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Call it green medieval

Planned hamlet homes have both 12th century and modern inspiration.

By James Thorner
Published April 25, 2007


Developer Bruce White is hoping to transplant a German feel, such as this picturesque Black Forest village, to North Florida.
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[Getty Images]
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photo
[Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co]
The Sky community in rural Calhoun County would have an agricultural emphasis, with fields and garden plots.

Anyone familiar with Celebration near Orlando or Seaside in the Panhandle knows Florida's a hothouse for traditional neighborhood design, the push to replace suburban sprawl with tight, walkable communities.

But while most traditionalists reach back to the early 20th century for their front-porch-and-picket-fence models, Bruce White seeks inspiration in 12th century Germany for a project he envisions called Sky in North Florida.

Sprawl isn't exactly a problem in rural Calhoun County, population 13,200, about an hour west of Tallahassee. It's there that White bought a 571-acre former gladiolus farm. He plans to cluster Sky's 600 homes in European-style hamlets and attach garden plots to each. Homeowners would own and maintain 150 to 200 more acres of pasture, crop land and orchards.

"I want people, when they come to the property, to feel they're on a huge farm," White said.

White's medieval prototype development will come with such modern luxuries as tennis courts, a spa, coffee shops and the latest in high-tech energy efficiency.

"My mom is Bavarian. I grew up visiting her village in Germany. Until I was 25, I just got a lot of exposure to that type of architecture," said White, a real estate investor embarking on his first large development. "That medieval layout works. It's been time tested."

Traditional neighborhood design, also known as new urbanism, has grown in popularity as home buyers grew weary of killer commutes, gas-hogging shopping trips and bar-the-door unneighborliness. Local examples of the design include West Park Village near Tampa and Longleaf in Pasco County.

Lest you think Sky is White's personal flight of fancy, he's lined up an all-star team to build the thing. His business partner is Jacksonville-area architect Julia Starr Sanford. The partners commissioned a site plan from Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., a Miami planner that has championed new urbanism in more than 300 projects.

In what's perhaps the biggest vote of confidence, Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp recently awarded the project a $1.8-million Florida renewable energy technologies grant. Florida State University engineers will design and test ways to deliver power and water to Sky at about a quarter of the typical energy costs.

"Hopefully we can get them off the electrical grid altogether," said David Cartes, professor of mechanical engineering at FSU.

But will Sky sell? The knock against such new design developments is that homes end up being pricey and the streetscapes sterile and imitative.

Seaside, the quaint Panhandle community where homes reach $3-million, was the location for The Truman Show. The movie portrayed a man who doesn't know his seemingly perfect town is actually a television set and his neighbors are actors.

Sky risks drawing similar comparisons: Sanford, the architect, has moonlighted as a movie set designer. Her work appeared in such films as The Legend of Bagger Vance, My Cousin Vinny and Radio.

Frank Starkey groans at The Stepford Wives comparisons. Starkey is an architect and developer of Pasco's Longleaf.

While admitting there's a fine line between solid traditional and insubstantial gingerbread, new urbanist experiments can't help looking freshly scrubbed until they put on a little age.

"The old neighborhoods had a 100-year head-start," Starkey said. "It's impossible to create Hyde Park overnight without it looking like you pretended."

To sell homes for about $200,000 to $600,000, White plans to tap a customer base he calls "cultural creatives." They're the estimated 60-million Americans willing to pay a premium for green products.

The flaw of some recently built traditional neighborhood designs is that close-packed streets offer too little space for residents to "decompress," White said. It's a deficiency he hopes to correct with Sky's Hansel & Gretel fields, farms and forests.

The project, largely self-financed, is scheduled to break ground in early 2008 and take 10 years to complete.

James Thorner can be reached at (813) 226-3313 or thorner@sptimes.com.

Energy highlights

Energy-efficient technology incorporated into the Sky development:

- Geothermal loops that circulate water through underground pipelines to produce water using the Earth's natural heat. Hot water would be piped to all the homes within each pod.

- Centralized chillers to cool homes and solar panels to heat them.

- A wastewater treatment facility that protects groundwater by using aerobic treatment units.

[Last modified April 24, 2007, 22:57:32]


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