David Baker Architects

DECEMBER 2014

The 30A Cognitive Dissonance Blues


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Click any image for a more extensive slideshow from Amanda's 30A trip.

Like most Bay Area architects, I’m all about walkability, bikeability, urban environments with neighborhood-serving retail, and architecture that feels authentic to its time and place. That’s why a vacation that I took this summer with my family among the idealized beach communities of Florida’s Walton County was a real paradoxical experience.

I grew up in Decatur, Alabama, about an hour north of Birmingham. Typically, when my family and I go on vacation, we’ll head back to Alabama to Gulf Shores, which is part of the little hoof of land that Alabama puts into the Gulf. It’s really cheap, and the beaches are incredible—white sands, clear water. But this summer, we decided to do something different and take our vacation in Rosemary Beach, one of the resort communities along State Route 30A in the Florida Panhandle. 

The Pearl Hotel on Rosemary Green. Bono was rumored to have been there the night before.

Rosemary Beach is the second of the resort communities along Route 30A that were master-planned by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company Architects & Town Planners (DPZ). The first, of course, was Seaside, which got off the ground in 1980. Rosemary Beach started in 1995, and the third, Alys Beach, started in 2003 and is still being built out. There are other resort communities on that route, too, with names like WaterColor and Coastal Dune Lakes.

They’ve been wildly successful, and the private developers who created them worked hard to make them feel like real towns. They have downtowns that hearken back to a time before the automobile dominated the landscape. These communities often get criticized for inauthenticity. It’s no coincidence that Seaside is where they filmed The Truman Show, where Jim Carrey realizes he’s living in a manufactured reality TV show.

But at times, I found myself succumbing to the pre-fab communities' charms. Because these places have a lot to love. The towns were planned around beautiful greens. Rosemary Beach has a town square and a twice-weekly farmers market where you can find all the things San Franciscans like—raw juices, organic vegetables, grass-fed meat. We felt completely at home. In several restaurants where we ate, the wines were even sourced from Northern California wineries.

Another great thing was the wide bike paths on either side of 30A. Where I grew up, in Decatur, it’s dangerous to cross the street from Walmart to Target—you could die. Here, walking and biking are easy and quite popular. A lot of the vacationers seemed to come from suburban sprawl, and they were looking for a more walkable, dense place for their holiday.

A boardwalk bike path leading all the way to the beach.

Rosemary Beach has the New Urbanist qualities of Seaside, but DPZ improved on Seaside's plan by creating a hierarchy of streets. Observing that most people in Seaside didn’t drive much, they created rear alleys in Rosemary Beach, so that cars are parked out of sight in garages. A number of the streets are actually narrow boardwalks, which prove to be wonderful places for discovery, with gorgeous porches on both sides and incredible landscaping. And the vehicular streets are narrow and paved with cobblestones, which creates an automatic traffic-calming effect.

Rosemary Street.

During our trip, I felt torn, because part of me was just loving it. I found myself thinking, “I could live down here.” They’ve got all the stuff I like: a neighborhood school, walkability, good food choices, lush landscaping. I’m a sucker for the porches, because I grew up in the South. And I was fascinated by the architectural approaches of all the different communities. Seaside has a sort of a beachy postmodernism. Rosemary Beach is European-ish. Alys Beach is the fanciest, with huge houses inspired by the British and Spanish colonial architecture of Bermuda and Antigua. None of the architecture is like anything I would design, but the quality of finishes is really high.

A typical house in Seaside where the porch engages with the adjacent shared path for pedestrians and bicyclists.

The Seaside Interfaith Chapel by the town architect, Scott Merrill, was built in 2001.

Another part of me kept wondering about the viability of it all. The developers have more huge plans for areas like these, which are barely filled out as it is. We went in a fairly dead time of year, but we heard that during the peak season 30A is a nightmare to drive. What will happen when Alys Beach is seven times its current size? There are all these wonderful communities along 30A, yet no plans to put in a mass-transit system to accommodate them all. If only they had widened one of the bike paths and created a 30A Trolley. That could easily have been created as part of the 30A brand. But it wasn’t a municipal authority that planned the region, it was the market.

Heading into Alys Beach.

The other thing that concerns me is that these resort communities seem to be a product for a very wealthy—not to mention white—demographic. We stayed in a less expensive condo at the very edge of Rosemary Beach, but most of the housing is luxury. In both Rosemary and Alys Beach there are great community amenities—swimming pools, tennis courts—but to get access, you have to be a property owner or a guest. The beach boardwalks are gated, and the ones to the main beach have an access code. While we were walking on one beach, a woman came out of her house and said, “You can stay, because you guys seem like you’re nice. But I just want you to know we own this house. This is our beach."

The big green, fountain, and ampitheater built for Alys Beach future residents feel like a movie set.

So I’m conflicted. There were authentic moments of urban discovery along the narrow paths, the same as if you were walking along an alleyway in Amsterdam or Charleston. And although it’s highly manufactured, there is a community there, and a real sense of pride. Round blue 30A stickers adorn lots of cars, and you see posters for local fundraising marathons.

Sunset over Route 30A.

Seaside and its heirs are answering a deep-seated need in people, and there’s a lot about it that resonates with me. At the same time, these communities—beautiful and alluring as they may be—seem too much like a Truman Show-type fantasy, concealing the hard realities of income inequality, the petroleum-based economy, and climate change.

The rising appeal of walkable urban-style environments is a good thing. It's not just bustling, metropolitan environments that need density and walkability. The small towns need it—and want it—too. Let’s hope that future developers learn from these communities to fashion something more authentic, enduring, and sustainable.

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Amanda Loper, AIA, LEED AP, is a Principal at David Baker Architects. Amanda specializes in rapid architectural prototyping and works to bring social awareness to issues of housing and density within the urban setting. She can be reached at amandaloper@dbarchitect.com.

The Pearl Hotel on Rosemary Green. Bono was rumored to have been there the night before.

Rosemary Street.

Rosemary Beach Town Hall.

Typical Rosemary Beach architecture.

A boardwalk bike path leading all the way to the beach.

Biking through the narrow lanes amid the Rosemary Beach houses, a delightful discovery.

Okra on the grill at the Rosemary Beach Farmers Market.

As you leave the town of Rosemary Beach, the architecture changes immediately, shifting to a more traditionally "beachy" style.

The Seaside Interfaith Chapel by the town architect, Scott Merrill, was built in 2001.

Visiting the chapel.

Seaside Post Office.

A typical house in Seaside where the porch engages with the adjacent shared path for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Heading into Alys Beach.

The portion of the bike path through Alys Beach: The infrastructure is in place before the buildings or people arrive.

The big green, fountain, and ampitheater built for Alys Beach future residents feel like a movie set.

Sunset over Route 30A.