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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 4, NO. 1 -- DECEMBER 2001/JANUARY 2002
 

New Towns -- Cotton District, Mississippi

By Jason Miller

In 1968, long before Seaside gave new urbanism its name and some needed recognition, designer-developer Dan Camp practiced it in an area bordering Mississippi State University known as the Cotton District.

Back then, Camp didn't even know what a master plan was. He simply wanted to build rental units and selected an area that had been part of the Sanders Cotton Mill around the turn of the 20th century. Parts of the site had been destroyed by "urban renewal"; some of the most dilapidated buildings hadn't even been included in the renewal efforts.

Camp started buying land, and he started building: small townhouses at first, modeled after those he'd seen in Alexandria, Va. Some of the first lots he accumulated were substandard in size, so he paid little for them and built rental units that were proportionate to the 25- to 30-foot-wide lots. He improved undesirable areas with very little investment.

Camp did this for 10 to 15 years, started getting attention for his work, and started having to pay more for raw lots. In 1989 he noticed a man walking along the Cotton District streets, leading an entourage of gawkers. "You've been to Seaside!" the man said to Camp.

"No, I haven't," said Camp. "Who are you?"

"Andrés Duany."

And so it goes.

Targeting the Market

Dan Camp doesn't do much posturing. He's salty and savvy, down to earth. He employs no PR firm; he doesn't fawn over visiting journalists -- not even when they're writing for The Town Paper! His buildings are examples of solid architecture with a few somewhat ostentatious adornments now and then. But, he says with a smirk, "We have no towers."

Camp knows his market (university students), and he builds to please it. The six-square-block portion of the Cotton District that displays his touch is impressively integrated and hugely popular. There are mixed-use buildings with commercial on the ground floor and student apartments above. There are 135 cottages, fourplexes, sixplexes -- all adding up to a total of 200 individual units at press time. Every property is within walking distance of the university and downtown Starkville.

The properties look expensive, but they aren't: Monthly rents run from $300 to $800. Some properties look like single-family houses, but they aren't: Camp borrows exterior looks from older houses in the area, then converts the floor plans to fourplex layouts. Other buildings bear the mark of his trips to Europe, with touches of French and Italianate architecture. The properties are snapped up as fast as Camp can build them; some are sold before they are complete. In a market that is currently running at a 5 to 10 percent vacancy rate, all of Camp's properties are at 100 percent occupancy. Go figure. "I don't feel like I have any competition," he says.

We're not talking about palatial mansions, here, either. Many of Camp's buildings are often decidedly small, modeled after historical examples and outfitted with student-friendly amenities, such as laundry facilities and microwaves. "I look past the huge, Southern mansions and look at the outbuildings, where you find very nice proportion and scale. A lot of my ideas come from those outbuildings. I think tiny spaces are fascinating," said Camp. "People are always making everything so big, they lose the scale and proportion."

The Cotton District streets are themselves marvels of proper scale. To "keep the city from meddling," Camp divided the blocks with alleys and created private streets so he could put his courtyard houses and garden apartments closer to them. And he put his own house right in the middle of it all.

Out of the Woodwork

Success inevitably breeds criticism, and Camp has his share of detractors. "People say I won't let anyone else do anything (with my lots)," he says. "But 90 percent of the time, the builders around here want to tear down what's there and put in a parking lot. So I try to guard against those people who have no vision to see what can be done with a lot. I'm constantly fighting unimaginative people with access to money."

Camp has also taken some heat for not having a master plan. "But you can't 'master plan' something you don't own!" he says, referring to the piecemeal manner in which he began the Cotton District renovation, a method he continues still. "I'm rebuilding a whole Southern town!"

For Camp, the naysayers are little more than white noise. He points to the fact that he did Starkville's first PUD -- an effort that was bolstered by the city planner's willingness to change the requirements for a PUD. "I took one acre, put 28 units on it and hid the parking so it couldn't be seen. Now that's an achievement."

The Future

Camp plans to expand further into the Cotton District, tearing down existing, poorly executed buildings, getting rid of the parking lots in the fronts of buildings. One new property on the drawing board includes a rear-loaded garage on the first floor, with living quarters on the second and third floors.

Insisting that his work is not fresh or different, Camp, who's been called the "best-kept secret in Mississippi," presses on with humility intact. "I'm just trying to rent apartments," he says.

Jason Miller is a new urbanist freelance writer, editor and publishing consultant based in St. Paul, Minn. He is the editor of the TND Series plan books and TNDhomes.com. Contact him at goodwords@juno.com or 651.503.6304.