Florida's Alys Beach could be wave of future for resort towns
ALYS BEACH, Fla. - When the midday Florida Panhandle sun is blazing down on the buildings of Alys Beach, the notched roofs glow a crisp white.
But as the sun drifts west, roofs and white walls soften to a dusty pink, then lavender, and finally gray just before nightfall.
Impressionists understood light changes a scene, and the landscape of the newest development along Walton County Highway 30-A proves it.
In a region that boasts some of the most groundbreaking architecture in the country - Seaside's pedestrian-friendly New Urbanism was once revolutionary - Alys Beach is the next big thing.
It's the first "fortified town" in the country.
Designers planned it to withstand hurricane-force winds that have flattened Florida buildings for generations.
Basic construction relies on cinderblocks, steel rods and spray foam, buttressed by windows that can withstand a gunshot. No wood. No shingles.
It's not only tough - it's green. White roofs are 400 percent cooler, designers say. Streets have cobblestone and gravel for less runoff, so 35 percent of rainfall filters into the ground. Buildings are aligned to keep Gulf breezes flowing. A 21-acre nature preserve is on the property. Landscaping uses indigenous plants. Buildings are certified by the Institute for Business and Home Safety.
It sounds well-intentioned, but - ugly.
Far from it.
The few buildings finished so far are beautiful, with those gleaming white Bermuda-style roofs, white walls suggestive of Greece and open courtyards like those in Antigua and Guatemala homes.
And the beautiful Caliza (Spanish for limestone) Pool and surroundings could be a Hollywood movie set.
When complete, the 158-acre resort town will have more than 600 villas, courtyard homes and family compound retreats.
"We're about four years into a 20-year buildout plan," said spokesman Mike Ragsdale.
The development is master-planned by Duany Plater-Zyberk of Miami.
Andres Duany has said, "Alys Beach may well be the most truly innovative community under construction in the United States today - and it will eventually be imitated everywhere, I am certain."
He gets to brag - he's called one of the top five most influential people in home building by Builder magazine.
The general feel they were going for was an Italian seaside village with retail and shops (to come) on the ground level. Eventually, Alys Beach will have public plazas and fountains like its neighbors along 30-A. An amphitheater should be finished later this summer.
National media are taking notice. Ragsdale said Discovery Channel scheduled a visit to explore the hurricane-resistant idea.
One of the largest saltwater pools anywhere opened March 1 at Alys Beach.
Caliza is a 50-by-100-foot saltwater pool, next to a 75-foot lap pool, children's wading pool, and heated spa with colonnades, cabanas and fountains.
And here's another futuristic touch. The lap pool has an iPod port where swimmers can hear their favorite music underwater.
Many of the homes - which start at about $1.9 million - have private owners but are now available for rent. They have impressive features such as Dominican shellstone, subzero stainless steel refrigerators, Mexican beach pebbles on the shower floor, reclaimed red gum finishes, custom courtyard designs with waterfall fountains and more.
"This is the first full season we've had an effort to extend our rental program," said Ragsdale.
The growing community has ongoing events such as stargazing with an astronomer, sandcastle building, fashion shows, costume parties and more. A digital arts festival on Labor Day weekend will show images on those smooth, white building walls.
Alys Beach is developed by EBSCO Gulf Coast Development Inc., a subsidiary of EBSCO Industries, headquartered in Birmingham and one of the 200 largest private companies in the country.
"We have owned this property since 1978," Jason Comer, town founder of Alys Beach, said in a message to potential buyers. "We have owned our personal Walton County residences since the '40s. And all along we have been watching and learning from the exceptional community developments along 30-A."
Tradition does seem important - Alys was Comer's grandmother's name.
A building rescued from nearby Seagrove Beach was moved seven miles to Alys. Seagrove Village Market owners George and Ann Hartley will open George's in it this summer. Piper's is already serving hot dogs.
Panama City Beach is only about 15 minutes away. Seaside's shops and activities are close by, as are some of the best restaurants in the Panhandle. And there's always that white Panhandle beach.
"At the end of the day, people like to explore the little amenities around here," Ragsdale said.