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Perdido Key’s Cinderella Moment

Perdido Key is often seen as a forgotten stepchild; an afterthought to the central Gulf Coast’s other beach communities. Its name — Spanish for “Lost Key” — is fitting. Though dotted with condos and a few small commercial outposts, the community has no master plan to guide development, and sometimes feels like a place from which history has simply moved on.


Recently, though, there is definitely a sense here that something different is around the corner — something better.

The westernmost Florida community of Perdido Key, located along State Highway 292, straddling the Alabama state line, is the kind of place that makes you wonder, “Why isn’t there something more here?”

In a large, open, glass room just off the beachfront road that spans the seemingly endless miles of pristine, strikingly bright white shoreline, all that could be heard on a recent October morning was silence. The room is filled with portable folding tables, a labyrinth of computer cables and laptops, and several people sitting silently, meticulously drawing sketches and analyzing maps.

It’s silent for a reason: their mission is unprecedented and vital to the barrier island’s future. The group has been tasked with creating a plan — from scratch, in just four days — outlining a way forward for the key. The community has been without a master plan for its future development for more than fifty years, so expecting seven out-of-town consultants to create a plan in just 96 hours is a formidable task, and it gives credence to the silence in the room. This is their one chance to get it right.

If there had to be a phrase to describe Perdido Key as it is today, “beach highway” would undoubtedly be it.

Though home to thousands of residents, for many others, Perdido Key is simply a place to drive through en route to the infamous Flora-Bama Lounge or attractions in the more-developed communities of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores over the line in Alabama. While most Perdido Key residents eschew the wall-to-wall high-rise development seen in Orange Beach, there’s still a desire by many locals and businesses to repurpose, reorient, and redefine the community.

Undeveloped for hundreds of years, the island was once a vital landholding of the U.S. military, which used it as a gunnery range. When the Navy determined the land was no longer needed for military purposes in the 1950s, the federal government subdivided the barrier island into several hundred lots. It was only during the second half of the twentieth century that landowners constructed homes and developed condos. But with half a century of virtually unregulated and independent development by hundreds of individual landowners, what resulted was the Perdido Key of today: a scattered patchwork of towering condos, individual homes, and businesses, often separated by a pedestrian-unfriendly highway and lacking a true sense of place for its visitors and residents.

Unlike many cities or towns along the Gulf Coast, such as nearby downtown Pensacola, Fairhope, Ala., or even similar coastal towns like Seaside and Rosemary Beach in Walton County, Perdido lacks any sort of town or neighborhood center — limited or no places to shop, dine, or walk, as many residents and visitors attest.

“What Perdido Key is lacking is great urbanism — where’s the downtown, where’s the heart of the community?” says Marina Khoury, Director of Town Planning for urban planning firm DPZ, which leads the group of consultants and designers that are working to build the plan for Perdido Key.

The view of Perdido Key today, landmarked predominantly by condos along State Road 292, known as Perdido Key Drive. The island lacks any sort of community or town center, which officials hope to change with the development of a new master plan for the beach community of several thousand people. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

The team of designers, architects, and urban planners descended from their Miami and Washington, D.C. offices and spent a week in the small beach community of less than 10,000 residents. Armed with decades of experience and expertise in the fields of new urbanism and sustainable design for cities, they understand the immense challenge that’s been put before them: to help build Perdido Key into something new, something different, something better than what it is today.

It’s an ambitious goal, and one that hasn’t been tried before. As we reported last week, this isn’t the first time the firm has been asked to come to Perdido Key to work with the community toward creating a vision and way forward. This time, however, partisan political pressures are gone, and cooperation and collaboration is the name of the game.

Escambia County Commissioner Doug Underhill, whose district includes Perdido Key, says his constituents are largely united. “There is a strong consensus for the smart development of the Key,” Underhill says. “This means building a retail center that captures the $26 million in commerce that originates in and around the Key but is spent elsewhere. It means embracing the environmental constraints as a protection of not only the wildlife, but our way of life. And it means ensuring walkable, bike-able, and policeable areas that ensure the access to the island for all county residents.”

During the four-day-long charter process, designers imagined, adapted, and conceptualized many ideas to create the sense of place that residents, business owners, and local government have wanted, but have been unable to conceive or dream up. Members of the local community — both in and outside Perdido Key — were invited to attend throughout the process and provide input to the team of designers and consultants, giving insight into how they want the island developed.

The ideas and public input materialized into a draft master plan that includes many ideas and visualizations of a way forward. Each proposal takes into account the various unique constraints of Perdido Key, including habitat conservation for species such as the Perdido Key beach mouse, a cap on the amount of dwelling units that can be developed on the island, and zoning restrictions.

At the final presentation of the master plan, DPZ presented the public with various options that conceptualized new town centers and includes the redesign or creation of new roads, streets and neighborhoods.

Reaction among local residents was generally positive, but very honest. “There are and have always been conflicting ideas on the island,” says Underhill. “There is a very large percentage of the community who is adamant in their opposition to a four lane and a “corridor concept”.  Perdido Key is a community, not a corridor, and that message was delivered loud and clear.

“The next steps are for DPZ to deliver their final products and for the county to move forward with the adoption of Form-Based Zoning on Perdido Key,” Underhill says. “Once we have adopted the Master Plan, I will begin the march for ultimate recognition by the state of this plan as a principle document for traffic planning on Perdido.”

With a new proposed master plan and vision for Perdido Key now in the hands of county leaders, the next question is when, not if, will this grand vision begin to take shape in reality.

“I would love to come back here in 10 years and see a little pocket of delightful urbanism,” says Khoury. “We want people to say we finally have a place where we can gather, where we can have a farmer’s market, where we can have a movie, where we can let our kids go play and we can shop, dine, walk, and say we finally have a sense of place.”

To view the Perdido Key Vision Draft Master Plan:


View the gallery below to see these proposed town centers and the options presented in the master plan.

View the video below to watch the Perdido Key Master Plan Presentation by Marina Khoury from DPZ