Civic Institutions Add Value to Towns

Civic institutions can infuse places with an academic and cultural atmosphere adding an attractive dimension for homeowners who are fortunate enough to live in close proximity — both in lifestyle and in property values. For those communities that are able to figure out how to provide this type of atmosphere — an increasingly difficult feat in most places where post-war planning regulations made the mixing of civic and residential obsolete — it can result in great benefits to all involved.

Fortunately, for those who own homes in Seaside, the Lyceum was planned with exactly this type of atmosphere in mind. While the vision for Phase 1 of the Seaside Academic Village is modest, its outcome can be similar to the positioning of a university close to a major town or city.  As stated in “College Towns: High Marks for Lifestyle,” written by Michael Scott in New Geography:

“Universities have long served as incubators for fresh thinking and new research. They also provide a solid economic base for area residents, allowing college towns to hold the distinction as areas of low unemployment. The economic activity trickles down into the host city, influencing the ethos of its civic life, from outdoor leisure pursuits to the performing arts.”

It makes sense that the same could work for Seaside. An influx of high-level thinkers and dedicated college students clustered together for weeks at a time is bound to reap productive results. These visitors will most likely find themselves invited guests to smaller dinners and cocktail parties in homes around town where their thoughts can be shared with others who can add to the stimulating conversation and may have the financial resources to help further projects that could otherwise be left on the table as just another very good idea. As programming grows, and the town becomes known for being a place where critical discussions are formed leading to successful real-world results, others will clamor to attend.

It is not too much of a stretch to think that this type of success could result in an increase in year-round residential occupancy, an increase in rental percentages, and an increase in overall economic success.

Also, evidence shows that seniors flock to this type of environment and the demographics suggest that this will come increasingly so as the baby boomers reach retirement. From the same article referenced above:

“According to Tom Wetzel, founder and president of the Retirement Living Information Center in Redding, Connecticut, the development of retirement communities near colleges and universities is a trend that is gaining momentum nationally. ‘Our information suggests that learning opportunities, as well as cultural, entertainment and sporting events, are attracting growing numbers of seniors’ to university cities,’ says Wetzel. ‘These seniors tend to be intellectually curious.’”

Civic institutions, such as the proposed academic village, serve as vibrant centers to a town and can provide a place where partnerships between academia, private individuals, businesses, students and the community can reap great rewards for all.

Questions from a Seaside Resident: Responses by Institute Director

Q:  In regards to the Academic Village, what is the agreement between the Seaside Institute and SCDC (Seaside Community Development Corporation)?

DD:  SCDC is the developer of Seaside and the owner of the property on the Lyceum in which the Seaside Institute proposes to place the Academic Village.  Areas in the Lyceum may be completed and conveyed to owners other than SCDC, such as the area conveyed to the Seaside Neighborhood School; however, there are no plans at this time for the proposed academic village site to be conveyed to the Institute.  An agreement between the SCDC and the Institute will be prepared regarding the use of the space prior to the buildings being placed on the site.

Q:  Who will be responsible for upkeep if they begin to fall apart?

DD:  The Institute will be responsible for the upkeep of the buildings.  Ample reserves will be set aside from programming revenue to address maintenance issues; however, the buildings have been constructed to require low maintenance through the use of materials such as metal roofs and Hardieboard siding.

Q: Does the Institute have sufficient funds to install and maintain?

DD:  The buildings were gifted to the Institute by the Robert Davis Foundation.  Installation costs will originally be covered by the Davis’s; however, the Institute intends to repay the cost of installation and has included that repayment in its business plan projection. The Institute has projected through a detailed business plan that it will have sufficient funds to maintain the cottages and conduct its programming.

Q:  What benefit will they offer homeowners?

DD:  The Academic Village will add one more civic institution to the neighborhood. Like the other civic structures in Seaside, such as the school, post office and church, civic buildings are there to be enjoyed by the community without direct financial support from the community, as they are supported by their members and instead of regular contributions by every homeowner in the community (i.e. HOA facilities).

On a more practical level, the Academic Village will serve as a place of study. Instructors from all over the country will be invited to teach in the village, and we intend to provide easily accessible community-wide lectures from many of these prominent speakers. In addition, some of the programming will permit workshops that residents in the community can sign up to attend as day students vs. those who come in to stay the week in a cottage.

Q:  Are these buildings technically trailers?

DD:  I would like to address this answer without the “technically” preface, as different industries (builders, manufacturers, insurance) use different terms to define similar structures.

The term “trailer” traditionally describes a usually small, wheeled home with a history and image of flimsy construction such as wooden 1×3 wall framing clad with aluminum siding, virtually no insulation, and low-quality leaky windows. This definition would not define the cottages the Institute intends to place in the Lyceum.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has long used the term “trailer” in defining the travel units used to provide shelter after natural disaster. Most of us know what the majority of FEMA trailers look like (see below). They are manufactured from plastic, aluminum, and particle board, are somewhat flimsy and require more maintenance than a permanent structure. They are also poorly insulated, offer little sound insulation, and are known to sway in high winds. There has also been health issues connected with this type of FEMA trailer due to substandard building materials. Never intended to be anything but temporary housing for victims after a natural disaster, these trailers were and continue to be welcome options to having no shelter at all.

The MEMA cottages (shown below on a permanent foundation), which were developed under FEMA post-Katrina, were created to be a much preferred alternative to the FEMA trailer. They are modular, stick-built homes that were constructed to be converted to permanent dwellings. While it can be “trailed” from place to place while the wheels are in place, the cottages are aesthetically pleasing, of sound construction, durable, insulated and unless damaged they exhibit no adverse health problems. They are also wind-resistant up to 150 mph, as long as they are strapped in place.

A better term for the MEMA cottages would be to call them mobile homes while they are still secured on the metal frame and wheels. However, once set on a foundation, the cottages will be considered a permanent home and will be insured as such, just like the other buildings in Seaside.

A view of the MEMA “trailer” before installing on a permanent foundation shown below.

Q:  Are buildings up to Walton County Code?

DD:  Yes, they are.

Q:  If they are to be placed so close together does county require fireproof exterior?

DD:  The placement of these buildings does not require any special conditions by the county in regards to exterior material. However, these buildings are constructed with a cement-fiber board, which is more resistant to fire than wood.

Q:  Do they have fireproof exterior?

DD:  The homes are constructed inside and out with a fiber-cement product, which have a better fire rating than wood. You may want to check out this video to see the difference in wood vs. fiber-cement products.

Q:  Are wheel chair ramps required?

DD:  One of the houses will be required to beADA accessible. That house will require some interior and exterior modifications, which will include a ramp to connect the house to a path, which will then connect to a handicapped parking space.  See site plan at top right of this page.

Q:  Will Seaside Code need to be changed to allow Hardieboard and other man-made materials?

DD:  The Seaside Code will not need to be changed to permit Hardieboard in this application.  Civic structures in the Lyceum are subject to review by SCDC per the Lyceum Declaration of Easements, Covenants and Restrictions. While the Seaside Code does set standards for the neighborhood, the SCDC reserves the right to grant variances from the Code. SCDC would need to grant a variance in this case.

Q:  Should commercial activity be allowed in areas designated civic?  Will county allow?  

DD:  The use for the Seaside Academic Village will be “civic” not “commercial.”  It is permitted bySeaside and by the County under the “Essentially Built-Out Agreement for the Town of Seaside Development of Regional Impact” or DRI.

Q:  Should additional parking spaces be required?

DD:  Additional parking spaces will be required and have been addressed in the application.

Q:  Will parking study answer this question?

DD:  A parking study for this particular proposal is not required.

Q:  Should we allow substantial removal of trees in one of our few remaining forested areas?

DD:  The Lyceum was once a completely treed site.  Most were removed for the installation of the Seaside Neighborhood School and the recreational lawn.  Previous plans for the Lyceum (William Rawn plans of 2001, 2003 and 2004) required the removal of most of the trees in the Lyceum.  This plan, however, will save many of the trees as the cottages will be inserted into the forested area instead of replacing the forested area, and a buffer of at least 10 feet will be created between the cottages and Smolian Circle.



Houses for the Village

The houses proposed for the Academic Village came about in an unusual way, but first, a little history.

While there has been much discussion in Seaside over the years regarding the building of a performing arts center with supporting housing on the Lyceum, one thing has always stood in the way:  a lack of funding.  Three separate visioning sessions, or charrettes, were held from 2001 – 2004 by William Rawn Architects. Many community residents and business owners took part in these charrettes; however, none of the plans have been implemented thus far.

After I was hired as the executive director of the Institute in September 2010, I was given a directive from the Board of Governors to make education a high priority for the upcoming years. However, while the will to make this happen was evident, the means were not clear. Everything always came back to the issue of housing.

It came my attention in late February that a group of MEMA cottages were being auctioned off in Mississippi with prices estimated to be well under $20,000/cottage.  Hmm. Even after adding on costs for hauling them to Florida, setting them in place and rehabbing the interiors to suit our needs, this might be something we could realistically make work. The means for creating an academic village suddenly looked possible.

It may seem a bit risky to some to purchase buildings through a broker sight unseen. However, these particular cottages were well known to me and several of my colleagues. Six years ago this coming Fall, a group of approximately 100 of of us were involved in post-Katrina planning for 11 cities along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. One of the great outcomes of those planning charrettes was the design of small cottages to replace the existing FEMA trailers that had long been derided as a less than attractive, unhealthy temporary housing option for natural disaster victims.  These proposed replacement dwellings were given the name “Katrina Cottages” and were at once embraced by the public as a wonderful alternative to the FEMA trailers.

While many of the architects at the charrette came up with plans for the 300-square-foot FEMA replacement, it was Marianne Cusato’s drawing that caught the eye of charrette leader, Andres Duany, and was selected to be published in the Mississippi Sun-Herald.

At just about 300 square feet, the original Katrina cottage is a small, sturdy house that can be delivered at the cost of a FEMA trailer. It was designed to be temporary or permanent.  The Katrina cottage website ( describes the history behind this endeavor to change the post-disaster, government subsidized model as follows:

“The original Katrina Cottage … arose as a solution for post-disaster housing during the Mississippi Renewal Forum, which took place in Biloxi, Miss., in October 2005, six weeks after Hurricane Katrina. Among the 170 participants, there were a dozen architects present who designed a series of small houses, making the plans available to the people of Mississippi. The Katrina Cottage Committee was formed to provide design that would make better use of [the Federal funding set aside] for … housing needs after Hurricane Katrina and for future disasters.

The State of Mississippi, through the Governor’s Office for Recovery & Renewal, took the initiative to apply for a substantial grant for the purpose of addressing alternative post-disaster housing, and the result of the grant proposal in Mississippi was the creation of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) cottage. At the peak occupancy period, over 2,900 of these cottages were occupied. They came in one-, two- and three-bedroom models.

Several MEMA cottages have been permanently placed in Cottage Square (shown below), the first Katrina cottage neighborhood located on Government Street in Ocean Springs, Miss., and owned by Bruce Tolar, an architect who participated in the Mississippi Renewal Forum.

As a result of the post-Katrina planning by the new urbanists, the Katrina cottage industry moved forward. While there are many varieties available today, Katrina cottages have some common elements:  They are all to be built with hurricane-resistant materials and are designed to withstand hurricane force winds. They must meet the International Building Code (IBC) as adopted by Mississippi and Louisiana and may be built of any technology or delivery system, including mobile home standards, pre-manufactured elements, panelization, or site-built of any material.

The Park Model, which is the model purchased by the Seaside Institute for the Academic Village, is a one-bedroom dwelling that was designed to replace the current FEMA travel trailer.  It is approximately 450-square feet in size, including the porch.

Some Background on the Location

This blog is being created to share news about the Seaside Institute’s proposed project for the Seaside Lyceum currently known as Seaside Academic Village.  Lots of questions have been raised about the plan, the programming and the cottages, and we are hoping that this blog will help to answer some of those questions and provide some background about how this idea came to be. I hope that others will post questions, which I will try to answer to the best of my ability, but, until then, I intend to offer up short bits about different aspects of the project each day.

The idea for an academic village in Seaside began decades ago when Robert and Daryl Davis were founding the town. It has been their hope that Seaside could provide a center for higher thinking and education and, to that end, a space was reserved in the masterplan for the Lyceum. Given a prominent location near the center of town, the Lyceum began as a horseshoe-shaped parcel of land located just to the west of town and filled from one end to the other with trees and brush (see photo by Michael Moran below).

In November 1998, the concept for this space was formalized in a document called the Seaside Lyceum Declaraton of Easements, Covenants and Restrictions. This document states, “The Lyceum is primarily intended as a group of schools, lecture halls, auditorium, meeting rooms, and offices and other support facilities for those uses, including related housing.”

Just prior to that document being filed, the Seaside Neighborhood School was created and located in the Lyceum.  Established in 1996, Seaside Neighborhood School is one of Florida’s first charter schools in Walton County, Fla., and serves sixth through eighth grade students.  The initial classes were held in two metal temporary structures on the lawn; however, funds were eventually raised to for a permanent structure providing Seaside with its first large civic building.

The Seaside Neighborhood School

For those who are not familiar, the Seaside Neighborhood School building (at left) also provide offices for several nonprofit organizations in Seaside — The Seaside Institute, Escape to Create, 30-A Radio and the Seaside Repertory Theater (REP).  The school building faces a very large green area that the students in the school use for playing, the town uses for various cultural events and residents use to take walks and enjoy the wonderful space.

At the far northern end of the Lyceum, there is a cluster of vegetation (both trees and scrub brush) that borders the half circle.  This treed area is about 70 feet in width, though it varies from one end to the other.  See image below. It is into the treed area that the cottages would be inserted to create the Academic Village.  None of the open green space would be used.