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Urbanism in Character

On the east end of Galveston Island, a new neighborhood is rising. Designed by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ) and still in its early stages of development, the seaside village of Beachtown already blends into the existing architecture for which historic Galveston is known. In time, the storied restaurants, shops and galleries of Strand Street will have in Beachtown a suitable complement. In time, the fully executed Beachtown will echo the carefully restored homes, public buildings and parks of historic Galveston. And, after Hurricane Ike, the fledgling community has proven that its strategy of context-sensitive architecture, coupled with fortified construction, is a smart approach to good urbanism that will last for decades.

Beachtown's life began in 1993, when town founder Tofigh Shirazi bought the property's 260 acres and embarked on a lengthy permitting process that trudged along under the weight of environmental regulations. "We went horizontally instead of vertically, so a lot of agencies needed to sign off on the project," said Shirazi. "After going through that process, I became an environmentalist myself!"

Existing zoning was something of a challenge, too, said Shirazi. "The whole area was designed to be high-rise buildings, but we decided to go against that," he said. A design charrette in 1997 carried out Shirazi's desire and Beachtown broke ground in 2005 -- after DPZ wrote a TND code for Galveston. "The new code creates harmony between the wetlands, dunes and the built environment," said Shirazi.

Also in 2005, Shirazi brought Miami architect Steve Mouzon on board to spearhead a pattern book project with Beachtown's town architects and Matt Lambert with DPZ. Mouzon conducted a charrette in November of that year to synthesize the architectural precedents of the area and meld them with Shirazi's intent to build Beachtown houses higher and stronger than the existing code required.

Mouzon brought his ideas of an architectural "living tradition" to the table, explaining his intent to Shirazi, who was looking for a way to codify the architecture of Beachtown so that he wouldn't have a design free-for-all on his hands. "I told him we have this great new method that hasn't been used in America yet," said Mouzon. "It proposes that instead of saying 'thou shalt do this' for each style, saying 'we do this because,' thereby opening the rationale of the architectural pattern so that everyone can think again. That gives you a chance of restarting a living architectural tradition.

"Even in light of Beachtown's great survivability, that's the single thing that I believe will make it a memorable place for 100 years: that it was the birthplace, the starting point of living traditions in America. I think that's what it will be remembered for in the long run."

Beachtown's architecture seamlessly references Galveston's historic buildings, many of which are more than a century old and located less than a mile from the new community. "I see Beachtown as being a reflection of Galveston and its influences," said San Antonio architect Michael Imber, whose name appears on a very short list of recommended architects for Beachtown, a list that includes Mouzon, Milosav Cekic of Austin, Texas, and Eric Brown and Eric Moser, both based in Beaufort, S.C.

"We made a conscious decision to look at a broad spectrum of what we feel is coastal architecture in this part of Texas," said Imber. Research and subsequent charrette-level study turned up styles ranging from what Imber calls "seaside camp" to coastal vernacular, coastal classical, vernacular gothic, high-style classicism and even Victorian. "We've tried to tap into all of those influences to develop both an authentic vocabulary for Beachtown, but also a diverse vocabulary that grows out of the architectural history of Galveston," said Imber.

The result on the ground is an informed reflection of historic Galveston, an architecture that isn't throttled by overly constraining instructions for design, but rather flows from the code provided within the Beachtown Pattern Book. Beachtown buildings are seamlessly stitched to the city and the sea. Filled with creativity, variety and beauty, they embody Mouzon's living tradition.

The sticking point in Beachtown's story is how to build architecturally sensitive buildings that will weather the next Katrina or Ike. The operative word here is "elevation;" most of Beachtown's buildings -- regardless of type or use -- are raised 14 to 16 feet above grade, which exceeds FEMA clearance heights for base flood elevations.

Picture that: Livable spaces 16 feet above your head as you walk down the sidewalk. Urban suicide? Not with the right architects noodling appropriate responses.

"This was studied at length in charrettes -- how to maintain that community feel with these high houses," said Imber. "One method was, instead of having a stairway that led to a second level, we were allowed a certain square footage of space that could be below the base flood elevation. We used that to bring down the front door to a more standard Galveston height -- 3 to 5 feet above the street, so we had a traditional stoop and a front door facing the street, giving the house a more humane view. I think that played a pivotal role in Beachtown being different from other Texas coastal developments."

Mouzon says Beachtown is "an open canon," a laboratory in which a variety of solutions for raised urbanism are under scrutiny. "There's more work to do. We're actively trying to develop more ideas to make this work. We don't feel like we've exhausted all the possibilities, but we've made some discoveries," he said, citing precedents in historic Galveston that have been translated and absorbed into Beachtown's architecture.

But Beachtown is about more than raised buildings. The neighborhood's very bones are made of strong stuff, built to -- and often surpassing -- the Fortified . for safer living® program, a national, inspection-based initiative developed by the Institute for Business and Home Safety. The program ensures that new buildings are resistant to destructive forces like hurricanes. At Beachtown, that means homes are built well above the required base flood elevation set by FEMA, and hurricane-resistance is considered in every aspect of construction.

Briefly, the Fortified program is superior because it adds protection to a building's windows and doors, provides improved connections between the roof, walls and foundation, and stipulates the roof be made thicker, stronger and designed to stay drier. Specific examples of this include using 150-mph wind force resistance as a standard for windows and doors, making sure all areas that may be affected by storm surge are built of reinforced concrete, and framing all buildings in strict accordance with structural standards.

In Beachtown, breakaway louvered panels and garage doors on the ground floors allow storm surges to flow through the buildings, which can then be washed clean after a hurricane has passed through. The inclusion of breakaway panels and doors served an architectural purpose, too, allowing Beachtown architects to bring the mass of the buildings down to the street level, giving them a more traditional look, as opposed to suspending that mass in the air.

This test of urbanism in harm's way is playing out with impressive results. When Hurricane Ike descended on Galveston in September 2008, Beachtown pulled through with all its buildings intact -- a stark contrast to conventional development to the west, which was destroyed.

"We're in front of the seawall," said Shirazi, speaking of the 10-mile-long, 17-foot-high protective wall made of pink Texas granite blocks that protects Galveston. "Everyone was telling us, 'you're going to get wiped out.'

"But we're in good shape," Shirazi continued, pointing to Beachtown's resiliency as a contributing factor for the community's steady home sales in the face of a flagging economy. "After they saw how we weathered Ike, we still have people still showing up to visit."

The poster child for Beachtown's hurricane resistance has become the Coastal Living Idea House, a three-story Victorian home with breakaway panels on its main floor that did their job and allowed the structure to pull through relatively unscathed.

"We've learned lessons since then," says Imber in reference to the breakaway panels. "Now we're treating storm surges as inevitable. We want to have the opportunity to be able to save the panels prior to a storm, so we're making them removable, now, so they can be taken off and stored off-site -- farther inland -- before the storm comes."

Already a beautiful place with beastly strength, Beachtown's collection of villages will number four or five at build-out. Two or three hamlets also are in the works, according to Shirazi. Currently, the community is still quite young, with only a couple dozen homes under construction and about eight units occupied.

"There will be a total of 600 homes, plus lofts," said Shirazi. "Single-family homes and townhomes will be available, and town center buildings are currently under construction, which will include a market and a café."

Surrounded by an 800-acre nature preserve, picturesque lagoons and vast beaches, Beachtown's appeal is immediately evident in its setting. "The design already has proved itself," said Shirazi with the pride of a parent. "And, because of its proximity to historic Galveston, it's becoming a focal point."

True, that. After Hurricane Ike, Galveston's General Land Office (GLO) placed a moratorium on all new building permits until the city's building practices could be reviewed. That review process could have taken up to a year, according to Imber. But after the GLO reviewed the practices at Beachtown, the moratorium was lifted in a matter of weeks. Now, Beachtown is being studied to inform the revision of Galveston's building codes.

Beachtown at a Glance

Location: Galveston Island, Texas
Size: 260 acres
Designer: Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company
Developer: Tofigh Shirazi
Groundbreaking: 2005
Percent complete: 5%
Population: +/- 24
Single-family: $800s to $1 million + (detached)
Lofts: $300s to $700s
Townhomes: $500s to $700s
Multi-family: Starting in the $200s (future)

Getting there:

Beachtown is located on the east end of Galveston Island. From Houston, take I-45 south to Galveston Island. I-45 will terminate onto Broadway. Continue through town about 4 miles. Bear left onto Seawall Boulevard. Turn right on Apffel Park Drive (second light). Beachtown is just ahead.

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