New Urbanism in Action

Photos by Macleod Pappidas

While most people don’t know exactly how to build a house from bottom to top, they at least know that a house needs a foundation and a roof. The world includes many gifted builders who can craft a cottage or construct a mansion. But town building, it turns out, is nearly a lost art.

Enter Casey Roloff, town builder, and his team of skilled experts, including Laurence Qamar, the town planner and Portland-based architect, and Stephen Poulakos, the town development director and landscape designer.

The founder of the phenomenon known as Seabrook, 12.5 miles north of Ocean Shores on the Washington coast, Roloff, 39, has been successful in literally carving a “little beach town” out of a lonely stretch off State Highway 109 near Pacific Beach.

As a child, Roloff said, he often dreamed of creating a town. But, it wasn’t until he met Qamar, 49, that the dream began to become a reality. First Roloff built a few houses in the Lincoln City, Ore., area. Then he worked with Qamar creating the nearby 12-acre Bella Beach neighborhood.

Then in 2002, the two drove the lonely stretch of coast near Pacific Beach. Shortly after, Qamar began drawing the town that has since leapt off the page. It wasn’t long before the pair brought on Poulakos with his detailed town design talents from Florida’s panhandle. The three formed the core of the team that has succeeded in building and selling a town at a time where even selling a house has been difficult.

Weathering the Economy

Despite the rocky economy and the nationwide building slump – especially in the vacation home market – in the last two years 55 homes have sold at Seabrook, located in Grays Harbor County (the homes sell for $249,000 to more than $2 million.) And, while the town did have one house go into foreclosure, it was bought by a new owner within a week, Roloff said.

With 190 homes built since its inception in 2005, Seabrook, with its unique neighborhoods, exquisite design, expanding business community, and sense of 1950s carefree living, continues to thrive and gain national attention as a prime example of “New Urbanism,” a town-planning movement started in the 1980s.

Even more important to Roloff, it continues to grow into a real little town – the town where he and wife, Laura, and four little girls live, work and play.

They are among the 50 permanent residents interspersed in 12 of the homes in the town. The rest of the homes are privately owned vacation homes, most of which are rented through one of Roloff’s companies, Seabrook Cottage Rentals, when their owners aren’t using them.

“In really valuable beach towns, less than 10 percent of the people are permanent residents,” Roloff said, adding that living in a place where most of the people are on vacation adds a special feel to a beach town.

Why Washington?

While walking around the variety of spectacular mansions, well-appointed houses, cute cottages, plentiful paths and pleasant parks that make up Seabrook, one is tempted to think “art.” But in talking with Roloff, it’s clear since the beginning a lot of “science” also has been involved to make Seabrook a true town with a sense of community versus a housing development where the style of house repeats every fourth lot and nobody knows their neighbors.

“Many of the people who have a second home here say they have more friends and more real friends here than they do at their primary house that they’ve lived in for 15 or 20 years,” Roloff noted.

When Roloff began pursuing his town, he looked at statistics and determined that the coast of Washington could sustain a destination beach town.

“While people think of the Oregon coast as a destination, the Washington coast was so overlooked. There wasn’t a quality coastal destination near Seattle.

“Studies show that people will make a three-hour drive to a second home. We determined that there was five times more wealth within a three-hour drive of Seabrook compared to Cannon Beach,” Roloff said.

Starting a Town from Scratch

So, at just 29 years old, the Vancouver, Washington, native with a business degree from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma and a background that included a painting business and a real estate license, began looking for a place along the coast to build his town.

Using Seaside, Florida, as inspiration – the town used in the movie “The Truman Show,” and a prime example of a New Urban town – Roloff, began researching. That’s when he found town planner and town designer Qamar, who already had studied and practiced the principles of New Urbanism.

“These aren’t our ideas. Seaside, Florida, inspired me. They studied old towns before they designed Seaside and similarly we studied the finest towns of the Northwest before we began building Seabrook,” Roloff said.

New Urbanists study the world’s greatest towns and cities including countless historic U.S. cities, towns and neighborhoods.

Qamar said some of the finest American towns have been “buried within layers of post WWII suburban expansion.” One of the reasons for that is the invention and spread of the automobile coincided with the westward expansion of people in the States, so that new suburbs were developed around the needs of the drivers at the expense of the pedestrians and traditional towns.

But, despite our mostly drive-to, drive-in society, it turns out that encouraging pedestrians and bicyclists is what gives a town vitality.

So one of the main rules of New Urbanism is to de-emphasize cars and try to meet people’s most basic needs within a five-minute walk, Roloff explained. That means when you plot and plan a town you don’t cover house fronts with huge garages, and you do include lots of sidewalks and paths. Add inexpensive bike rentals to that and the streets come alive with strollers and cyclists.

Another aspect of the planning is how the streets were plotted. Qamar even carefully laid out the angles of the streets in relation to the ocean view.

Seabrook is built high on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. Many of the homes do not have an ocean view at all. But, the way the streets were angled, instead of a few houses getting a full view, many homes have partial views from their front porch or upper balcony.

“Instead of thinking of each individual home on the ocean, Seabrook’s focus is more internal to the concept of community,” explained Qamar.

“It’s a community on the ocean versus everyone having their personal house on the ocean. To be able to do that you refocus one’s attention away from, ‘I’ve got to have the ocean view,’ to also being ok living with beautiful townscapes and other views in the beach town. By placing the town center a little inland, the best of the forested ocean bluffs are preserved for everyone’s enjoyment,” Qamar said.

Another attractive aspect of this “new beach town” is that the town has distinct neighborhoods. The center is more formal with classic three-story houses built with uptown formality and class. As you move out to different sections of the town some feature less-formal architecture, such as beachy cabins close together or woodsy cabins that have an entirely different architectural style and building materials.

It’s all in the Details

It’s in some of these nitty-gritty details that Poulakos becomes involved.

The town has four housing styles – Coastal Shingle Style, Early Victorian, Craftsman and “Founder Lots.” Qamar designed the overall exterior facades and composition of most of the initial Seabrook “stock houses,” in collaboration with Roloff and Poulakos.

“While we have many similar floor plans, we use a “kit of parts” system of making each house have a slightly different look and feel,” Poulakos said.

“Using the kit of parts, we are able to further alter each house by using things like paint or stain color, light fixtures, shutters, porch under skirting, roof materials and color, fencing, hedging, porch posts, glass-enclosed porches, mudrooms, weathervanes, cupolas, classical door entries, etc.

“It takes more work than most developers are willing to tackle, but it is what has helped make Seabrook stand out,” Poulakos said.

The same is true of the landscaping. In the center of town, where there is more room, big leaf maples were planted. In other neighborhoods, vine maples, alders, chokecherries or shore pines are the prominent trees.

“These are subtle cues that people pick up and can’t always explain why each neighborhood feels different. It has to do with the set back of homes, plant selection, sidewalk materials as well as architectural differences,” Poulakos said.

That diversity in style and cost, leads to a diverse population of homeowners, which itself gives vitality and interest to a town, the three men agree.

“We can design beautiful buildings, beautiful parks and public spaces, but typically in new suburban developments it’s done in a rather cookie-cutter manner,” Qamar said.

In each of the different current neighborhoods, another part of the careful town planning was figuring out just what the distance from the porch of a house to the sidewalk gives enough privacy but encourages a friendly “hello.” The measurement – as little as 4 feet from sidewalk to porch – depends on the height of the porch as well as the distance to the curb and where it is within the town.

“Too close and it’s awkward when people pass by on the sidewalk. But, too far away and no one talks to each other,” Roloff explained.

Qamar and Poulakos created a whole design code that defines these subtle dimensions as they become tighter in the town center and deeper toward the edges of town.

Creating a True Community

One of the things that aids in this closeness is the purposely smaller lots at Seabrook.

Making lots smaller and setting aside some of the prime land for the public is two ways to encourage a sense of neighborhoods and connection, Roloff said, and a main principle of New Urbanism.

“While conventional developers would take a piece of land like this and divide it all into large lots, we’ve taken all the land that has beauty and ecological value and protected it under common ownership,” explained Qamar.

“So while most builders would take 100 acres and make 1-acre lots, instead we built the town compactly, just using 45 percent of it for houses and leaving 55 percent of land for parks, wildlife and other areas everyone can enjoy,” he said.

One of the reasons that Seabrook is so successful, Qamar said, is that “people are starving for community and for connection with their fellow man as well as with nature.”

Seabrook will soon complete an indoor swimming pool. It also has several parks, fire pits, open spaces, biking trails and five miles of wilderness trails.

A town community hall – a place for corporate retreats, movies, plays and a variety of other cultural events that you have in a small town – is slated for construction in 2013.

Public spaces are key to a healthy town, Roloff emphasized.

Roloff said he works hard to encourage and incubate small businesses. Right now Seabrook includes Lil’s Pantry, a grocery market, Mill 109 Restaurant and Pub, Colours, a pottery painting studio, the Salty Dog, a pet boutique and Blue Spa.

Also, construction has begun on the first live-work unit for the downtown area that Qamar has just finished designing. The two-story townhouse on top of the one-story shop (buy them both or just one) are intended to encourage more business growth and offer yet more vitality and interest to the town.

Overall, it’s clear Roloff and his experts are on to something. Not only are the homes selling, and the business district growing, but bucking the trend of other resorts in this economy, the number of rental days is up 35 percent over last year.

“My hope is that Seabrook will become a model for development in the Northwest,” said Roloff.

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