Pass not past

Duany prods community to take baby steps toward bright future

RENDERING COURTESY OF DUANY PLATER-ZYBERK & COMPANY An artist’s rendering of Phase I of Pass Christian’s Davis Avenue development plan, which includes small-scale retail space.

PASS CHRISTIAN

During five days of meetings in August with property owners, city officials, business entrepreneurs and residents, and after hours of exploring the Pass Christian area, internationally renowned urban planner Andres Duany didn’t mince words when describing the problems facing the redevelopment of the city’s downtown.

Pass Christian is closer to its condition in 1850 than to 1960, he said during the opening session, one of many candid remarks that set the tone for the week. His observation referred both to the small scale of the town four years after Katrina and to the current economic situation: the credit crunch has made getting a mortgage — a post–World War II concept — difficult. Folks who want to rebuild will have to do so incrementally, slowly, and often on their own dime, Duany said, just like their forebears did when building cities in the mid-19th century.

What this means for the city and developers who want to rebuild now is development also will have to be incremental, and it led Duany to recommend property owners be allowed to rebuild in a phased way, first with one- and two-story buildings and later, as the economy picks up and demand downtown increases, with larger structures.

The city can’t avoid these baby steps, he said, and there is a precedent: “Where has this has been done before? Everywhere,” Duany said, comparing post-Katrina Pass Christian to young cities throughout history, including its own. “This stage has never been avoided.”

Duany presented a number of innovative ideas for creating “super-light” retail, as he calls it, which he said is crucial to jump-starting development. “It doesn’t matter how you build it — what’s important is that it be cheap space,” Duany said later in the week. “Not inexpensive — cheap.” These smaller-scale buildings will serve as “incubators” for retail and restaurants, he said, creating a buzz downtown that will help attract more business.

Four ideas in particular have taken seed, said Pass Christian city planner Jeff Bounds, who is now meeting with the city Planning Commission to create a structure — including possible variances to the zoning code, as well as additional rules and regulations — that will both allow and regulate these innovations.

Duany and his team of local architects and experts, as well as employees of his firm, Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, were brought to Pass Christian by a group of downtown property owners and other interested residents and groups, including the Pass Christian Chamber of Commerce. Their key recommendations, which are now being discussed by the Planning Commission, include:

n “Lightweight retail,” initially south of Scenic Drive as part of a “Front Street Market” area. Duany envisioned a series of pavilion-covered platforms, as well as some semi-mobile units, that could house small restaurants and cafés or shops. Bounds, the city planner, said the design would have to be tightly controlled, as well as permitted for a period of about five years.

n Relatively low-cost “mid-scale retail,” in certain areas of the downtown, particularly along Davis Avenue and Scenic Drive. This initiative would allow property owners to build structures that do not comply with the entirety of the zoning code — for example, one-story buildings in areas where two stories are now required by code — but only on a temporary basis, perhaps up to eight years, Bounds said. This would keep costs low, around $80 to $90 per square foot, with modular commercial buildings or Butler metal buildings, with nice facades, used to keep costs low but to keep the look nice.

n The immediate incorporation of MEMA cottages. “We have a very limited opportunity to create near-instant build-out and add residents to the downtown” by allowing small clusters of MEMA cottages under tightly “controlled circumstances,” Bounds said in his memo to the Planning Commission last week. After March 2011, some of the cottages could be converted to commercial use, perhaps creating small cottage inns or shops.

n The creation of a Farmers Market at Second and Davis, fronting a new municipal parking lot that would create much-needed parking in the downtown.

Duany was also in town two weekends ago, meeting with downtown property owners to discuss the possible replatting of their properties.

One of the most radical parts of his initial plan was to redesign the downtown to create additional alleys and streets, thereby creating the potential for development of properties that are currently “landlocked” or have no, or not enough, parking.

But these kinds of changes require working with property owners to “trade” pieces of property, or adjacent property owners working together to create new alleys or small streets.

Duany met with about 30 property owners to get started on this process, and enthusiasm for his vision and plan seems high.

Ron Ladner, a downtown land owner and developer who was involved in bringing Duany to Pass Christian, said the urban planner’s ideas will inspire property owners trying to figure out how to rebuild in the current economic climate and have created a lot of enthusiasm. “I’ve never seen this many people, across this many different groups in Pass Christian, excited,” he said.

“We now have direction, and we have tactical solutions and concepts that are getting more people in this town interested in developing their own properties,” he added. “These are short-term developments that can be done with much less capital outlay than traditional developments. I think we’re going to have some quick success stories that we can build on for the long term.”

Pass Christian Mayor Chipper McDermott said he’s thrilled Duany’s plans and ideas have gotten downtown land owners enthused.

“People are lit on fire,” he said. “If he’s lit them up, he’s lit me up. I’m just excited that the people who have the money, the ability and the land to do things downtown are excited.”

He noted, too, that 1850 was right around the time Pass Christian “really took off the first time.” In the late 19th century, Pass Christian had some of the largest hotels on the Gulf Coast and was known as the “Saratoga of the South.”

“The good news is that everything that happened after 1850 was wonderful,” said Ladner. “If we can just come close to replicating the success of the town from 1850 to the time of Camille, we have a very bright future ahead of us.”

RENDERING COURTESY OF DUANY PLATER-ZYBERK & COMPANY An artist’s rendering and a site plan for the suggested farmers market and parking lot on Davis Avenue and Second Street in Pass Christian. The design is by Bay St Louis architect Allison Anderson.

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