EconSouth (Second Quarter 2006)
Q & A
‘I Truly Think Smart Codes Are a Long-Term Benefit’
An Interview With Dave Dennis, President and CEO of Specialty Contractors & Associates Inc.
The destruction wrought by hurricanes Katrina and Rita has given those involved in the rebuilding effort the opportunity to introduce new approaches to the way communities are developed.
Dave Dennis, a builder in hard-hit Gulfport, Miss., is a proponent of smart codes, which emphasize the preservation of historic buildings, walking areas, population density (and the resulting reduction in urban sprawl), and the incorporation of green space.
Dennis talks about these concepts and how the charrette process, which brings together stakeholders, including municipal officials, developers, and local residents, can play a role in forging progress in the recovery process.
EconSouth: What is your stance on smart building codes that encourage compact, mixed-use neighborhoods and facilitate historic preservation?
Dave Dennis: For the record, I am for smart codes. I embrace the charrette process within the Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding, and Renewal for Mississippi. That commission was the catalyst for the charrette process, which architect Andrés Duany oversaw in Mississippi. I chaired the cultural and historical preservation committees and the museum process, so basically it’s [a matter of] trying to guarantee a melding of the old with the new.
I’m a commercial contractor, so theoretically I should favor the “let’s go build 40-story condos, wall-to-wall, and proliferate the whole coast with a concrete jungle” idea. I’m a thousand percent opposed to that.
ES: Will communities make smart codes obligatory or optional?
Dennis: Communities will either embrace them or not embrace them. I don’t think they would be adopted as optional because that could create a competitive disadvantage for those who went with a smart code. I suspect they will be adopted in six of the 11 coastal communities of Mississippi. I don’t know that for a fact, but it’s my guess.
In Pass Christian, where I live, they are probably going to adopt smart codes with certain colloquial adaptations. In other words, they’ll embrace it in principle, but they’ll have some variations and variances reflecting local community directives.
ES: What features of smart codes are likely to place the biggest constraints on developers?
Dennis: I can talk about that from the perspective of Pass Christian, which is a very historic area. The front road of Pass Christian, called Scenic Drive, where I live, is one of only three streets in America that has a national historic preservation designation. The street was literally three miles of some of the most beautiful antebellum homes you’ve seen. Most of those are gone. My wife and I will probably be building a three- to four-story mixed-use, live-work building on the site of what was called the Union Quarters, which was the building that housed the Union soldiers during the Civil War when they occupied Pass Christian. We’re going to take history and try to blend it with New Urbanism.
In terms of Pass Christian, I think a mixed-use, walkable community, live-work environment will manifest itself in a four-story maximum height in the small central business district. As you taper out, acceptable maximum heights will vary. Prior to Katrina, the maximum height in Pass Christian for either residential or commercial properties was 50 feet, unless you had five acres or more. Then, you could go to 70 feet. In terms of constraints, smart codes could really relax the building code.
ES: How do regulations from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) affect the rebuilding effort?
Dennis: FEMA is probably going to mandate an 18-foot minimum building height, which is likely a good number. That elevation should be a bare minimum, particularly if you want flood insurance. It’s hard to ask a taxpayer to pay to rebuild something that has washed away once, and then it washes away a second time.
Some areas and velocity zones, which are waterfront areas near tidal basins and tidal flow bays, are going to be maybe 21 feet, and some other areas that are not prone to flooding may be 16 feet. And some of the smart codes are going to suggest if you have a four-story height, you probably would have parking underneath it, which in reality would make it a five-story building.
ES: With final zoning decisions yet to be made, what is your current approach to rebuilding?
Dennis: My wife and I intend to rebuild within the general spirit of the results of the charrette process. In all probability, those qualities would be general building techniques and aesthetic traits that we would incorporate into a building, whether the smart codes are adopted or not. We are also looking at building in an environmentally responsible manner.
ES: Can the cost of implementing smart codes have the effect of forcing some people to leave the area because of economics?
Dennis: If you put too much emphasis on stringent building codes, be they smart codes or whatever, then you have to ask whether some people who make up those intriguing and intrinsic mixes within your community will be able to return and rebuild.
At this point, not much rental housing is available. There aren’t many apartments. There’s a dramatic deficiency of housing on this coast. If you don’t have apartments downtown, then you aren’t going to have other options and other opportunities. The affected people would be the developers and builders who are contemplating building, but financially they’re on the bubble of being able to proceed. That will affect developers and builders. Smart codes would also indirectly affect people who, let’s say, had a condo or housing project that they wanted to call affordable housing. If it’s a marginal deal in the first place, and if incorporating smart codes will add up to 10 percent to the cost of a project, that may be enough to stop the deal.
ES: What are the features in the smart code that add the most cost?
Dennis: Generally, it’s the walkable area. Smart-code proponents want to build near the sidewalk or near the road, as opposed to the traditional, suburban thinking that a building sits back off the property and has parking in front. Smart codes suggest building with an increased footprint on the property.
Other higher cost items would include aesthetics, such as courtyards with significant landscaping, mill-working on doors, cast-iron and wrought-iron lamps, carriage lamps, those kinds of aesthetic upgrades . . . items that on a good building you probably would do anyway.
ES: In mixed-use structures, do you expect the residential component to be established before the retail?
Dennis: It’s very possible that residential could carry retail, but I truly think both have to be lockstep, hand-in-hand. As you have additional people moving into town, you’re going to have the smaller shops and retailers opening. Conversely, if you’ve got a live-work situation, if you have retail coming in, the viability of residential property in close proximity fuels additional retail development. But initially, you could have residential coming into mixed-use buildings prior to retail truly taking off. We anticipate, in all probability, either giving moderated rent in the first year or two or deeply discounting rent to people coming into the building just to let them get on their feet because a lot of people are in startup business mode.
ES: Regardless of what zoning decisions are made now, do long-term risks exist for the area?
Dennis: The number-one long-term risk would be another category 5 storm coming ashore. I really don’t see significant long-term detriments relative to smart codes or to upgraded building codes. I truly think smart codes are a long-term benefit because you’re not going to have to go through the same rebuilding process.
ES: Was there an economic correlation with the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, where higher-income areas fared better than lower-income ones?
Dennis: That may be a stereotypical story that you’re getting from the national media. I’m going to suggest to you that Katrina’s destruction cut across all economic, all financial, all racial, all ethnic strata. No one got a pass on this storm along the Gulf Coast—no one.
Did it cause more damage and devastation in some of the lower socioeconomic areas? In parts of New Orleans, yes, that would be true. But then you can go to the Lakeview subdivision in New Orleans, where homes typically cost from $300,000 to $600,000, and they’re totally wiped out.