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Central Square's New Look

Posted on May 01, 2014 in Central Square , Renovation , May-June 2014

The enhanced Seaside amphitheater is a hallmark of New Urbanism design, which utilizes open green spaces to bring the community together. Photo by Jack Gardner

Esthetics and environment are placed center stage in Seaside By Wendy O. Dixon

Over the winter months, Seaside underwent a major transformation in the centerpiece of town. Its most recent enhancement project, the landscaping for the Seaside amphitheater, has both esthetics and the environment in mind.

The oaks that dotted the inner semi-circle perimeter of Central Square have been removed, making way for 52 medjool palm trees, lined in double rows with an expansive walkway between them. The walkway will accommodate vendors at the Seaside Farmers Market and additional event-related activities.

The new drainage system is designed to collect the water run-off from Central Square and diminish the quantity of water that accumulates in the retention pond area in front of the amphitheater stage. The lawn was completely re-sodded, too, with new irrigation added. The former concrete parking pad bordering the amphitheater’s outer perimeter, originally built for “The Truman Show” movie set, has been replaced with red pavers.

The medjool palm, a North African native, needs little water, is one of the few cold-hardy palms that can withstand a freeze, and is disease resistant. It does well in small areas, needing as little as a 5-by-5-foot square. The palms in Seaside were grown in Arizona. “The planting of medjool trees in the Central Square of Seaside was a decision driven by art, not commerce,” says town founder Robert Davis. “The medjool palms cost several hundred thousand dollars more than oak trees, and palms generally planted in Northwest Florida are Sabals and Washingtonians, which are among the least expensive trees available, which is why they are so ubiquitous.”

The benefit of the palms is that the roots won’t grow into the drainage system, says project leader Tom Stein, owner of Thos Stein Inc., based in Santa Rosa Beach. “Originally, this area was the retention pond, and the amphitheater came later. When it rained, a lot of water would run off 30A, which is higher on the east side than on the west,” he explains. “It would turn in and a sheet flow of water would erode the sides. Instead we built a curb and installed an exfiltration system. Water enters it through basins and can be stored and percolate into the ground. The intent is to keep the amphitheater dry.”

Davis explains the planning process:

In 2005, Seaside architects and planners Léon Krier, Andrés Duany, Pier Carlo Bontempi, Ray Gindroz and others participated in a design charrette to update the plan for downtown Seaside. Duany argued that the 1983 plan needed correction, because the buildings were too short to contain a town square as large as Seaside had planned and developed. His preferred solution was to add an additional layer of 22-foot high buildings around the outer edge of the amphitheater. Bontempi, however, recommended the planting of palm trees to encircle the amphitheater, providing a more porous sense of spatial enclosure. Palms are the horticultural equivalent of classical columns. Not only do their trunks look like columns, complete with entasis, but their fronds are a loose approximation of a Corinthian capital. The planting of the palms around Central Square is a way to correct the proportional problems of the square, since the height of the buildings is insufficient to create the spatial enclosure required to make Central Square a well-proportioned and comfortable outdoor room.

From building face to building face, Central Square is about the same dimension as Siena’s Piazza del Campo, a candidate for the world’s most beautiful plaza. But Siena’s main square is lined by buildings that are almost twice as high.

The medjools will not transform Central Square into Piazza del Campo, but the advice of Krier and Bontempi, both winners of classical architecture’s most prestigious award, the Driehaus Prize, is worth paying attention to.

Progress was meticulous for the Seaside Amphitheater, which is why the work was done in winter when fewer visitors were present. Photo by Tom King, Central Square Records

Crews worked over the winter months, planting medjool date palm trees and sodding the lawn in Central Square. Photo by Kurt Lischka for SoWal.com