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What will the new Gulf Coast look like?

Biloxi, Miss., is one of many cities trying to decide how to rebuild their ravaged waterfronts

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s clarion call convening a forum on rebuilding his state’s ravaged Gulf Coast had just gone out when the first e-mails announcing plans for a new luxury high-rise condominium on Biloxi’s Back Bay raced across the Internet.

Vue Crescente Resort and Marina, a 30-story condominium tower, already was in the pipeline before Hurricane Katrina leveled much of Biloxi Aug. 29, says David Sanders, managing director of developer Sandmark Bay LLC. Located between Back Bay’s Palace and Boomtown casinos, Vue Crescente will displace an old shrimp processing plant and boatyard on waterfront that the city wants to redevelop as an upscale condominium, casino, shopping and entertainment district.

Sandmark’s plans for its 6.8 acres include a marina for yachts from 30 to 100 feet in Phase II, when it plans to build a second tower. Sanders says the marina will be near a channel to the Gulf of Mexico, where sailors can catch the wind and anglers can catch snapper and grouper around reefs and oil rigs, or cast for redfish or sea trout off barrier islands.

“Biloxi has the opportunity now to develop in a much more planned fashion than it has in the past,” Sanders says. “We believe that the city will be built back better than it was before.”

He also believes the demand for luxury housing in Biloxi will explode as a wave of baby boomers begins to retire to the Gulf Coast, and that means a wave of high-rise condominiums probably will be built to accommodate them. That wave already was building before Katrina, as waterfront high-rise development swept west from the Florida Panhandle to the Mississippi coast 18 to 24 months ago, Sanders says.

Statistics at the City of Biloxi’s Web site confirm that. At the start of 2005, Biloxi could boast just 561 condominiums, but 215 more were under construction and at a least 1,000 units were under review.

Their price tags: anywhere from $200,000 to $400,000. Sanders hadn’t nailed down a price yet for Vue Crescente, but he says several hundred thousand dollars a unit probably was a little on the low side.

As concern has heightened over wholesale conversion of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast into a deep-South version of Florida’s Gold Coast, Gov. Barbour’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal held a six-day Mississippi Renewal Forum in Biloxi, underwritten by a $1 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More than 200 architects, planners and engineers from around the world gathered to help 11 coastal Mississippi cities envision how they might want to rebuild and restore a mix of low-, medium- and high-income housing to a region that lost 72,000 homes to Hurricane Katrina.

Most of these design and planning professionals were drawn from the New Urbanism movement. This espouses an alternative to high-rise development, mixing residential, commercial and public uses in small-scale neighborhoods and villages where retail shops and parks are within walking distance of homes, and public transportation is readily available. The emphasis is on aesthetically pleasing design.

Each community will decide for itself how it will rebuild, and what mix of high-rise and smaller-scale neighborhood development it wants, says Scott Hamilton, spokesman for the Mississippi Development Authority, the state’s community and economic development agency.

“There is certainly a recognition that both pre- and post-Katrina there has been a lot of interest in developing condominiums,” Hamilton says. “The question is how to fit that into the fabric of these communities.”

MDA executive director Leland Speed says that when local communities adopt local rebuilding plans, residents will make sure the plans include affordable housing. “The local people can’t afford to live in those high-rises at $400, $500, $600 a square foot,” Speed says. “They aren’t going to go for designing their town just for visitors.”

Hamilton says many of the proposals include yacht harbors where marine businesses can locate, or wharves bringing together seafood plants, retail shops and commercial boat dockage.

“That whole area is tied to the water and to fishing,” Hamilton says.

Among the proposals:

• a Back Bay fishing village in Biloxi with homes for fishermen and their families and a commercial fishing boat/charter boat marina, retail shopping district and seafood processing plant

• a riverfront development with marina in downtown Pascagoula

• homes on stilts with private docks in Gautier on the Pascagoula River

Danny Pitalo and his wife, Laurie, who lost their tackle and marina store and fuel dock at Biloxi’s Point Cadet Marina, attended one of the forums, and were impressed with what they heard. “They’re trying to get the best plans for transportation, housing, condominiums, casinos, hotels, marinas, businesses, and trying to bring it all together,” he says. Some of the ideas that he liked included:

• a mix of affordable housing with luxury high-rises

• fishing village with docks for commercial shrimpers

• bigger, better, more environmentally friendly marinas with state-of-the-art fuel pumps, sewage pumpouts, and modern docks and electrical boxes to replace wooden docks built in the 1960s and ’70s.

• homes designed to stand up to a big surge once every couple of decades, and built of materials that can be dried out after flooding

The Federal Emergency Management Agency wants new construction in the “velocity zone” — coastal areas subject to surge — to be on stilts, an idea that locals panned as way too expensive for most of them. “We’re going to have to have a lot of discussions with FEMA and look at some out-of-the-box ideas,” Hamilton says.

Meanwhile, the Pitalos are planning for the day when they can rebuild their businesses in Biloxi. “We’re going to build back,” Danny Pitalo says. “Most of the locals aren’t going anywhere.”