September 9, 2011 9:54 pm

Seaside special

The Florida town from ‘The Truman Show’ is weathering the real estate storm better than others

In the 1998 film The Truman Show, Jim Carrey was almost upstaged by a seemingly idyllic community of neat beach cottages and pristine front gardens. The film’s premise is that Carrey’s character is unaware his hometown is a huge film set; that his life is one enormous TV reality show, his every move watched by millions.

Much of the film’s fictional Seahaven is in reality Seaside, a resort town in Florida’s “Panhandle”, built from scratch 30 years ago and home to some 3,000 residents in peak season. “The Truman Show was the best thing that could have happened to land values in Seaside,” says Andrés Duany who, with his partner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, was the young Miami architect hired to design Seaside and devise its building code. “It presented Seaside not as perfect but as a beautiful place to live.”

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Holidaymakers who descend on Seaside are joined by architects and town planners curious about its marriage of traditional wood-frame cottages with a scaled-down, antebellum style reminiscent of US historical districts such as Savannah in Georgia.

There has been a mounting argument between the architects and planners who espouse pedestrian-friendly, high-density communities that deliberately hark back to a bygone era – dubbed the New Urbanists – and others who dislike the ersatz charm of communities such as Seaside. But house prices in Seaside are weathering the continuing US real estate storm a little better than in nearby communities.

Jacky Barker, an agent at Seaside Community Realty, says: “In the heyday we were selling cottages inland for $850 to $1,000 per square foot and over $2,000 per sq ft for Gulf front. Now it’s $550 to $750 inland and $1,300 to $1,500 for Gulf front.” However, in the next-door town of WaterColor, homes away from the town’s white-sand beach exchange hands for approximately $350 to $450 per sq ft, says Barker.

The asking price for a Gulf-front detached home in Seaside with five en suite bedrooms is $5.2m. Meanwhile, a furnished one-bedroom cottage a block from the beach is offered for $925,000 (both through Seaside Community Realty) and would bring in about $1,800 a week (minus agency commission and running costs) if rented out during August.

There are now several hundred communities in America – many in Florida – conforming in whole or in part to the New Urbanists’ codes on street width, public versus personal space and a looser understanding of zoning. Seaside was a forerunner but its 80 acres have been developed slowly, with scores of architects working sequentially on its homes and prominent public buildings. “We wanted to make a resort community that would give people a kind of utopia during their vacations,” says Duany. “But the nature of the utopia – being able to walk to amenities and your entertainment – was to be normal rather than exotic. To build a walkable town back then was radical.”

It helped that Duany and his team accurately guessed that Seaside’s homeowners would agree to take more risks in their holiday environment than at home in, say, the suburbs of a big city. For instance, they would be prepared to live in a smaller unit, use cars less often, and sit on their porch and interact with their fellow residents.

Beau Soleil

As a result, Seaside emphasised public, not private, life. “There is very little private exterior space in Seaside,” says Duany, who helped design the building code at Poundbury, an experimental new town in Dorset, UK, backed by the Prince of Wales.

Duany says his “obsessive” approach to public space was loosened in some of his later designs – the Panhandle towns of Rosemary Beach and Alys Beach, for example – which gradually extended the proportion of private versus public space.

In the early 1990s the Walt Disney Company began to develop Celebration in Osceola County, near Orlando, its own version of a New Urbanist community. Like all such places, it is a mixed-use, non-gated development that defies urban sprawl.

According to data compiled by Kathy Carlson, who operates Imagination Realty, a local estate agency, Celebration has fared only slightly better in the downturn compared to nearby towns such as Windermere, Hunter’s Creek and Lake Nona – a drop in average prices of 43 per cent in Celebration compared to 46 per cent in her selection of neighbouring towns between 2006 and July this year.

Tony and Wendy Barrowcliffe, a semi-retired couple from Nottingham in the UK have owned a home in Celebration for six years. “You could probably get more property for your money outside Celebration but there would be no sense of community and you would have to drive everywhere,” says Tony. “The infrastructure is tremendous. It’s very sociable: you can ride a bike everywhere and kids find it easy to make friends at the local swimming pool.”

Imagination Realty is marketing a 2002-build, Victorian-style two-storey house with hardwood floors and a modern kitchen, but no private pool, for $617,900.

Unlike in Seaside, there are no short-term renters in Celebration (a one-year lease is the minimum). The town has 9,000 full-time residents and supports a hospital and a high school. “This is a safe community,” says Carlson, “and it’s also a vibrant one”. In contrast, Jacky Barker estimates that some 15 families live in Seaside year-round.

Meanwhile, 30 years on, Duany is clearly proud of his experiment: “We planned an intensification of everything, so Seaside is more than usually friendly to visitors, its landscaping is even more ecological, and so on.” Indeed, visitors are often struck by Seaside’s shiny white, ocean-front pavilions, nine in all, that stand at the end of each street and are free for everyone to use. They encourage social interaction, a key pillar of the New Urbanist philosophy.

It can be argued that the pavilions help give all Seaside’s home-owners – even those set back from the shore – a physical connection with the sea. As a result, they boost the value of everyone’s property.

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Buying guide

Pros

● Holiday rentals are a lucrative business

● A safe and pedestrian-friendly community

Cons

● Homes have little private outside space

● Far from a big international airport

● Pricier than elsewhere in north-west Florida

What you can buy for ...

$100,000 nothing in Seaside

$1m one-bedroom cottage near the beach

Contacts

Seaside Community Realty, tel: +1 850 231 2202, www.seasidefl.com

Imagination Realty, tel: +1 321 939 1300, www.imaginationrealty.net

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