Floating Cities: The Last Word In Waterfront Prop

IT'S PRETTY HARD TO STUMP Norm Nixon. The Sarasota-based president of Engineering Solutions Inc. has been planning the world's first floating city for 10 years now, and there isn't a question he can't answer. This confidence is impressive, because the Freedom--a $6 billion vessel 27 times the size of the biggest passenger ship ever made--seems to face an awful array of logistical challenges. For example, if the boat is really to support 85,000 residents and visitors, what do you do with the ensuing sewage? "Simple," says Nixon, "incinerator toilets." Suppose there's a crime wave--or a hijacking? "Oh, we'll have a force of 2,400 security guards, each with a black belt in a martial art... We aren't fooling around here. If a visitor assaults a resident, they'll get a beating they won't soon forget." But how do you tell the visitors from the residents? "They'll be wearing ID tags that activate an alarm if removed. Everyone will have to carry an ID, residents included." Hmm. Freedom isn't just a giant cruise ship, is it? "What? Absolutely not!"

Developers and dreamers looking out on the vast tableau of the ocean are seeing all sorts of visions as the millennium approaches. The Japanese government, which has helped fund a three-year "Mega-Float R&D Project" to design buoyant hotels and housing complexes, sees an escape from the country's land crunch. The Pentagon pictures billion-dollar floating air bases (towed to hot spots in the event of a crisis). One corporation envisions a massive, U.S.-built ship called America World City, which could snare a share of the $50 billion conventions market by offering tax deductibility. World City's CEO, John Rogers, calls this dash toward the sea the 70 percent solution: "We've pretty much developed the 30 percent of this planet that is land mass. Now it's time to develop the 70 percent that's water."

But what if you want to create a society from scratch? Nixon insists the Freedom must be big enough to support a vibrant, tax-free economy of shipboard businesses--hence the 21,000 condos, 45,000 residents, 20,000 employees and up to 30,000 paying visitors a day (shuttled to the ship by hydrofoil and commuter aircraft buzzing on and off an airstrip). The ship would circle the globe once every two years, floating in international waters for weeks at a time off major coastal cities. The Freedom would boast a school system, a medical center, the karate-chopping police force--all funded mainly by condo and other fees. And the code of conduct will be stringent: no weapons or drugs, maybe no pornography.

But take care not to call the Freedom a utopia. "This isn't Biosphere 3, or some kind of silly social experiment," Nixon insists. To Nan Ellin, editor of a new book called "Architecture of Fear," the Freedom seems more like a logical extension of 20th-century housing patterns. "We've fled from the city to the suburbs to the gated community," she says. "A floating city is the ultimate escape in that it's ultra-exclusive and ultra-safe." Nixon has no problem with this comparison. "If you live in a fancy-lifestyle community, you've only got a guard at the front gate," he says. "On Freedom you have one at the back fence, at the window, everywhere." Some of the sea-struck pioneers seem to be looking not for a fortress with the world's largest moat, but the equivalent of an upper-crust mobile home. Says Clearwater, Fla., travel agent Laura Goodman, an early sign-up, "Freedom will be like having a condo on a beautiful beach, but the scenery will change every week."

Of course, the movie "Waterworld" was a disaster, and its budget was a mere $175 million. Will the Freedom ever float? Cruise-ship expert John Maxtone-Graham dismisses Nixon's plan as "back-of-the-envelope scribblings." But 350 pioneers like Goodman have signed up already for condos averaging $800,000. Once 2,000 buyers are on board, Nixon is sure he can take $800 million in commitments and get the funding to start building--possibly as soon as September. "Maybe he'll show us all," concedes Maxtone-Graham. Maybe his ship will come in.

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