The Sad Saga of Schooner Bay, and How It Might End Well for the Bahamas

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aerial view of the harbour island at Schooner Bay in South Abaco, Bahamas on a day mottled with scattered clouds

   The foreign investor at Schooner Bay recently took the unthinkable measure of evicting the local organic farmer from Crown land that doesn’t even belong to Schooner Bay; who else do you know who is against healthy local food? But while the farm and the story surrounding it is highly regrettable, it’s not the biggest story here. Instead, the core issue is the question of how the Bahamas and also the entire Caribbean should be developing new places and healing old ones. But before that, here are some really important things to know about Schooner Bay:

   Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, partners in business and in life, are the founding partners of DPZ and are widely regarded as the best planners alive on earth today. They are also co-founders of a worldwide movement known as the New Urbanism that seeks to build places that are compact, mixed-use, walkable, and sustainable, like our old towns and cities originally were. Andrés designed Schooner Bay with partner-in-charge Galina Tachieva and senior project manager Xavier Iglesias and an all-star supporting cast (plus me).

   Many of you know me, but for Bahamians I may not have met yet, I’m the author of the book A Living Tradition [Architecture of the Bahamas], which was born out of my long love affair with Bahamian architecture; I’m now completing the second edition, which should be out by Easter. I have worked as a consultant with DPZ on countless projects over the past fifteen years, but of all those new towns and neighborhoods, I have long regarded three as the very most important: Southlands in Canada, Sky in the US, and Schooner Bay. The reasons for Schooner Bay’s inclusion in the top three are many, only a few of which I’ll mention here.

A Bahamian Town

local school band marching through the streets of Schooner Bay on a sunny spring day on south Abaco, Bahamas

Schooner Bay in happier days

   When Canadian, US, or British developers or those further abroad think of developing in the Bahamas, their default model is the resort, but the Bahamas and the Caribbean are littered with the bones of dead resorts. Few resorts last even 50 years, and some fail much sooner, but Bahamian and Caribbean towns, on the other hand, usually last for centuries. DPZ designed Schooner Bay to be a Bahamian town where some of the houses are occupied by people on vacation, like Dunmore Town on Harbour Island, but where all of the businesses are run by Bahamians and many of the homes are occupied by Bahamians.

A Sustainable Town

lushly planted dunescape curves to the horizon at Schooner Bay in the Bahamas

Schooner Bay’s lush and carefully planted
dune is an important part of the resilience
of the town in a storm.

   Schooner Bay is designed to do so many things sustainably that this blog post couldn’t possibly describe them all, but it’s an important enough story that I’ve been blogging about it for years: The Schooner Bay Miracle tells why the place survived Hurricane Irene with hardly a scratch because of its hurricane-strong design. The Ecological Dividend lays out many benefits that accrue with time. Unfortunately, most developers do not practice patient place-making, and miss almost all of these benefits because almost everything in accepted development practice today stacks the deck against patience. All readers of this blog know that the first foundation of a sustainable place is that it must be a nourishable place, and Schooner Bay was designed to do ocean and farm to table as well as any place… at least until the foreign investor cut off the water to the farm last month. Today, there is a great rebuilding challenge in the southern Bahamas and all around the Caribbean, and the region sorely needs a great model, which is something Schooner Bay could have been and still can be.

A Diverse Town

young Bahamian boy caught aloft in mid-stride at Schooner Bay

Schooner Bay was designed as a place for all Bahamians.

   Most places built today have a very narrow range of home values, and are terribly boring as a result. Great New Urbanist places aspire to a range of values of at least 5:1 and sometimes as much as 15:1. Schooner Bay was designed to have an amazing value range of 40:1, which would make it much like Harbour Island, where Bahamians of all walks of life and foreign billionaires live just around the corner from each other. This makes a place not only far more interesting because of its diversity, but also far more resilient because neighbors can pull together after a storm much better if they have a great diversity of skills and resources. Harbour Island is a world-class model of how existing places can do this; Schooner Bay could be a world-class example of how new places could do this as well.

Bahamian Scale

Schooner Bay cottages overlooking the seawall on the harbour island

cottages on the harbour island

   This may sound superficial at first, but please hear me out: one of the great architecture mistakes foreign developers make in the Bahamas is building both homes and businesses to the scale of Dallas, Atlanta, or Orlando. In doing so, they make places that are totally out of scale with the Bahamas, and feel foreign and imported. People don’t come from Dallas to the Bahamas to experience a place that feels just like Dallas; they come for the Bahamas. A nation such as the Bahamas where tourism is the biggest industry should be very careful that both homes and businesses are built to Bahamian scale, like Schooner Bay was explicitly designed to be. Otherwise, visitors may decide to stay home next year.

A Town at the Crossroads

   Four years ago, Schooner Bay's foreign investor David Huber terminated the role of Bahamian Town Founder Orjan Lindroth at Schooner Bay, as I later described in Schooner Bay at the Crossroads. I might have met Mr. Huber a time or two years ago although I don’t recall for sure, but certainly can’t say that I really know the man or his explicit motives. Some motives, however, are fairly apparent and all of them appear to go back to a fundamental misunderstanding of what Schooner Bay was meant to be. Mr. Huber, an American tech and communications entrepreneur with a checquered track record according to the Washington Post, clearly thinks Schooner Bay should be a resort, whereas it was designed to be a town instead. Every move Huber has made makes some sense for a resort, but are senseless for a town.

   The good news is that very little damage has been done to the town plan in the past four years because only one building has been started in that time, and it wasn’t even completed when I was there mid-summer. All other changes are small and easily reversible. And for the good of everyone involved, it is time for that reversal to begin.

   For Mr. Huber, I can’t imagine how much money he has lost with the place lying stagnant for four years, but that sum is likely dwarfed by his lost opportunity cost of time spent on a faraway real estate venture which is obviously not his passion, nor his expertise. I don’t see how Schooner Bay could be anything more than a distraction to him. I can’t imagine anyone on earth who would be more relieved for a transfer of ownership at Schooner Bay than Mr. Huber.

   The homeowners and business owners at Schooner Bay would likely be almost as happy, as their investments that have lain dormant for these four years could spring back to life again as townbuilding begins anew. And there would be many benfits for neighbors around south Abaco as Schooner Bay grows into the town it was always meant to be, beginning with bringing the farm back to the Crown land, so south Abaco could benefit from having a local source of fresh food again.

   The biggest beneficiary, however, would be the Bahamas as a nation. As Schooner Bay fully became what it was always meant to be, a shining village on the harbour serving as a world-class model of building sustainably in the tropics and sub-tropics, many would come from around the world to see the principles and practices of building sustainably laid out so clearly in one place. And the Bahamas could take on the mantle of underpinning and nurturing world-class models of sustainability at a time they are so sorely needed.

   It is high time to get back to the tough but noble work of town-building at Schooner Bay. Everyone involved needs for this to happen. Soon.

   ~Steve Mouzon

PS: Here’s Andrés Duany’s poetic take on the earth, air, fire, and water of Schooner Bay.


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© Stephen A. Mouzon 2018