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A Kinder, Gentler Big Box?

Simsbury Proposal Is A Mixed-Use Community, But One Component Would Be A Giant Retailer

July 23, 2006
Commentary By TOM CONDON

Most big box stores look like they were air-dropped into Sargassos of asphalt. These cavernous cubes increasingly are thought of as ugly, traffic-generating wastes of land that harm local businesses and ruin the look and feel of small towns. But if the box is tucked in among homes and offices, does it shed any of the negative baggage? Can a big box be part of an appealing mixed-use development?

These questions are raised by a highly contentious proposal for 60 acres along Route 10 in Simsbury. The issues raised here are ones we will see again, if the world energy situation begins to affect how we live.

The land in question is between the street and the Farmington River just north of the Avon line, and is now the site of a CL&P maintenance building and storage area and two cornfields.

Konover Development Corp. optioned the site two years ago. Its not clear what, or even if, there was an initial plan for the site, but opponents came to believe it would be a standard big box shopping center. A group called SHARE, Simsbury Homeowners Advocating Responsible Expansion, formed to fight it.

Here an interesting dynamic played out. Konover is headed by R. Michael Goman. Goman lives in Simsbury, is on the board of education and otherwise active in town, and has no desire to be the bad guy, to lose even if he wins.

Developers such as Konover, along with retailers and lending institutions, make up the great American postwar retail system. For a long time the system has produced nothing but the model that worked, the cookie-cutter suburban mall.

While there is much inertia in this system, Goman knew it was beginning to change, that some retailers were going into downtowns or town centers, even into multiple-story buildings. He got in touch with architect and planner Patrick L. Pinnell of East Haddam.

He was part of the group of New Urbanist designers, along with Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and others, who emerged from the Yale School of Architecture in the 1970s and preached a return to more compact, mixed-use, walkable communities.

Pinnell, who taught at Yale for years, has an impressive list of credentials, which includes work on the redesigned Fenway Park, the preservation plan for Monticello, the New Urbanist communities of Seaside, Fla., and Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Md., and the post-Katrina redesign of Waveland, Miss. He was part of the team that did the Greenberg Plan in Hartford, and is on the team designing the Storrs Center project in Mansfield.

(I hasten to disclose that Pinnell is a member of the Place Board of Contributors and a friend. I also have several friends in the SHARE group. I walk a fine line here.)

Pinnell rarely takes "greenfield" projects. This one intrigued him because he hated the willy-nilly strip-malling of nearby Route 44, and thought there was an opportunity to show how it might be done differently. He designed a mixed-use residential-commercial community called River Oaks, with streets, a mix of housing types comprising 350 units, restaurants, offices and, as critics were quick to point out, a 128,000-square-foot anchor store (possibly a Target, not yet confirmed).

Opponents see it as a wolf in sheep's clothing, still a big box hidden by some other buildings. Goman says he needs an anchor tenant to make the idea work.

The SHARE group turned out 150 people at an informal pre-application meeting of the design review board on the project in late June. SHARE's objections to the project, as stated on its website, www.sharesimsbury.com, include traffic and safety issues, degradation of the "unique character, beauty and quality of life" in Simsbury and negative effects on adjoining neighborhoods. These are all valid points. If the town could buy the land and keep the cornfields, I'd be for it.

But it's zoned industrial. There are already large Chubb and Hartford Insurance office complexes just north of the property. Something is likely to be built on this land. Why River Oaks? Pinnell says it connects, in a 10-minute walk along the rail-trail, to the Chubb and Hartford offices and their several thousand of workers. It becomes a center for this part of town. An actuary could live at River Oaks and walk to work.

To drive around this part of Avon and Simsbury is to be reminded of how much the Farmington Valley could have benefited from good regional planning. It's sprawl city. Love it or hate it, River Oaks is at least compact and organized.

One reason to consider building it is future shock. The postwar mall retail model is built upon the availability of cheap cars and cheap gas, the future of which is somewhat in question. If it collapses, if gas hits $10 a gallon, what then?

A shuttered big box in the middle of a huge parking lot has little prospect of revival if cars and trucks can't get there. Route 44 could be dead on arrival. But a big box in a mixed-use context offers the chance that other places - offices, home businesses, smaller local stores, etc. - can carry the burden until the big box property is subdivided or otherwise reused.

The Route 10 corridor is an interesting one, historically a mix of transportation (rail and canal), agriculture, manufacturing (explosives) and residential. There's a cluster of historic worker houses around the Ensign-Bickford plant near the center of town, which may suggest the kind of density the town should strive to recreate.

Whether or not it's at River Oaks - traffic may be the make-or-break issue; the numbers aren't in yet - the proposal shouldn't be viewed as just a big box. It raises issues every town ought to be thinking about.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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