christian artist, says the storm's destruction inspired a "values shift" along the coast, where residents now take greater pleasure in the small and mundane aspects of life than they did before Katrina. Whether that shift endures or gives way to another ethic, such as one that emphasizes rapid growth and upward mobility, will help determine the Gulf's future aesthetics.
As recovery began in late 2005, storm-shocked residents flocked to local planning sessions known as "charettes," where they spent days on end envisioning the rebirth of their communities. Since then, most coastal cities in Mississippi have adopted some version of the Smart Code, a zoning guide that encourages what proponents call "urbanized development" – apartments situated over shops, for example – instead of the sprawl-promoting suburban zoning that came into vogue in the 20th century. Last month, Gulfport gave the go-ahead to a downtown project designed by Andrés Duany, a Miami-based architect and the "guru in chief" of New Urbanism.
Smart Code proponents there want to see a centralized city center that's built on higher ground, saying adherence to the code will better protect life and property in the event of another Category 3 storm. They see no reason why the cottages – which can be moved to permanent, even raised, foundations – couldn't become a cornerstone of that vision.
"I've had conversations with people who said they love being on the Gulf Coast, but they're nervous about coming back and building a huge house," says Marianne Cusato, the Florida-based architect who designed the Katrina Cottage. "Right now, people don't know how to reinvest. And that's not just money re-investing, but mental reinvesting. With a smaller house, they can move in, be comfortable, and really see where it goes."