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Gulfport deciding post-Katrina design fate of city-owned land

Given an unfortunate opportunity to rebuild by Hurricane Katrina, the City of Gulfport is making the best of the storm’s devastation. The design and planning effort is led by internationally-known architect and planner Andres Duany and will conclude with comprehensive conceptual plans for several city-owned properties.

Chief among those properties is the 92-acre, beachfront land that was formerly the Gulfport Veterans Administration site. Other sites include the commercial areas of the Small Craft Harbor/Jones Park, Ken Combs Pier and boar launch area, an eight-acre parcel on 25th Avenue and the Gulfport Sportsplex.

Good design is essential

Duany, a pioneer of New Urbanism, led the design charrettes convened by Gov. Haley Barbour immediately following the August 2005 hurricane. His calling card is to design places that are mixed use and more pedestrian friendly such as Seaside, Fla. He says good design is essential to the spirit of the community and sees a bleak future for condos.

“We only propose; you all dispose in the public process,” he told a group of Gulfport residents who came to a design workshop in late January. “We’ve been listening to people’s concerns and digging up old papers. Some designs are third and fourth generations.”

Duany, who brought a team of designers and planners for the 10-day conference, said he and his group are dis-entangling confusion. “Everyone is being very cooperative,” he added. “Gulfport is a completely unpredictable situation. We don’t know what will happen.”

Mayor Brent Warr is optimistic that actual construction will come about as a result of the design conference. “I hope to get the plans off paper to become bricks and mortar,” he said. “We have some builders and developers ready but they need to know what can be on these sites. We have verbal promises to negotiate with them first on these five city-owned properties. If that doesn’t work out, we will go on to other developers.”

Warr envisions a resort area on the waterfront VA property that may be a combination of the Grand Resort in Point Clear, Ala., and Seaside and Destin in Florida. “I see something between all that,” he said. “Something with hotel rooms, dining, cultural and maybe some residential.”

Residents react

The property was given to the city by the federal government after the storm. It contains several old stucco buildings with red mission tile roofs. Newer and heavily damaged structures have been demolished but the historic buildings were saved. That pleases residents Wayne and Kathy Page whose property adjoins the site.

“We’re thrilled with what we see there and are glad they’re preserving the old buildings,” Kathy Page said. “It will be a property that not many places anywhere have. It touches on a lot of neighborhoods so there’s a lot of interest.”

Another resident, Audrey Montgomery, attended the first charrette and continues her interest in the city’s design process.

“I was born and raised here, and chose to come here to live from Paradise Island in the Bahamas. My husband is from Atlanta and I convinced him to come here,” she said. “We’ve traveled a lot and seen what cities have done. We want Gulfport to look like that.”

Montgomery, who has restored her Pratt Avenue home near the beach, is especially interested in city-owned Jones Park and the Small Craft Harbor. “I will be upset if we don’t have a place for shrimp boats there,” she said.

Retired business owner Robert Rayborn is keeping a close eye on design plans for the area surrounding the Gulfport Sportsplex. The large area is just off Interstate 10 where the city is experiencing rapid growth.

“That is becoming the nucleus of population with the Sportsplex there and the University of Southern Mississippi building in that area,” he said. “There’s a lot going on out there and we need a viable community center there.”

Rayborn hopes to see a center similar to those he’s visited in the Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg, Tenn., area — a facility with an auditorium, indoor pool and space for children’s summer camps.

A smarter way

Jeffrey Bounds is a Gulf Coast SmartCode consultant who’s been working with Gulfport on zoning maps.

“Andres’ design work was the origin of the SmartCode and his comments at the opening presentation only underscored that the designs his group does for all of the properties will embrace all the neighborhood-oriented values of SmartCode,” he said. “The fact that Andres and his team have a track record of producing excellent design plans, which invariably become celebrated places when faithfully implemented, only makes this even more of an incredible opportunity for the city.”

Bounds hopes the VA property retains as much of its history as possible as it was the original site of the state’s 100th anniversary exhibition. He would also like to see it tie the adjacent neighborhoods back together rather than isolating them as the federal facilities did.

The Gulfport City Council voted six to one to approve the contract with Duany to help guide the development of city-owned parcels. Input is being taken from many sources that are reviewed for possible incorporation into the final plans. The process ends this week with plans formally presented to the public.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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