Our ears heard the Seaside siren song as a must-see architectural gem from the first development whispers in 1981. Seaside’s genesis corresponded with the start of our careers. We followed Seaside from the early planning stages through to fame in both design circles and popular culture.

In the design world, Seaside became both the vanguard and the poster child for New Urbanism. New Urbanism argues for a restoration of livable communities. Mixed-use, walkable communities featuring intimate, residential neighborhoods with porches, connected walkways, and gathering spaces. (Among other design tenets) It is one of our handful of design touchstones of the last forty years.

In popular culture, Seaside was the real-world setting for the Jim Carey movie, The Truman Show. This was a movie about a “fake” town as the set of a reality show surrounding an unsuspecting lead character.

Seaside is frequently featured on magazine covers and in articles from the popular to trade press titles. Seaside re-popularized Southern design in their signature beach cottage design elements. When new, Seaside style was a distinctive retro response to the architectural sterility of the 1960s and 70s.

The New Urbanism community of Seaside is quite compact. It covers only eighty acres. But in one of the prettiest settings imaginable along the Florida panhandle’s pristine white sand beaches near Destin, Florida. The white sand looks and feels like walking on refined sugar. Only about 1,200 residents enjoy the idyllic planned community. And since for many owners these are second homes, the tourists on any given day outnumber the residents.

AWF Winter Adventure

We committed our 2020 Aging With Freedom winter adventure to finally answer the Seaside siren song. We were not disappointed.

Driving along US 183, the coast highway strings together the barrier islands of the Panhandle. It was like crossing through Alice’s looking glass. The real world was the gaudy commercialism of strip malls and tourist traps pressing in on the highway. A quick right-turn toward the Gulf of Mexico through a stand of Florida slash pines brought us into a make-believe world of planned perfection.

Developed on a Budget

Seaside was developed on a budget! Robert Davis inherited the 80-acre parcel from his Grandfather. He was 35 at the start of the development work and Robert was “allergic to debt”. Rather, than betting the farm (or the beach) on debt-ridden dreams? He was determined to develop a seaside community without borrowing a lot of money. A great lesson. Thoughtful, successful communities can be developed on a tight budget. But incremental development does require a true, well-developed master plan.

Lessons Learned from Seaside

What did we learn from our Winter Adventure to Seaside? Walkable neighborhoods can stand the test of time. They remain appealing and desirable communities. A lesson being used in many current Senior Living Communities.

We’ve concluded Seaside may have become too successful. The liveable resort community once envisioned, has instead become a dense tourist destination. And the community carefully developed on a budget is now out of financial reach for all but the wealthiest. A modest one-bedroom unit is listed for $600,000+. Albeit, with a rooftop view of the Gulf. The single-family homes that make up most of the community are multi-million-dollar homes. Many homes are vacation rentals rather than primary or even secondary homes. Permanent residents are a smaller slice of the whole than originally envisioned.

Have you visited Seaside? What were your takeaways?