Las Catalinas

A Costa Rica Beach Town

Places of Inspiration for Las Catalinas

February 2, 2010 by 2 Comments

This is my stream-of-consciousness account of some of the places that have been most influential from my personal point of view in the creation of our vision for Las Catalinas. Pictures of all these places can be found here:

Las Catalinas Inspirations – from Charles’ perspective.

For me there is a very literal history of inspiration for Las Catalinas. It begins with my frustration with the beach vacation experiences that were available for me and my family. We love Seaside in Florida. It is a new resort town built on purpose over the last 25 years. The experience that it offers of a lively, beautiful, pedestrian-friendly, village-scale seaside town is for us vastly preferable to any big resort hotel experience, no matter how luxurious. And it is vastly preferable to the experience that we might have in any big house off on its own, no matter how grand. No question. Hands down. End of story.

But, the climate of Seaside is a problem – it is too cold in the winter, even too cold at spring break really, and too hot in the summer. And there isn’t really much in the way of interesting nature there. Nor is there a different (at least from my point of view), interesting culture to experience. And when I really want a nice warm beach experience the most is in the winter – Seaside sure can’t provide that. So that was frustrating!

So what about the tropics? Well, we just couldn’t find anything like the Seaside experience in the new world tropics. There are some beautiful resort developments like Papagayo, but after a short while they just seem pretty lifeless and dull. And there are some fun, lively beach towns like Tamarindo, but they are typically not beautiful at all, and a little too grungy, and not quite what we want either.

On separate but converging track, there was my long time fascination with the hilltowns and beach towns of the Mediterranean. My first chance to explore them came on a long trip with my schoolmates the summer after I graduated from high school. I have been hooked ever since. As far as I am concerned the hilltowns of the Mediterranean are the most beautiful, magical places that man has ever built. What is so extraordinary about the beauty isn’t just the man-made part, or just the natural setting. It is the combination – a finely crafted, compact town that doesn’t detract from the beauty of its surroundings – it adds to it! Has anyone ever in history thought that the town of Positano detracts from the beauty of the Amalfi coast? I doubt it! It multiplies the beauty! It is a vision of man and nature in harmony. But the magic isn’t just the beauty; it is the experience that these places can provide.

Largely because of my own frustration about having the right place to vacation with my family and the feeling that there must be a number of other people with a similar frustration, I began a search for a place to build a beautiful, compact, lively beach town somewhere in the western hemisphere tropics. Stuart Meddin soon joined in the search with me. It took a couple of years to find the right place. But when I was introduced to Las Catalinas – with its fantastic hills, views, and beaches – the merger of my mission to build a beautiful beach town and my lifelong fascination with hilltowns was instantaneous and complete.

As we began to work on plans for Las Catalinas, one more source of inspiration rose to prominence. That is the wonderful craftsmanship, workmanship, and architectural details of Central America. In places like Casco Viejo in Panama, Antigua in Guatemala, and even close at hand in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, we have found great inspiration in the beautiful lime stucco finishes, the stone work, the iron work, the wood work, the tile work, the details.

So, that is the story of the original inspiration behind Las Catalinas. Many people have contributed already to this vision, and many more will do so as we continue to build the town. The vision and the place will evolve together, each learning from the other. And so it should be, and so it has always been with the great, lovable towns of the world.


The Places

This is a list of some of the places that for me personally have been most important in providing lessons, good examples, and inspiration for Las Catalinas. Other members of our team certainly have their own, different lists!

In the US

Seaside, Florida – is the place where the idea of building a town, instead of a subdivision or a "project", was reborn (at least in the USA) after a gap of a few decades. It is certainly one of the places that have provided the most inspiration for Las Catalinas. Seaside demonstrated quite profoundly that it is possible to build a town, on purpose, even in the modern day, and that if you do it well people will love it! Some other lessons:

  • The joy of walking – The most profound thing about Seaside, by far, is that walking (or bike riding) is so tempting and useful and full of joy. Why?
    • There are lots of different places to go – two different pool areas, the beach, a playground, the shops and restaurants in the center, Ruskin Place, etc.
    • It is compact – nothing is too far away.
    • The streets are wonderfully "calmed". Although cars are allowed, it is clear that the streets are "owned" by the pedestrians and cyclists. It feels safe to walk there.
    • The town is architecturally interesting – it is fun to look at.
    • It is sociable – there are other people out and about and it is a friendly atmosphere.
    • The scale – Seaside buildings are two to three stories tall, with no one building too large. It feels great. (Actually a more recent building that is a bit more massive on the main square feels out of palace to me, and reconfirms how "right" the original scale of Seaside was.)
    • The benefits of frugality – Seaside was developed on a very tight budget. The original commercial spaces were in very inexpensive temporary buildings. And many of them still are! This frugality is, I think, part of why Seaside turned out so well. Big hunks of money, spent all at once, just seem to be empirically incompatible with creating loveable places.
    • Welcoming visitors – Seaside on its own could not support even a small fraction of the shops and restaurant s that are there today. It serves as "the town" for people from the whole area, and that is part of what makes it so much fun to be living there.
    • The advantage of being a resort town – Seaside really drives home the lesson that in terms of creating a lively scene in town, one person on vacation is equal to several people in normal work-a-day life. This will be a big advantage for us in the resort town of Las Catalinas as well.

Rosemary Beach, Florida – Rosemary is just eight miles down the beach from Seaside, and its development followed Seaside’s by several years. It is also a very appealing place, and reconfirms many of the lessons of Seaside. Special lessons from here include:

  • The East Green and especially the West Green are spectacularly successful public spaces – very beautiful and extremely well-loved and well-used. Essentially everything about their design is worthy of note – especially the dimensions and the way the buildings enclose the space on three sides.
  • Modest neighorhood pools in various places are very successful. They are nice looking, but don’t have any major "clubhouse" type buildings that go with them. They do effectively use garden walls and gates. It all works nicely, without unnecessary expense.

Charleston, South Carolina – Charleston is of course a very famous and well loved example of great old buildings and urbanism. Stuart Meddin grew up there, and I have visited many times. There is much to learn here, but for us one lesson stands out above all others, and that is the common and effective use of the "Charleston side yard house". Privacy, ventilation in a sometimes sultry climate, and a beautiful yet compact private garden – all these things can be nicely provided by the Charleston side-yard house and we are using a modification of the type liberally in Las Catalinas.

The Bay Area, California – I lived in the Bay Area for several years and it provides some nice examples of what is from our point of view the right way to do hillside development. (Unfortunately, it provides plenty of bad examples as well…) Good examples are found in the Berkeley Hills, the pedestrian only streets of Telegraph Hill, and elsewhere. One particularly nice example is Corinthian Island in Tiburon. Here there are narrow streets, effective terracing, cool little stair streets, clever little perched platforms to allow some car parking, and great views all around.

Carmel, California – Carmel is a very major tourist destination, with something like 2 million visitors per year (I can’t confirm that statistic, have it in my head somehow…). Yet there are no large hotels there. There are lots of small to mid-sized hotels. That is the main lesson I take from Carmel – that a resort town is better off with lots of small hotels and inns, rather than one or a few big dominant ones. This is certainly the lesson from towns all over Europe. But it is nice to see it confirmed stateside, in a relatively recently developed resort town (Carmel was founded in 1902).

Glenwood Park, Atlanta, Georgia – is the new neighborhood where I have led the development since its beginning in 2001. Some of the main lessons I have taken from Glenwood Park include:

  • The tremendous benefits of using discreet, individually designed buildings, each one of modest scale rather than overly large buildings or overly repetitive "design it once, build it twelve times" buildings. We did this at Glenwood Park, and it seems to happen very rarely elsewhere in recent development. I think it is the single most important thing that makes Glenwood Park feel so much better than most of those other places.
  • The best public spaces don’t need to be overly large – our Brasfield Square is a modest sized square but well-loved and successful in its role as the most important public space in Glenwood Park.
  • You have to sweat the details. If you don’t all kinds of bad things will happen when the construction starts. Utility meters will sprout from the sidewalk right in front of an important building facade. The alley will drain to the side instead of the center. Etc., etc.
  • You can and should hire great designers, but the developers have to be passionately committed to getting the design right too. Because no one else is going to know as much, or care as much, about what is being created in your particular place.


Pienza, Italy – I had the good fortune of visiting here on a study trip with a group from the Seaside Pienza institute in 2002. Pienza is a beautiful little hilltop town in the Val d’Orcia, and there are several other interesting towns in close striking distance such as Montalcino and Montepulciano. I loved it! Some of the observations that have stuck with me from this trip are:

  • How wonderful and enjoyable the pedestrian-only streets in these towns can be.
  • How even a small number of cars can destroy the good ambiance on these narrow streets.
  • A view is much more magical when well framed, and sometimes just a peak of a view can be even more wonderful than a wide-open obvious one.
  • The importance of scale, how wonderfully "right" the human-scaled dimensions of these places feel.
  • The beauty of a compact, walkable town in the landscape – in this case the agricultural lands of the Val d’Orcia.

Eze, France – a small "perched village" near Nice on the French Riviera, is the first hilltown I got a chance to visit after we bought Las Catalinas. We bought Las Catalinas in August of 2006, and I visited Eze, Cap Ferrat, and the Cinque Terre, and some other nearby places in September of that year. Eze was the first stop on the trip, so it was a real stunner for me! The magic of the way the slope can open up views, bring light into what would otherwise be claustrophobically narrow streets, and allow every residence both great views and near total privacy hit me right between the eyes in Eze. It was so exciting! The weather was awful, but I treasure the pictures anyway.

Cap Ferrat – is a peninsula near Eze with a nice small harbour town (St. Jean Cap Ferrat), and beautiful collection of old and new estates around it on the hills. St. Jean Cap Ferrat is where I wrote "the rules of hill towns" on the paper place mat under my pizza one night. What is notable about Cap Ferrat’s estates is that they really do feel like "estates" but the lots are not that big – probably not much different on average than the normal suburban quarter to half acre. But through the use of terraces, the slope of the land, and garden walls, they achieve great privacy and beauty. They are estates!

Cinque Terre, Italy – the five small towns of the Cinque Terre are all car-free or nearly so. They have been very much "discovered" as a tourist destination in recent years. The main activity for many visitors is hiking from town to town – they are only a mile or so apart on average. And walking from town to town is the best way to really absorb what for me is the main lesson of the Cinque Terre, which is how wonderfully a compact jewel of a seaside town can enhance the beauty of an already beautiful natural landscape.

Amalfi Coast, Italy – I have never been there but seemingly everyone else on our team has talked to me about it so much that I feel like I have! Incredibly steep hillside leading down the ocean offer dramatic views for nearly everyone. The Amalfi, and especially the town of Positano, offers great inspiration on the drama and beauty that a hillside town on a beautiful coast can deliver. That much I can say just from seeing the pictures!

Ronda, Spain – Ronda is a hilltown that is one of the "Pueblos Blancos" in the hills southeast of Sevilla in Spain. Bob Davey, Douglas Duany and I made our way there on a trip to study Spanish hilltowns in the fall of 2007. Though we went to many great towns on this trip, Ronda was spectacular and pretty much stole the show. It seemed like every lesson we needed for hilltown design was there within a single quarter-mile radius.

  • Side Yard Gardens – Old Ronda has beautiful views in nearly all directions. The town plan frequently uses side-yard gardens to open a view for the houses on the other side of the street. This is not a technique that one sees much of in many other hill towns. It has become an absolute staple of Las Catalinas planning.
  • Use of the above-head-height garden wall on the side yard gardens. It provides privacy, yet keeps things compact. And a wonderful gesture frequently practiced in Ronda is to provide the passersby a little peak into garden…
  • One side of town is on a cliff face, and there they have "sharpened the edge" of that cliff (by building it up vertically) to make a wonderful and dramatic edge for a plaza and some of the houses’ back yards.
  • The some of the best spots for views are given over to public space, and some to private buildings in a nice balance.
  • Great use of the "flat terrace meeting the sloping street" technique.
  • Beautifully crafted details in the paving, walls, fountains, etc.
  • A very appealing scale of two and three story buildings (that pretty much convinced me that Las Catalinas should be two and three stories, not three and four).

Zermatt, Switzerland – Zermatt is a fairly large, completely car free town in the Swiss Alps. With over 5,000 full time residents and several times that many people in town during peak seasons, it is a pretty substantial place with thriving resort-based economy. Based on my visit and conversations there in the summer of 2009, the no-car thing just is not perceived as a problem in the least! Visitors park their cars, if they have them, several miles down valley and take a train up to town. Residents can park on the edge of town, but their cars do not enter town. Within the town there are electric taxis available to transport people, baggage, etc. Many buildings are located on stair-streets quite a distance from where even these electric carts can reach. Truly the only way to deliver things there is to carry them! Once again, I was sort of floored by how practical and wonderful a car-free town can be.

Venice, Italy – Venice is the largest city I know of with no cars at all. Of course it has canals and boats that do many of the things that cars do in other cities. Still the absence of motorized vehicles on the street is very profound, and for me inspirational. It has helped inspire my aspirations to keep motorized vehicle use at a minimum in Las Catalinas. My last visit was in 2003. That is before Las Catalinas came along in my life, but well after I had begun my career in developing walkable places. So I was paying attention!

Tropical Americas

Puerto Vallarta area in Mexico – Stuart Meddin, Bob Davey and I took a study trip here in late 2006 and found lots to admire in the hillside vacation houses south of town.

  • Outdoor living -some of the resort houses we saw had all the living areas 100% open air, without walls in some cases!
  • Dealing with steep hillsides – when we made this visit we were still getting our bearings as to "how steep is too steep to build on". The Conchas Chinas section south of Puerto Vallarta has a great mix of single family and multi-family homes on very steep terrain that helped boost our confidence about successfully dealing with steep slopes.

Guanacaste – There are not a lot of urban planning examples that we have found to take from Guanacaste – nearly all the towns are built on flat land with regular rectangular street patterns that just don’t apply to us on our terrain. But there some good sources of learning and inspiration for us.

  • The local stone is used nicely in walls and floors.
  • Many houses are very well adapted for outdoor living – both older traditional housing and some of the newer resort housing. We have been very impressed with how comfortable fresh-air living can be even in the heat of the day – if a house is properly designed to do it well! If it isn’t designed right – forget it!
  • The simple, exposed wooden rafter roof structure of older Guanacaste buildings is something we are adopting in many buildings.
  • Local woodwork in doors and windows can be done very well and economically.
  • Lots of examples – some good and some bad -about materials selection. Our code word for what we DON’T want is "the condo look", which is plain concrete stucco, lots of imported North American building materials, and climatically inappropriate design.
  • On the positive side there is some great use of local (or nearby in Central America) materials, many of them handcrafted and full of character.
  • There are some great gardens – with a tremendous variety of fascinating local plants.
  • There are some examples of well-done estate houses located above the rocky cliffs of the coast, particularly in Flamingo.

Antigua, Guatemala – has been a huge source of inspiration for us. Many members of our team have visited, including a December 2008 trip by Bob Davey, Stuart Meddin and me. The inspiration is not so much in terms of the urban form, because the houses typically sort of turn their backs on the street leading to some pretty bleak streetscapes. What are inspirational are the architectural details and especially the finishes.

  • Lime-based paint and stucco is used extensively and it is absolutely wonderful. It is a key element in our Las Catalinas palate of materials.
  • Great stone walls as well, and walls of mixed stone and brick.
  • Doors
  • Fountains
  • Gardens
  • Balconies and interior porches

Casco Viejo – is the old part of Panama City, Panama. There are some great details here, all adapted to a very tropical climate. Several members of our team made a study trip there in January of 2009. Our host was Ricardo Arosemena, one of the primary architects working in Las Catalinas today. Among the top sources of inspiration:

  • Balconies and French doors – I consider this the mother lode of great French door examples.
  • A variety of good looking roof materials – including barrel tile, flat tile, standing seam metal, and corrugated metal. Casco Viejo is the place that convinced me that some variety in our roof materials and colors is OK to have (as opposed to the strict uniformity of most Mediterranean hill towns, where there is one pitch, one color, and one material).

St. Barthelemy, French West Indies – I have spent a fair amount of time in St. Barths, and love it.

  • Like many (all?) of my favorite resort areas, there are no large hotels. Instead there are lots of small ones, and even more so there are lots of vacation houses for rent. I have always stayed in the houses. St. Barths has a resort economy, period. And this model where much (I’m pretty sure most) of the available guest lodging is in rental houses rather than hotels is pretty compelling!
  • The houses – though very expensive because the place is so desirable – are really very simple. And that is what makes them wonderful. Simple materials and construction. Corrugated metal roofs. "Mini-split" air conditioners.
  • The people working in St. Barth – mainly French urbanites – are chic and sexy and interesting, and are a big part of what makes the island so unique.
  • St. Barth’s great weakness is that if you want to be active there you end up driving a LOT. And it is stressful, difficult driving many times. A big problem.

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  1. I haven’t been fortunate enough to visit all of your places of inspiration but have spent a fair amount of time in Charleston, Seaside and Rosemary Beach. For me, Rosemary Beach is a home run in terms of scale, both pedestrian and architectural, as well as in detail. I find it much more interesting than Seaside, which for me is a bit too homogeneous. I find the pedestrian activity created by the retail shops and food stands along 30A the most interesting aspect of that development.

    As you mention, the challenging aspect of Las Catalinas will be addressing the terrain. However, having to work with the verticality of the terrain offers an opportunity to create really great spaces , both public and private, that can add to the charm and character of the development as well as creating vistas that can help one navigate the area. The steps and stairs that will need to be incorporated into the paths/sidewalks can make for some really interesting streetscape moments also.

    I look forward to seeing how Las Catalinas takes shape!!

    • lascatalinas says

      February 6, 2010 at 8:01 pm

      Thanks, Greg. One of the great things about my job the last three years is that I have gotten to go to all those places! Except the dern Amalfi Coast. Not sure when I’m going to make it there. As to Seaside vs. Rosemary Beach – I like Seaside better because to me it seems more fun. But I know what you are saying. I still think the whole front/back thing was a big mistake there, though.

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