Slowly Camp began buying up more of the housing, tearing it down and creating new apartment units. Throughout the process, he not only gave the area new living spaces, but a new life.
During the next 20 years, Camp bought and built units of all shapes and sizes.
Camp was inspired by other design work around the world, and it shows. The Cotton District has elements of Greek Revival mixed with Classical or Victorian. Many of these ideas came from Camp’s own travels to Europe and even parts of the United States.
“All these styles are compatible and work together. That’s what helps separate this area from others in the city.”
That has translated to nearly 100 percent occupancy and interest in using the Cotton District as host to tours and events.
The annual Cotton District Arts Festival now boasts as many as 10,000 attendants each year.
Camp has also gone to great expense to ensure privacy and create a small community within the heart of downtown. Dividing his lots with private alleys and streets, he has been able to get the largest number of renters while at the same time offering them privacy. Many of his properties feature private courtyards and gardens.
“People like the intimacy we can offer them compared to some of the mega-apartment complex with huge parking lots out front,” he said. “When you live in the Cotton District, you feel live you live in a neighborhood.”
While “urbanism” wasn’t yet in the vernacular of urban planners when Camp got his start, The Cotton District has become an example of the term – taking old buildings and rehabbing them for mixed use.
The area has been featured in numerous national publications, and Camp has even testified before a Congressional panel about New Urbanism. For Camp the praise is kind, but not needed. The same thing that brought him joy in the 1970s and 1980s is still giving him joy today … designing.
His latest endeavor is to build several more mixed-use buildings in the area featuring small retail spaces on the ground floor with apartment units above. He said he hopes the units will encourage students to remain in Starkville after graduation and become local entrepreneurs.
“Student support is the main reason we’ve been so successful, and I’m hoping I can encourage them to stay and open their own businesses. If I can do that, while at the same time adding some retail shops The Cotton District needs, then I’ll be happy, and I think our tenants will be, too.”
The craftsmanship on the units – custom millwork and traditional construction – is one of the hallmarks of the area. Sometimes the strong design aesthetic overshadows the affordability of units, according to Camp. ........................ “We’re not as expensive as people think we are; we just look expensive,” Camp said.
“What he is, is a clever recycler of forms and symbols that appeal to people,” said Dover. A lot of people think you have to choose between something that’s good and something that’s good for cash flow.”
The Cotton District certainly is good for cash flow. Camp estimates that he runs close to 100% occupancy. And the attention the area has received spreads throughout Starkville, according to Arma de la Cruz, vice president of tourism for the Greater Starkville Development Partnership (GSDP).
De la Cruz estimates that she organizes walking tours of the Cotton District through the GSDP one or twice a month, while Camp conducts tours of his own as well.
“The Cotton District also provides a really friendly venue for things such as the Cotton District Arts Festival and music festivals for the university,” said de la Cruz, who said more than 8,000 attended the April event last year. GSDP estimates that the one-day festival had a $250,000 economic impact on Starkville last year – a number the organizers hope goes up this year as a result of an expanded schedule. “Since this year we’re having a music fest that night, that may bring more overnights,” said de la Cruz.
The development of the Rue de la Grande Fromage should be underway by the summer and be completed in the next six months. One benefit of owning the development is that change comes on Camp’s schedule, not someone else’s.
“You can build at your leisure,” he said. “What we hope is it will be a point of destination.”
What Dover and many of his architectural colleagues can’t get over is how well the Cotton District has embodied the New Urbanism principles, laid down only a decade ago, from the area’s beginnings 30 years ago.
“The thing is that Dan has figured all this out by himself – tucked away in Starkville, Mississippi,” Dover said.
Renowned architect Andres Duany, who is credited with developing Seaside, lectured in Starkville several years ago and was amazed at what he found at the Cotton District.
"He's the most interesting story in the U.S.," Duany was quoted as saying in a 1994 issue of Builder magazine, the magazine of the National Association of Home Builders.
Camp credits the enthusiasm of the university students for the area with much of his success.
“I think they feel it’s more friendly. Unlike other places that try to get a comparable look, we have a sense of place,” he said.
Developer Credits College Students’ Enthusiasm for Much of His Success.
STARKVILLE – Developer Dan Camp continues to take the Cotton District in diverse directions, adding a row of mixed-use buildings on the new Rue de la Grande Fromage.
“We’re going to target student entrepreneurship,” said Camp. “We’re looking to encourage maybe a small used bookstore, used clothing – something of an entrepreneurial nature that students can offer.”
With retail space on the ground floor and living spaces above, Camp hopes to add a new residential option to his already eclectic development, which has attracted attention throughout the architectural community for its example of “New Urbanism” at work.
New Urbanism encourages redevelopment of urban areas through rehabbing older buildings and creating mixed-use communities that offer residents easy access to goods and services.
The thriving area has one commercial building that has already defined the kind of development Camp has in mind – the “big blue building” at the corner of University Drive and Maxwell Street houses Roxy’s, a popular student hangout, as well as other small student-oriented businesses that find their customers within walking distance of the place – or on the other two floors of apartments in the building.
But why Rue de la Grande Fromage?
“MSU is an agricultural school, right? And one of the products that they sell that is very good? Cheese!” Camp explained, noting that he’s trying to interest MSU in establishing an outlet for their popular dairy products on the street.
But Camp hopes his new street will be profitable for his student clients as well as himself. He’s pricing the prospective retail spaces to rent for $350 a month each to keep it within student budgets. And he says he’s not above making a discount or even giving away the space for a limited time if the right concept comes along.
“You think there’s anyone else around here who’ll do that?” Camp said.
Unorthodox attitudes are Camp’s stock in trade. He’s spent his career in Starkville proving that “You can’t do that!” is a foreign concept as far as the Cotton District goes. The streets began undergoing their transformation in 1969 when Camp began buying the lots and putting small cottages, patio homes and rental units up one by one, hiring local craftsmen to do the work – and doing it himself if no one else could figure out how.
Victor Dover, principle architect for Dover, Kohl, and Partners in Coral Gables, Fla., said that all the hallmarks of the New Urbanism are in the Cotton District: it’s affordable, livable and profitable.
“He’s achieving affordable housing, which is the holy grail of city planning in America today, without subsidy. He does it without the government paying part of the bill,” Dover said.
Camp presents an alternative method of achieving constant circulation. He averts the risk of creating a neighborhood with little psychosociological diversity despite the fact that the district lacks a great deal of economic diversity.
Design and Behavior
The Cotton District was built with students in mind. Interior and exterior circulation patterns demonstrate this. So too do the higher than normal density levels (over 20 dwelling units per acre) and fewer square feet per individual unit. Students and young professionals gravitate to these efficient, friendly and aesthetically pleasing designs that are geared toward their lifestyle. This observation furthered the need to explore critical questions concerning behavioral attachment and design influence. Design can influence choice, but does it have the ability to affect behavior? Is the same type of pride in one's neighborhood that the Camp family demonstrates also found in the general population, and does it translate to changes in behavior?
Many students indicated that they feel and act as if their behavior impacts their own neighborhood. They view the district as a neighborhood rather than a large housing complex. I believe that this particular neighborhood carries with it a sense of pride dictated by surroundings. It arises from the design and architecture of the district. These feelings have the power to impact behavior, and in the Cotton District they do influence behavior.
A number of well-rounded and highly successful (older) adults who also live in the Cotton District or have a second home there espoused similar views. These adults love the vitality that the students offer, but it is the quirky architecture, layout and pedestrian-conducive location that promotes the feeling that those living elsewhere in Starkville are missing out on something special. All residents seem to agree that the "student-oriented" design and resulting age diversity make the Cotton District a truly unique "functioning neighborhood."
The Economic Generator
Camp's business will not run if his obligations and duties as a landlord cease to exist. Despite the presence of a number of privately owned structures, it is rental units that make up the Cotton District's economic nervous system. These provide Camp's district with a constant economic generator. As with towns of yesteryear, Camp's approach to building is market driven. Time provides stability and allows him the opportunity to finesse certain variables. Timelines are not essential to Camp. He is surrounded by his life's work. The next project will only add another dimension to the main project.
Traditional design principles extend beyond the built environment and into Camp's philosophy on growth as a whole. He has established a situation - much like pre-automotive towns - where the next closest lot is the most logical lot for development (for any use). This is rare. Even rarer is the type of control and patience necessary to see such an approach to growth through.
Dan realized many years ago that students, faculty and certain professionals were willing to pay a little more to live in an environment that was not only conducive to their lifestyle, but also beautiful. This approach puts his buildings in high demand, constantly generating a monthly return, and allows him to have the majority of projects paid for in seven years. Two typically non-economic factors prove to be essential. Design influences both demand and price point, and Camp is able to foster a design advantage because of his accumulated knowledge in many building related activities. He knows how and where to be creative so as to cut overall costs. The money that is saved is devoted to design. Eventually it is returned in the form of higher payments from higher price points than those found in the surrounding market.
The "All-American" Ideals of an Authoritarian
My impressions of the "district as a whole" are vast. The related and intrinsic elements that are often relevant to forming such impressions almost always trace their genesis to some aspect of the Camps' private life. Their actions stimulate or suppress how life in the Cotton District will initially function. They are running a business; therefore they have years of experience in gaining customer allegiance. They are quite realistic as to what living with students constitutes. This fact is critical to the district forming its own character and becoming a "functioning neighborhood."
In recent years the Cotton District has garnered the attention of a number of professionals and media outlets working in fields related to planning and architecture. Often, those expressing initial interest find it necessary or beneficial to make a personal pilgrimage to visit this atypical neighborhood. In return, both the Cotton District and Dan Camp have received national acclaim.
I have completed an internship in which I lived with, worked and studied under Camp at the Cotton District in Starkville, Miss. As a result of my own visits and studies, I became interested in a concept I deemed the "functioning of a neighborhood" - true diversity of daily routines. I chose to focus my attention on the potential impact that planning and architecture might have on this concept. If a casual relationship between the two existed, then I felt the Cotton District had the potential to demonstrate it.
The Great Conflict
Many older neighborhoods and newer subdivisions are considered to be works in progress. So too is the Cotton District. Yet, it has more in common with the former than the latter, as progress here entails transforming a conventional subdivision into a multifaceted functioning neighborhood. The Cotton District neighborhood appears to be a bastion of American civic life, and may very well be. Its slow transformation from residential neighborhood to mixed-use institution or town (in function, not incorporation) certainly resembles the pre-sprawl growth patterns of yesteryear. On the surface, the potential town seems the perfect throwback to the way things were. Herein lies the great conflict. Everything related to the beautiful exterior is really the creation of one man. In essence the idyllic all-American town is actually a privately owned real estate (rental) business.
Dan Camp, the man behind the operation, is every bit the determinist planner, authoritarian ruler and successful capitalist. The real Cotton District is by definition a capitalist success story. Yet, it took determinist planning and authoritarian rule in the presence of a larger democratic government to create this façade. Camp is the ultimate capitalist. He uses authoritarian rule as a means for creating his "all American" neighborhood that, through its very existence, scoffs at many federal and local government regulations that promote a type of development not adhered to in the Cotton District. In so doing, Camp exposes the fact that many of these land-use "regulations" disregard true democracy and purist notions of freedom from government regulation. One is left to question whether or not the ideal American town-building model is still realistic, or whether it now requires overwhelming private control and determinism to counteract an equally laden and burdensome system of government regulation, codes and zoning. There are a number of new urban projects underway that will either provide answers or change many of the "regulations" in the process of attempting to find answers.
Pride of Ownership
Quite often, Camp and his family perform the same tasks as his workers, yet the family views the entire district as their home. Though family members are aware of the outside attention given to the Cotton District, this is not their motivating factor. The pride that the family displays is not atypical of ownership, especially home ownership. Because they view the entire district as their home, Camp and his family apply this attitude to the neighborhood. Conversely, the attitude that the majority of Camp's workers conveyed was no different from that found at many construction sites. They lacked this "ownership connection." While they displayed individual pride in their work, the fact that it occurred in the Cotton District seemed to have little impact.
Design and Age Diversity
The cotton District is a mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood in which structures demonstrate a variety of architectural styles and types. Diversity takes on an added dimension because of the large student population and students' varied routines. Students' interests, routines, and levels of spontaneity are in constant flux. A neighborhood containing a large student population will have more diversity (daily routines of its inhabitants) than a neighborhood void of such a population. In the Cotton District I found age rather than income to be more critical to obtaining a psychosociologically diverse neighborhood. "Economic diversity" does not necessarily result in true neighborhood diversity and the typical day of the $180,000 household is often not that different from that of the $1.4 million household, in terms of the 9 to 5 routine. By incorporating a student population,
Lesson 4: Have fun with it. There's a simple word that comes to mind when thinking of the Cotton District: joy. Oftentimes we fill hundreds of pages of books with theories, postulations and rationalizations for what we do. But, how often do we say, "I just did that because it makes me smile, and makes other people smile as well?" The Cotton District, and Dan Camp's approach to neighborhood-building, can't help but make you smile.
Lesson 5: Sometimes the best regulation is no regulation. The world tends to be subdivided into people who respond to carrots and people who respond to sticks. Why not craft regulations and public processes that deal appropriately with both, rather than giving everyone the stick treatment? In the Cotton District, Dan enjoys a unique relationship with the folks at City Hall; one that would make most of us envious. Very often this means building without even having plans. It might mean simply doing what he knows is right, and not waiting for bureaucratic approval. That approach is sure to send shivers down the spines of municipal officials everywhere - especially the ones who require developers to have every conceivable detail drawn before any aspect of a site can be disturbed. And yet, in the Cotton District in Starkville, Miss., it works. If we truly want to create more great places (especially ones that are accessible to the general public), we will need to find ways to trust people, in ways that will make us nervous. But life is full of pleasant surprises, when people are actually treated like adults.
Lesson 6: Take your inspiration from great places. Dan first started in the Cotton District after being inspired by Alexandria, Va., and its wonderful historic fabric. His fascination with places such as New Orleans, Rome and Charleston have led him to produce buildings of not only wide variety, but also great beauty. It's a continuing lesson for us - take inspiration from good things, not the bad. Industrial processes may be scientific fascinations, but beautiful places they do not make.
Lesson 7: Treat people with great respect. In every aspect of his business, whether it's building, designing, sales, marketing or maintenance, Dan believes in treating people as a gentleman. It sounds trite and over-simplistic, but doing unto others as they would unto you truly does pay dividends. And the beauty of it is, it's not a difficult thing to do.
So what else to say about the Cotton District and Dan Camp? Very simple, how do we make more? How do we create a world where there is a Dan Camp in every town? As the new urbanism matures, and becomes the plaything of nationals and multinationals, let's not forget about little Starkville, Miss. The Cotton District truly embodies the notion that small increments of great quality and joy, built over a number of decades, may produce the most satisfying places of all.
If you're in doubt of what to do, just do it. Don't ask someone if it's OK. That, among many others, is a bit of wisdom from Dan Camp - the iconoclast builder/ developer/ designer/ entrepreneur from Starkville, Miss. It's difficult to even begin to write about Dan's many accomplishments, let alone critique them. Trained as an industrial arts teacher, Dan is a self-proclaimed member of the "unwashed" amongst the architectural crowd. Without the burden of an architectural education, and all the philosophical confusion that goes with it, Dan set about building the Cotton District in 1972. He had none of the baggage of obscure French philosophers or anti-human avant-garde architecture. Instead, he simply wanted to make a better mousetrap, and make some money doing it. Thirty years later, he's built a magical place that offers incredible lessons not only for new urbanists, but also for society at large.
Lesson 1: Love your craft. It's not enough for Dan and crew to simply build with durable, long-lasting, beautiful materials. No, they take it one impressive step further and make many of their own building elements. From windows to bricks, moldings to columns, Dan fabricates some or all of these for his projects. Most importantly, though, is that it's done with an obvious love of the craft itself. Dan speaks of dormers as if they are fine pieces of furniture. Gutters are not utilitarian - they are works of art. Newel posts are aligned in the finest Southern tradition. We should all enjoy our labors so much.
Lesson 2: Build for the long-term. From the beginning, Dan took the approach that this endeavor was a marathon, not a sprint. He started with his worst land, as any smart developer does, and saved the best for later on. He very admittedly was looking for a way to make some money. The path, however, was through owning income-producing property, not the all-too-common build it and flip it technique. In fact, the only property he sold was a money loser to the tune of $250,000. Now the banks bid for the rights to lend him money.
Lesson 3: Use creativity to achieve livable higher density. It would be an understatement to say that Dan has created some of the most unique small-residence solutions in America. From the 14- by 22-foot Dixie playhouses to the 16- by 20- foot cottage with a sleeping loft, these apartments are little jewels unto themselves. The easy thing would be to say, "well, it's a college town; of course he can get away with tiny, unique units." However, anyone who has experienced the depressing monotony of typical "student housing" would be wise to question that assumption. In fact, the easy thing is to simply throw up any cheap, utilitarian structure, as it is surely guaranteed to be rented. Camp's whimsical, creative residences (built at 28 units to the acre) shows us that even the beer-drinking, 3 a.m. partying, American college student can enjoy the benefits of traditional architecture and urbanism.
compounds, organized collections of buildings. One is reminded of the blocks of colonial Philadelphia or Charleston, where the grand mansions hugged the block edges while servants' quarters, kitchens, workshops and stables formed midblock compounds of cottages and outbuildings. The Cotton District has a similar juxtaposition of building sizes and character. Small but dignified dwellings are integrated among large ones and yet there is a surprising sense of privacy. In this respect the Cotton District can be compared to George Holt's eccentric Tulley Alley in Charleston - another case of maverick builder adding pieces incrementally and holding the property for its long-term value. Camp persuaded the city of Starkville to assign PUD status for just 1 acre, which allowed him to outflank the usual setbacks and other zoning complications.
The Cotton District has homespun street spaces, not just homespun buildings. There is no single universal pavement or curb detail or dimension applied throughout, but rather a big quilt of changing brick patterns, street widths, terraced sidewalks, garden walls and fences. Along the streets, most of the buildings align not to a single build-to-line, but in site-to-site customized positions, dodging trees. The adjustments are slight but deliberate. The combined result feels personal and authentic.
The architecture of the Cotton District is traditional folk art and has always irked the architecture school people who consider it subversive. The language is comfortable and familiar, but not corny. Camp bends tradition as it suits him, cheerfully filtering his experiences in New Orleans and Europe into new buildings. Duany compares his napkin sketches of elevations to naïve American drawings by 18th century planters. The outcomes tend to prove how robust the language of traditional architecture actually is. Despite the fact that so many parts are a little bit off - headers above windows seem short, proportions stretched and squashed, ornaments oversized or undersized, porches so shallow, and so on - the whole is still charming. The Starkville tourism folks say the Cotton District is the most photographed historic area in town, which is astonishing only when you realize that the buildings being photographed are almost all less than 20 years old.
To pull off the small-is-beautiful vision his way and on a budget, Camp is almost certainly doing things that conventional building codes in the big cities won't permit. A number of the cottages have wood post foundations - copied from a long-lasting kind he found in historical Mississippi examples. Camp tells of how his traffic details were determined by whether his elderly mother could navigate them in her big car. Stairs and doorways are narrow, clearances are tight, but it's all seemingly workable.
Above all else, craftsmanship flourishes in the Cotton District. Operating out of a workshop shed behind his house, Camp has alternated between building his own windows, from scratch, and modifying store-bought ones. If he can't buy what he needs, he builds it or reconstructs it, and reuses everything. Naturally he maintains that he does it all for practical reasons, having been landlord over much of the property for long enough to see cheaper fixtures wear out. The craftsmanship extends to finishes too. His crew works tint into the stucco, to get the watercolor tones. He disdains putting control joints in the stucco. Instead he deliberately lets it crack, and then the patching and retouching gives his walls their hand-worked character. He mixes marble dust into the cast concrete steps to make them shine like stone.
The humbler early buildings in the District contrast with the newer ones, which, while still tiny, are fitted with more decoration. Camp has begun experimenting with increasingly elaborate ornament, including more sculpture, more mouldings and tassles, and one wonders if he's trying to provoke the architecture people anew or just trying to prove he can figure out ways to build stuff. Good for him either way.
America Needs More of This
The struggling neighborhood flanking the old Sanders Mill in Starkville was once called "Needmore." Dan Camp was exactly what it needed more of. Now is there a way America can get 10,000 more Cotton Districts, 10,000 more Dan Camps?
Like it's maker, Dan Camp's Cotton District is folksy, amiably rebellious, and practical. It teaches. It's humble and gregarious and full of stories. It works hard and has a sense of humor.
The Cotton District disproves many myths and proves new truths, in its business model, in the evolving design of the neighborhood, and in the architecture. A tour of this little, six-block area would be useful for every American town official, planner and developer.
Dan Camp was practicing new urbanism for at least 20 years before new urbanism had a name, and he is an idealistic fellow. But he is also a bottom-line businessman. He is self-trained and self made, having grown wealthy (anyone who gets to live in a house that nice should consider himself wealthy) by building well. And what did he build? Affordable housing without a government subsidy. Many people think it can't be done in modern times, but there it sits, beautifully.
He reinvented the rental housing biz in Starkville, dropping the distinction between developer, property manager, architect and contractor, preferring to do it all himself. In the process he confirmed an alternative model for delivering a traditional neighborhood development. Camp says his real estate business is "not about location, location, location - it's about cash-flow, cash-flow, cash-flow." Fulfilling the new urbanists' emphasis on infill and redevelopment, he went to work on a part of town other investors had neglected or abandoned, and he made money doing it.
The Cotton District story ought to be looked upon as an economic overhaul, not just a physical one. Camp saw the match between his market and his vision - drawing in many college students, the "last great pedestrian population" as tenants - and prove that design matters more than size. His cottages and apartments are reasonably priced at least in part because they are petite; the tenants pay for dignity and charm, not square footage.
He's built out the Cotton District in small increments over a long period of time, sustainably adding more investment each year to what had been started in 1968. Much of the construction has been done by residents of the old community, recruited by Camp himself for training in building trades. Gradually the District grew more diverse and more mixed-use; his recent District Exchange building integrates more business into the mix. (An homage website points out that the District Exchange "ad campaign" consists of the Common Ground coffee shop's $2 open/closed sign.)
Experience has taught the new urbanist to be suspicious of any situation in which one landlord owns and designs and controls everything. Walter Kulash has warned us about what he calls "the cold, dead hand of common management." But the Cotton District proves a shiny exception to that rule. It's not boring or homogenized or static or corporate at all. I think this is partly because Camp has built out the quarter slowly, pondering each piece, even changing his mind now and then and rebuilding. He's also combined new construction and adaptive reuse (sometimes gently, sometimes thankfully not) within the same blocks, in the way traditional cities always have. He approached the larger project as a collection of smaller buildings, each whole in its design. The Cotton District is the opposite of a megacomplex broken down into little facades to simulate incremental construction; it's real.
Renters and owners are close neighbors here. Overall there is a remarkably high density (one acre has 28 units) but you'd never know it, largely because the parking is cleverly dispersed and screened. The street scene is quiet and green.
During one of my visits, I watched a workman who was very meticulously building a staircase on one of the "Four Apostles" cottages. After a while he explained that he was being extra careful because he "was going to have to look at it when it's done." He wasn't kidding: He lived in the row house across the street. Carpenters share the neighborhood with well-scrubbed college kids and people of independent means. This livable density and economic mix has been accomplished in a way that can easily confound purists. Camp refuses to be restricted to the conventional relationship of one-building-on-a-lot; blocks in the District are more like
locate in the immediate vicinity. Designing in small spaces has allowed me to explore the development of small cottages for the student market. The typical cottage will have between 300 to 500 square feet. It has been necessary over the years to facilitate construction of certain millwork for the cottages and other structures in an on-site shop. French doors, curve top windows, wood molding, dormers, wood siding and door transoms made in that shop have given me great flexibility in my designs. Lightweight concrete has been used in casting our own column caps, bases and window treatments, along with real concrete stucco for walls.
It must be noted that, even with the redevelopment of the neighborhood, we have those residents who continue to live in the area; they did not sell, but chose to stay and become a part of the new emerging neighborhood. The future looks promising for the next five to 10 years for continued construction on Holtsinger Street and nearby University Drive.
Presentations are still made to the Planning Commission and the Board of Alderman for setbacks and lot variances. However, it becomes easier and easier each time, as the true feeling and beauty of the area have become evident.
Project Name: Cotton District
Location: Starkville, Mississippi
Designer: Dan Camp
Architect: Dan Camp
Developer: Dan Camp
Design Date: 1969 - present
Construction Begun: 1969
Status (Design, under construction, etc.): Approximately 210 units completed to date; construction is ongoing
Site Area (acres): N/A
Project Construction Cost (total): N/A
Residential (no. of units):
Live/Work Units: 10 (5 work units)
Residential Price Range (Initial Target):
1969: $115 per month; 2002: same apartment $575 per month
Current Range: $300 - $1,200 per month
Commercial: Retail: 5,000 sq. ft. (six different spaces)
Commercial Price Range: $1 per square foot per month, $12 per square foot per year
In 1967, when the Urban Renewel Laws were adopted by the city of Starkville, Miss., the small neighborhood located between Mississippi State University and downtown Starkville was designated the Urban Renewal Area. This part of Starkville became very important in 1926 when the Sanders family built a cotton mill. Tenant housing was provided for the workers by the cotton mill. These houses were small, one room wide, several rooms deep, on small 25 by 100 feet lots. Schools, shops, churches and rail facilities were located in the area when the cotton mill was in full production. The cotton mill stopped production in 1964 after having scaled back in the early 1950's. By the mid 1960's, most of the tenant housing was in a state of despair. However, when the urban renewal lines were drawn, a small part of the cotton mill tenements on Lummus Drive and Holtsinger Street were left out of the redevelopment plans.
I became interested in acquiring property for student housing in 1969 and started plans for a small, eight-unit group of townhouses. Alexandria, Va; Vicksburg, Miss. and New Orleans, La., were drawn upon for their historical architecture styles in designing this first group of small townhouses. The location for these townhouses was to be on Lummus Drive. (Most folks, when asked about this location, thought it unwise.)
After successfully completing the first units, I began to purchase other property on Lummus Drive, each piece offering a different problem. In most cases, the lots were too small for anything more than a single family dwelling.
It became necessary for each piece of property to be carried to the Planning Commission so that the square footage requirements of the lots could be relaxed. Over the years, it became common for me to appear before the Board of Alderman and Planning Commission on a regular basis. Interestingly, it was stated by several members of the Board of Alderman, as long as I stayed in the area, they would allow for variances.
Over the years, as I added new buildings to the neighborhood, it gave the area a unique appearance in regard to the rest of the community, and the demand from professionals to live on Lummus Drive increased. To give the neighborhood a feeling of permanence, I designed a patio home group that sold out quickly, each lot being only 30 by 36 feet. This grouping was done through a planned unit development with the covenants allowing commercial activity on the first floor, and living spaces above.
With the density increasing on Lummus Drive, Holtsinger and Maxwell streets, we had restaurants, beauty salons and quick-stops to
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."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 651.503.6304.
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?"
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.
Decked out in his usual attire of gray sweatshirt, gray shorts, jogging shoes, and khaki baseball cap, the bearded Camp recalls, "Everybody thought I was the town fool, but I knew I needed a better mousetrap."
The vision of the better mousetrap came while Camp was studying for his doctorate at North Carolina State. He saw former President Andrew Johnson's historic 18-by-22 foot cottage.
"I suspected that most Americans lived in that type of environment then, so I came home with the idea that those types of dwellings would be an excellent way to build things and offer them to students," Camp remembers.
And so his venture began.
Financing was a constant worry until he met Joel Clements, a Starkville banker who is now CEO of First State Bank in Waynesboro, in 1983. "Dan had begun to build his own little empire, but he needed to restructure his credit," Clements recalls. "We began a system for him to determine how much he had in each project, which enabled him to keep a sound cash flow."
Obviously it worked, and today, despite his Waynesboro location, Clements continues to provide a sizable amount of financing to Camp's expanding development, which has an estimated value of $10 million.
That loyalty to Clements demonstrates an underlying characteristic of Dan Camp, as does his attention to detail. During Clements' Starkville tenure, the bank changed the methodology of computing the interest rate on real estate loans. The next day, Camp stormed in demanding to know why he was being charged an extra 37 cents per week in interest. As Clements says, "That's Dan."
His intelligence and breadth of knowledge lead Camp's friends to describe him as a "Renaissance Man." Anything from the life span of pecan trees (400-500 years) to a quick summary of European history always seems to be on the tip of his tongue.
He has fought his share of battles along the way, but Camp admits that at the age of 59, he may be mellowing. Perhaps 15 years on the Starkville School Board have made him more tolerant.
He thrives on the excitement of discussing his ideas with others whose ideas are as distinct as his, whether they agree with him or not. In fact, he says that he expects friends to disagree--and argue their case--with the new ideas and wide-ranging knowledge that flow from Camp like water from one of his beloved fountains.
His most recent idea, the new building towering above heavily-traveled University Avenue, houses District Salon, Common Ground coffee shop, The Chocolate Giraffe bakery and bistro, and an interior design business called Abodes on the bottom floor, with apartments on its top two floors. With its comparatively massive size, cobalt blue color, Byzantine architecture, and three statues on the crown, the structure is hard for passersby to miss. The Cotton District sign that hangs from the center balcony of the building lets visitors know exactly where they are, but the gated courtyards and shaded alleyways that hide behind this regal facade still leave some of the quaint charm of the neighborhood for those who take the time to search it out.
Starkville's charming Cotton District is full of surprises, from gated courtyards to towering Charleston-like facades, all buried within a ten-block area of this north Mississippi university town.
Until recently, a stranger searching for the Cotton District in Starkville has always had to seek detailed directions. The easy-to-find change came when Dan Camp the community visionary, opened up his European-styled three-story building fronting on University Avenue between Mississippi State University and downtown Starkville. Previously, Camp was content for the ten-block Cotton District to be hidden from the casual passerby.
The once obscure Cotton District has attracted nationwide acclaim and is one of the most charming areas in the state. The architectural styles include New Orleans, Savannah, Charleston, and Byzantine, and the buildings are crowded together on narrow streets. Colorful facades, beautiful landscaping, fountains, courtyards hidden behind graceful gates, and brick-paved walkways are all things visitors will find if they take the time to explore this little area on foot. The narrow streets intentionally encourage walking and discourage driving. Parking is either in back of the units or on the sides, hidden behind the prolific landscaping.
John McRae has been dean of Mississippi State's School of Architecture for 14 years and is a great admirer of Camp's style. "I always take visitors there because it's definitely the nicest neighborhood of that type and scale in the community," McRae says. "The spacing between the buildings and around the buildings takes as much value as the buildings themselves."
Camp expounds on that. "What we've ended up doing is creating a neighborhood that's a very walkable neighborhood built to human scale," Camp says.
The 190 units include duplexes, four-plexes, and town houses and are occupied mainly by students and young professionals. There are also cottages; some have even less than 300 square feet.
A student who recently completed an area apartment rental survey said that the monthly rates of $295 to $800, depending on size and amenities, are premium charges. She also observed that the District "...never sleeps." According to Camp, the District runs close to 100% occupancy.
John Bean has recently renewed his lease on the Cotton District Grill, located in the heart of the area (he admits that a stranger couldn't find it). He explains the District's popularity this way: "Dan has put a product out there that students want. There's a certain 'hipness' to living in the District." The popular Grill has doubled its business in the ten years of Bean's operation.
Camp's achievement in developing the District has been described by one of his bankers as "miraculous."
It all started in the late 60s when Camp was on the faculty of MSU and spotted the woebegone area that had housed cotton mill workers since the turn of the century. The mill had gone under, and the housing had become a slum area, but Camp saw the value of the property's location between downtown and the campus. He began buying the 5,000 square foot lots.
Marilyn Avery, Winter 2000
understands that small towns rarely draw the interest of world-renown designers. In fact, Camp was recently nominated for a prestigious national architectural design award and is now proud to be the first nonarchitect to be recommended for the honor.
The ideal neighborhood must be in an area with low land costs that are projected to remain low in the foreseeable future; at the same time, the neighborhood must be located close to a target rental market.
When Camp began his neighborhood renovation in 1969, the Cotton District was filled with dilapidated mill housing. A four-block area encompassed several tiny, inexpensive houses as well as several vacant lots that could be purchased for $3,000. The town was experiencing no development pressure or competition for land. And Mississippi State University was less than two miles away and provided a continuing source of renters in the form of students.
Small units are more profitable because they can sustain a higher monthly rent per square foot.
The Cotton District’s apartment units are modestly sized but generous with respect to charm and amenities. While floor plans can be as small as 400 square feet, all units feature soaring ceilings, sleeping lofts with undereave storage, porches or courtyards, dishwashers, and stacking washer-dryer units. The monthly rent per unit is the same as in the rest of the market, even though the Cotton District’s units are on average 30 percent smaller. They are ideal for students and young professionals who prefer to allocate their monthly rental budget to smaller, better-equipped space in a unique environment. In addition, Camp assembles some small units into larger buildings that look more like historic mansions than affordable housing.
The neighborhood developer should be willing to postpone profit taking and keep credit to a minimum.
Camp’s first Cotton District building had six units. It provided Camp with supplemental income and funds to develop the next property. By 1972, Camp had acquired 16 units and enough monthly rental income to quit his teaching job at the university. He lived frugally (in a dilapidated shack known affectionately as “the snake pit”) and reinvested all profits. Credit was kept to a minimum; no capital partners were needed. Camp set his own schedule and developed what his funds allowed.
In 1986, Camp developed a small PUD of for-sale rowhouses to add some stability to the local residential base and to increase overall neighborhood value. Even though he stretched his resources and had moments of doubt, he finished Planter’s Row and did in fact increase the value of the neighborhood.
In 1991, Camp purchased a small restaurant in the neighborhood. Revamping its menu to appeal to the university crowd, the Grill immediately became the neighborhood social center. Over the past five years, the overall neighborhood has continued to mature and to escalate in value. Camp is currently building the District Exchange, a 2,500-square foot commercial center for local residents with apartment units above the retail space. Camp is seeking retailers who will stay open 24 hours a day to serve the student population.
Dan Camp is living the ideal life of the developer who builds for the joy of expression and who is committed to the long tradition of historic craftsmanship. He currently owns 150 rental units as well as the 2,500 square feet of commercial rental space. He has ten apartment unit under construction and plans to build another 3,000 square feet of commercial space in the near future. The years of commitment mean that Camp can enjoy his success. Looking for inspiration, he travels, reads, and sketches and builds progressively more expressive and exuberant buildings. He experiments freely and lives with his successes and learns from his mistakes. He is leaving a legacy that will endure far into the future. For some, it just can’t get any better.
By incorporating high-quality urbanism and distinctive architecture, one independent-minded developer transformed an entire Mississippi neighborhood.
A neighborhood in Starkville, Mississippi, has undergone a transforming rebirth. Not exactly a redevelopment, the transformation more closely resembles a renovation. In the same way a homeowner would renovate a beloved yet decrepit home, the Starkville neighborhood renovation unfolded slowly, thoughtfully, and incrementally. What was once a place of decay and neglect is now a profitable and unique historic residential district. Yet, historic as it may look, Starkville was built during the last 30 years by one independent-minded developer.
Dan Camp is the builder who has made renovation of his neighborhood, the Cotton District, his life’s work. He has hand-built a rich variety of charming buildings that generate steady monthly revenues while growing in value every year. At the same time, Camp has created a development model that is applicable to neighborhoods throughout the country, although it is not for all developers. However, for developers who share Camp’s skills and operate in areas with similar land costs, the model offers a strategy that can be deeply satisfying and highly profitable. How did camp succeed?
Neighborhood renovation requires a committed developer who undertakes the enterprise for long-term personal satisfaction and long-term profit.
Dan Camp’s commitment to the Cotton District was the key to his success. He moved into the neighborhood in 1969 with the intention of redeveloping the neighborhood to the extent feasible. At the time, Camp’s friends and family thought his idea was ill-advised, but Camp had a vision for what he could accomplish over time and how the properties and the neighborhood would grow in value as the years went by. He developed his properties as rental units and maintained ownership of the buildings. Had Camp sold out five or even ten years after beginning to redevelop the Cotton District (if he could find a buyer), most naysayers would have smugly concurred with one another that, in fact, Camp’s idea had been misguided at best. But Camp took the long view and adopted a long-term strategy. He persevered and succeeded.
Camp’s commitment to the cotton district continues to this day. He employs a full-time maintenance crew to keep the neighborhood free of litter and deteriorated finishes. He rigorously maintains the landscaping and public areas. Anyone in the neighborhood can call him about anything and know that he will respond immediately. He is at home in and in charge of the place he created.
The neighborhood developer should have the artist’s appreciation for beauty and the craftsman’s ability to produce it.
Camp’s interest in architecture and urbanism grew out of his own travels. He developed an understanding that certain places are more beautiful than others. Beautiful places showcase finely detailed buildings that delight the eye. Beautiful places are characterized by shady courtyards and brick pathways lined with flowering hedges. Beautiful places involve both sides of the street in an urban dialogue with one another. Beautiful places convey a sense of history. After spending time in beautiful places such as Savannah, Natchez, Charlestown, and Williamsburg, Camp decided to build such a place. A master builder in every sense of the word, Camp understands wood and stucco and knows what his tools can do. He takes intrinsic enjoyment from building windows, doors, moldings, and finishes that recall the most memorable places he has visited. He has the woodworker’s ability to see a cornice treatment while walking down a New Orleans street and then replicating it from memory in his shop. He makes accurate observations about the materials, proportions, and layouts of neighborhoods that he loves, recreating them in the Cotton District. Commitment to high-quality urbanism and architecture has earned the Cotton District much acclaim. Even in small-town Mississippi, Camp hosts some of the world’s most famous architects who come to admire his work. He enjoys exchanging ideas with them and
A non-conformist Mississippi developer with that many innovative ideas, and the willingness to implement them, is certain to have ruffled some feathers. Currently, his biggest cross to bear is with of all people --Mississippi State University
officials. He doesn't understand their unwillingness to release a list of their alumni to the local chamber of commerce to use for recruiting retirees. "Does that make sense to you?" Camp asks incredulously.
He said his biggest difficulty in forming the Cotton District has been getting city officials to do what's necessary for the development, but he said Mayor Mack Rutledge has been helpful.
A question to the mayor about the city's relationship with Camp is greeted with a long silence, then..... "Well, the very nature of his development implies a tremendous requirement for infrastructure, especially for water, sewer, and electrical services in a very concentrated area," the mayor said.
"Unfortunately some parts of it are built on extremely ancient infrastructure development so that it's prone to various kinds of interruptions. When Mr. Camp has a problem, he feels that it's very important that it be taken care of promptly and sometimes we have difficulty meeting his expectations."
Rutledge is emphatic about the benefits of the Cotton District to the city aside from the substantial increase in assessed valuation. "Well, it serves a wonderful purpose in providing housing for those who are not interested in maintenance and prefer coziness and living near the MSU campus," he said. "I'm proud of the favorable publicity ifs brought to the city."
East Mississippi Lumber Company gave Camp much-needed credit in his early days and has been one of his major construction suppliers. Needless to say, Andy Gaston, the president of the company, is a fan of the Cotton District.
"Dan knows what he wants and he's very definitive," Gaston said. "He can be difficult to deal with, but we've enjoyed our relationship with Dan. Because of his personality, Starkville has only realized the Cotton District, but never recognized it."
With all that non-conformity and new ideas, it comes as a surprise when a visitor learns that Camp is in his 14th year on the Starkville School Board, and will serve his third term as president next year (it rotates every five years).
Starkville superintendent of schools Dr. Larry Box said Camp "has been an excellent school board member, is businesslike in his approach and faithful in his attendance."
"He wants the school district to be unique by broadening the curriculum and being innovative," Box said. He cites as examples Camp's supporting the creation of a high school orchestra and his strong support of an environmental study project with the Noxubee Wildlife Refuge.
"The reason it works out with the school board is that we understand Dan and remain factual in our discussions, sometimes on very sensitive issues," Box said. "He'll make some (confrontational) statements, but we know that's Dan and we end up working it out."
Camp contends that the Starkville school system is the best in the state despite its accreditation level three ranking, and points out that 60% of the students are under the free lunch program, yet 83% of the graduates go on to college.
As for further changes, Camp believes the Cotton District may have reached its limits, and he admits to mellowing as the years go by --he's even considering joining the Starkville Area Chamber of Commerce.
Now, there's another new idea that will join the many others dancing around tn Camp's always active mind.
STARKVILLE -- One good look at Dan Camp and you know he's a non-conformist, and probably has unusual ideas. His business card says he's a "Community Visionary." Some community leaders are wary of him.
His balding head is covered by a khaki baseball cap, his face has a graying beard bespeaking his 59 years and he's clad in a blue tee shirt and khaki shorts. His customary conveyance is a golf cart that sits in front of his small two-room office on a narrow street in his beloved 10-block "Cotton District" in Starkville.
Camp got the unusual idea for the Cotton District in the late 1960s while teaching teachers how to teach shop at Mississippi State. The stock market had been good to him, but he was attracted to real estate, specifically a blighted, rundown area just west of the campus that had previously housed workers for the nearby defunct Sanders Cotton Mill. He began buying the 5,000-square-feet lots.
"Everybody said I was the town fool," Camp recalled, "but I knew I needed a better mousetrap."
He had seen former President Andrew Johnson's historic 16-by-18-foot cottage while studying for his doctorate at North Carolina State in Raleigh. "I suspected that most Americans lived in that type of environment then, so I came home with the idea that those types of dwellings would be an excellent way to build things and offer them to students," Camp remembers.
So in 1969, he began building four-plexes on the lots and renting them to students and young professionals. He used a variety of architectural styles including some of New Orleans, Savannah and Charleston and interspersed the area with statuaries, courtyards and fountains. He employs about 30 people, including his 18- and 15-year-old sons, and is obviously an equal opportunity employer -- Annie Higgins, his top assistant and manager of properties, is African-American, and all-business.
There are periodic "classes" for the employees where discussions will be about ideas, history, philosophy and even registering to vote. "I want people working for me who understand words and express new ideas." But he always gets around to telling them what he wants accomplished and how it's to be done, even when the plans may be drawn on a paper napkin.
Those different ideas have added up. Today the Cotton District has an intermix of 175 duplexes, four-plexes, town houses and cottages that range in monthly rent from $295 to $800, depending on size, location and amenities. Camp figures, that conservatively, the area is worth about $10 million.
"What we've ended up doing is creating a neighborhood that's a very walkable neighborhood, a neighborhood that is built to human scale, a neighborhood that defies all Southern building codes in regard to closeness of the street, the narrow streets, the sidewalks, the placement of the house according to the human scale," he goes on. "And don't think that's not important because we run close to 100% occupancy here."
Camp said the Cotton District is the most toured and most photographed area of Starkville (he credits the Convention & Visitors Council for that). However, until recently, it has been hidden from casual view due to its location.
A prominent three-story comer building painted blue -- on University Drive has changed that. Containing a coffee house ("Common Ground"), a beauty salon and retail space on the ground floor plus two floors of apartments, Camp expects it to attract all manner of activities including sales kiosks and music and craft shows when the lull load of students return to campus.
Camp and his crews are typical of the detail that goes into each project. A new $300,000 four-plex is under renovation and scheduled to open this month. All totaled, Camp now rents more than 130 properties throughout the Cotton District. Owner-occupied properties, which range from 900 square feet to 2,100 square feet sell for $70,000 to $130,000. Rental properties range in size from just a few hundred square feet for a converted garage apartment that may rent for $250 per month, to a two-room, two bath in a duplex that rents for $750. And even at those rates, Camp has no problem renting the properties to the nearby student population. It is a far cry from the $3,000 and less Camp originally paid for some of the property.
"The college is the engine here that drives everything in the neighborhood,' Camp said. "What I've done here is the new direction for real estate development.
You're going to see more and more and more of what I've done here."
What Camp began creating many years ago out of a simple dream and his love for traditional architecture, has since been given the name New Urbanism or Traditional Neighborhood Design, and is being replicated throughout the country.
One of the most famous examples of New Urbanism is Seaside, Fla., although dozens of examples now exist. With New Urbanism, architects, using elements of style and design, attempt to create a closeknit neighborhood with eclectic architectural styles and an emphasis on public and private places.
The Cotton District, with cobblestone alleys and walkways, porches, balconies and courtyards and meticulously-landscaped grounds, pulls people outdoors and creates a greater sense of community.
Renowned architect Andres Duany, who is credited with developing Seaside, lectured in Starkville several years ago and was amazed at what he found at the Cotton District.
"He's the most interesting story in the U.S.," Duany was quoted as saying in a 1994 issue of Builder magazine, the magazine of the National Association of Home Builders.
Camp, who criticizes many New Urbanists for being "more interested in philosophy and pontificating" than actually doing, now travels the country talking about the Cotton District. He said more people outside Mississippi are probably aware of the Cotton District than people in his own Starkville.
It was the witnessing of the Cotton District that gave leaders in Tupelo hope that a blighted downtown neighborhood could be saved, said Kelly Cofer, vice president for CEI, a real estate development company in Tupelo.
"We were excited about our downtown project before we even knew about Dan Camp or the Cotton District," Cofer said. "But when we went in and saw what he did it just overwhelmed us. It made it possible to visualize our end products."
Cofer, Camp and others are now hoping to take some of those elements that have turned the Cotton District into one of the most sought-after properties and do the same in an area of Tupelo where Camp grew up. As for the Cotton District, Camp is now hoping to develop a 24-hour commercial district with a grocery store and other retail shops.
STARKVILLE -- "We do it all. We don't allow anybody to come in and do anything. They'd probably screw it up."
For those who know Starkville builder and developer Dan Camp, those words have an instant familiarity. Not knowing this outspoken, in-your-face 57-year-old, those words speak volumes.
And what his words and his pet project -- the Cotton District -- might not expose about this businessman, his calling card does. It reads, quite simply: The Cotton District, Dan Camp, Community Visionary.
"What I'm doing right here is making this the best damn street in Mississippi," Camp said, as he sits behind a small cluttered desk exhibiting slides that reveal the transformation the once blighted Cotton District has undergone.
Once a collection of row houses and shanties, the neighborhood existed on the edges of Mississippi State University and housed workers for the nearby cotton mill until the late 1950s.
Camp has done more than just redevelop one street. He has single-handedly turned around -- one building, flower bed and handmade fountain or French door, at a time -- one of Starkville's less sightly neighborhoods. It has become the happening place to live for affluent college students and young professionals, said Joel Clements, executive vice president for National Bank of Commerce.
"It is a Renaissance of sorts, unmatched in the state of Mississippi," said Clements, who has been one of Camp's bankers for 14 years. Clements should know -- he has lived in the Cotton District for three years, in a section of the neighborhood called Planters Row, a collection of 28 Charlestonian-style townhomes situated on just one acre of land.
"It's a great area and we've enjoyed being there. It's 25 years into it and it's just the beginning," Clements said.
Born in Baton Rouge but raised in Mississippi, Camp said he discovered early on an affinity for designing and building. Early projects included houses carved from discarded appliance boxes and a 12foot wood and fiberglass cabin cruiser, which he began designing at age 13 but didn't launch until he was 17.
That ability as a teenager to stay focused on such a project would later prove valuable as an adult, Camp said. "My family has lots of tenacity," he said.
Camp studied industrial arts at MSU and graduated in 1962. After a short stint as a shop teacher for the Vicksburg school district, Camp returned to Starkville in 1967 to teach blueprint reading, drafting and shop and he has never left, even when some probably wished he would, he jokingly said.
In fact, since he started this venture in 1969 with his first property -- eight, one bedroom units in a two-story, wood-clapboard structure --Camp has redeveloped dozens of properties within six blocks.
Recent projects include a group of homes called the Seven Sisters, named after seven women in his family. The handcrafted shutters, dormers, balconies, railing and trim moldings made by
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): "Zoning is my most interesting success," Camp says. Over the years, he has received variances allowing 10-foot front setbacks and a density of up to 29 units an acre. The Starkville planning commission also agreed to approve a planned unit development on a far smaller site than usual. Camp now owns about 10 acres. Although his relationship with the city hash 't always been smooth, local building director Larry Bell sounds genuinely approving when he says of Camp, "He's done a fantastic job with a Fun-down area."
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Features like this brick passage between buildings have caught the attention of neotraditionalists. Camp made a presentation at the first Congress for the New Urbanism in 1993.
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Camp, a native of Tupelo whose business card describes him as a "community visionary, "says he became intrigued by the architecture of Vicksburg, where he once lived. And for the future? "I am fixing to do a 24-hour commercial zone, "he says. His idea, if he can get another zoning variance, is to redo an existing commercial street with new shops and apartments above them--and street vendors. "It would be a place that would benefit the students," he says.
Cotton mills started going up in Starkville, Mississippi, at the turn of the century and prospered until the 1950s. But by the 1960s, the failing remaining mill had been bought by the university and the surrounding area declared "blighted" for federal urban renewal purposes. By a fluke, says Dan Camp, part of the district was left out of the renewal area boundaries. Camp, an assistant professor of industrial education at Mississippi State University, was looking for land on which to build student rental housing and bought three lots. That was the start of the ongoing transformation of the Cotton District. Starkville, which is about 150 miles from Birmingham, has a permanent population of about 18,000, plus 15,000 students.
ILLUSTRATION: In the last two decades, Camp has created some 135 rental units in buildings like these on Holtsinger.
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Bit by bit, Camp is creating a new neighborhood. The cottages, duplexes, and fourplexes revive many elements of traditional southern architecture; including the two-story porches on the buildings he calls "The Four Apostles." Camp has trained local workers to duplicate many of the details.
Other models include a two-bedroom "patio" home with a separate one-bedroom carriage house that sits on a 30-by-34 foot lot and sells for $75,000, and a 16-by-24-foot, one-bedroom cottage. "No marketing consultant would ever suggest a 395-foot townhouse," says New Jersey architect Jim Constantine, "but it's fabulous. You can't prove a lot of what he's doing would work on paper, but it works."
Which is one reason for his sudden popularity with folks like Looney and Duany, who "discovered" Camp during a visit to MSU.
Another reason, says Camp, is that "I've been doing it a lot longer than [Duany] has and without any association with him. I'm creating the neighborhood everybody else is trying to re-create."
But what's really neat is that Camp does everything himself. I mean everything. He won't use an architect ("I don't even ask their opinion"), a marketing consultant ("Our homes sell themselves"), or a land planner ("I have confidence in myself"). He even uses a '56 Chrysler (his mother's) to figure out house spacing, alley widths, and parking needs.
Camp designs his own bricks (manufactured in Columbus, Miss.) for his alleys, which are patterned after a famous Colonial backway in downtown Philadelphia. And he runs an on-site shop that turns out first-class cypress wood shutters, windows, French doors, and millwork. "I'm one of the few community visionaries who makes things happen with no help from anyone," he says. (A man with a soft southern accent and a Ph.D. in industrial education, Camp claims that he built a 12-foot cabin cruiser at age 14.)
Of course, one reason that Camp can do what he does is that he builds on cheap land with labor cheap enough to let him construct dormers on the ground and then hoist them in place with a crane. It also helps that the local building inspectors are amiable enough to let him build from thumbnail sketches on the backs of napkins. ("If you have the design in your head and can relate it to your people, you don't need blueprints," he says.)
Such factors, however, make it hard to see how Camp could survive in a heavily regulated market. In fact, although his vacancies are near zero, it's not entirely clear that he makes money in Starkville. Camp, who got rich playing the stock market, hints that he builds for love. Others aren't so sure. "I think it's so good that he doesn't want to let the cat out of the bag," says Looney.
Dan Camp has been working on renewing a slum district, called the Cotton District, in Starkville, MS. Since 1969, Camp has built approximately 10 houses per year using no site plan, and his attention to scale and detail is well-known by urban planners around the US. Camp's homes have charm and his alleys are lined in bricks that he himself designs. University students rent his townhomes or cottages in this custom-made neighborhood that has gained national attention.
Meet Dan Camp, community visionary. For the past 25 years, Camp has been quietly turning a Starkville, Miss., slum into one of the most talked about "traditional new towns" in the country.
The "town" is called the Cotton District, an old urban renewal area that sits between Mississippi State University and downtown Starkville (population 18,000). Camp buys land, and designs and builds about 10 houses a year with a $1 million line of credit from a local bank. The result: a hand-made neighborhood where kids can play kick-the-can and university students can rent charming cottages and genteel townhomes.
Since Camp stunned an audience of urban planners in Washingtozn, D.C., last year with a slide show of his work, a steady stream of planners and architects has journeyed to Starkville to view the Cotton District and come away awed. "He's the most interesting story in the U.S." says Andres Duany, the famous Seaside, Fla., developer.
"He has an innate ability to conceive appropriate scale and detail and another innate ability to implement it," says Carson Looney, who designed Harbor Town, Memphis' traditional new town. "He has a unique combination of vision and common sense that lets him see the big picture without losing sight of the details." . Camp doesn't work from a site plan, and his designs are a home-brewed gumbo of Southern architectural traditions. Like porches and shallow set-backs gleaned from New Orleans. Or cottage houses from Vicksburg, Miss., and Raleigh, N.C., not to mention an ample dose of his own imagination. ............................................... One townhouse, for example, has 395 square feet of living space, but boasts 20-foot ceilings, a sleeping loft, built-in chests, and ceramic-tile kitchen floors. (Including land, production costs about $100 a square foot.) While that sounds high, the 53-year-old self-taught builder says, "They're so hot, we can't finish them before people move in."
Marilyn Avery, JUNE 1995
The main public space in Planter's Row is a narrow brick-paved thoroughfare defined by zero-lot-line townhouses. The house feature the distinctive millwork and wood detailing found throughout the district. Rather than renting out the houses, Camp sold them in order to nurture a sense of permanence in the neighborhood. Currently, Camp owns 125 units, with rents ranging from $285 per month for a studio to $535 per month for a two-bedroom with a study. The rents are not subsidized by any government program.
Camp's approach to the development of the Cotton District has been intuitive and personal. He loves woodworking and building. He admires traditional architecture and has spent countless hours studying and sketching traditional architecture in historic neighborhoods in Vicksburg, Savannah, New Orleans, Alexandria, Natchez, and small Southern towns. On the urban level, he studies historic street detailing and how buildings, fences, walls, and landscaping define urban spaces. On the architectural level, he notes housing types and residential forms. On the level of detailing, he sketches and reproduces in his workshop the simple and ornate millwork that he observes on historic architecture.
Camp's process is as straightforward as he is. He begins by sketching each project, striving "to enhance the street with the look of the building." He keeps voluminous sketchbooks filled with rough, information-rich drawings of buildings and details he has seen, as well as his own conceptual sketches. With "a basic plan and an elevation or two," he runs his ideas by Larry Bell, the head of the Starkville Building Department. After answering any questions Bell may have, Camp receives his permit. Construction generally begins immediately. The foundation and rough framing are completed by a subcontractor and the finish carpentry and detailing are done by Camp and his crews. The entire process takes three to four months.
A Strategy for Placemaking
Central to Camp's success is his use of small, affordable apartments grouped within commodious residential building types - mansions, rowhouses, sideyard houses, and courtyard houses - and outbuildings. The use of larger residential typologies gives the units a dignity they could not sustain alone. The design of small spaces endowed with well-crafted detailing is not unlike the division into apartments of once elegant, single family urban residences. His use of simple floor plans, based on traditional architecture, and the compact size of the apartments serve to keep construction costs low. Exterior balconies and porches maximize habitable space.
The traditional urbanism that guides Camp's approach maximizes the district's livability, and the density of the development increases its profitability. He has concentrated his buildings in areas where he can control both sides of the street to ensure spatial definition. Further, he inserts mews whenever possible to create an intimate scale for the neighborhood's public and semipublic spaces.
A Model Placemaker
With his focus on small-scale, incremental intervention, Camp's strategy for placemaking has intriguing implications for the development of affordable housing for single individuals, special populations, and people in need of transitional housing. Camp has chosen to rent his units to college students, a group that as high turnover rates and low incomes - characteristics shared by the populations hardest hit by the affordable housing shortage. Camp's rigorous maintenance program is a substantial part of his strategy to ensure the value of the housing and the livability of the neighborhood.
Most zoning laws preclude the use of the elements that give the Cotton District its visual impact; zero-lot-line development and units with minimal square footage are illegal in most urban areas. However, many cities are now using overlay zoning as a tool to revitalized selected areas, and codes are being rewritten to encourage compact urbanism.
Like any good model, the principles guiding the development of the Cotton District suggest one way, but not the only way, to increase affordable housing stock, restore urban fabric, revitalize neighborhoods, and create better places to live.
The Cotton District of Starkville, Mississippi, appears to be a historic neighborhood with its combination of traditional architecture and finely grained urbanism - the kind of neighborhood where wealthy families tend to reside over many generations. But the Cotton District is less than 25 years old and contains housing that is not only beautiful, but affordable. And the whole area was actually designed and built by one person: Dan Camp, a former shop teacher with a personal interest in architecture and urban design.
Taking his inspiration from historic towns in the South, Camp has produced small apartments, assembled into a variety of housing types, using local labor, local materials, and handcrafted millwork. In the Cotton District, brick, wood, and stucco houses, all with the proportions and the aged patina of historic homes, line shady streets. Each door, window, fence, and gate is elegantly crafted with wood detailing evocative of buildings found in Savannah, Alexandria, and Charleston. Flowering bushes and neatly trimmed hedges border small manicured lawns. Pedestrian walkways connect an assortment of public and semipublic spaces and lead to narrow streets. Residents walk slowly and talk to each other on the street.
Camp has single-handedly transformed the Cotton District , one property at a time, into an identifiable place. And his efforts have not gone unnoticed. Among advocates of the New Urbanism, Camp has many admirers. While lecturing at the Starkville campus of Mississippi State University, architect and urban planner Andres Duany saw camp's "historic neighborhood" and invited him to present it at the first congress for New Urbanism in 1993 (P/A, Dec. 1993, p.36). Camp was well received at the conference, which was dominated by projects in early stages of development.
A native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Camp studied industrial arts at the University in Starkville, graduating in 1962. After teaching industrial education in Vicksburg for two years, he came back to Starkville in 1967 as an assistant professor and taught blueprint reading, drafting, and shop classes. In 1969, he went into the development business, building his first apartment house in the Cotton District.
His first building was a two-story, wood-clapboard structure containing eight residential units. He had made some money in the stock market and used the profit to buy a lot in a blighted area of Starkville. Adjacent to a former cotton mill, the neighborhood included primarily low-cost worker housing when the mill was in operation. After the mill closed in the 1950's, the area deteriorated and property values plummeted. When Camp began working here in 1969, he saw potential in the low land costs (housing on 45' x 90' lots were selling for $3,000 or less) combined with the proximity to the university, half a mile away.
His plan was to build an apartment house and rent out the units to students. To secure the mortgage financing, Camp "put a spit-shine" on his shoes and took the local savings-and-loan board to the site. Despite the existing conditions and against conventional judgment, the board members approved the mortgage, with the contingency that Camp find construction financing. He got the money he needed and the building came in on budget. He rented out the units to students and put the profits into the construction of his second project.
By 1972, Camp had built a total of 16 rental units. His net income from the units was higher than his salary from the university, so he left his teaching position and began working as a full-time, independent contractor. Using his own plans, Camp built houses for himself, for clients, and on spec in and around Starkville. His primary interest, however, continued to be his Cotton District properties. With the completion of more housing came appreciation for the implications of the placement of the buildings relative to each other, and Camp began to focus his attention on the design of urban spaces. Spanning an entire block and conceived as a historic street, "Planter's Row" is his largest single effort to date. Begun in 1986, it required a minimum lot size variance from the town's PUD Ordinance, which allowed greater densities than the town's zoning laws. Camp's reputation for development high-quality projects was well-established by his time, so the variance was quickly granted.