River Oaks and Smart Growth

Sunday, July 8th, 2007

I oppose the proposed “mixed-use” development in Simsbury called River Oaks. I do so for various reasons. On the surface, the development looks smart and sexy, but deeper study of the system of life in the area brings to life various issues, not about building communities within communities, but how living systems extend either towards a center or out from it.

Smart Growth as an idea is pretty sound in the context of human geography and ecology. The body plays a major role in its fundamental ideas: walking, communing, and creating in scaled spaces. Smart growth is also interpretable in its concepts: how do people define, for example, open space? What open space should be preserved? How is a forest dividing line “open”? It is in this relationship that ironies typically arise that show contradictory interpretations. For example, how much distance should exist between home and work? What criteria determine ethical distances? Gas mileage?

One issue that gets in the way is the notion of suburb, an area concept that I don’t typically associate with smart growth. My image of suburbs is pretty distorted, given that suburbs are a conception of urban growth themselves via incorporation (a smaller area becoming part of a larger) or as a means of providing for expanding populations or as a collection of residential places outside of a city center but not dispossessed from that city center. “Suburbia” is an offshoot of urban growth or “sprawl,” not of urban density or systematic design. Remember ET, whose images of suburbia were “expansion” or “extension” oriented, with dominoes of houses crowding off into the landscape?

But Simsbury isn’t an extension of Hartford. Simsbury is typically identified as a suburb and I know many people in Simsbury who commute into the urban center of Hartford to work. But does this make Simsbury a suburb? I would suggest no. Simsbury typically argues a unique identity as a small New England, scenic town with a village center and residential properties that supposedly extend outward from it. The town center is a mix of commerce, communication, destination, and municipal business. This is, of course, an ideal, and has nothing to do with the reality of Simsbury as it is now laid out. Simsbury, as are most towns in the area, is a mixed bag of businesses, churches, living spaces, and condominiums that spread out from the Route 10 strip. It’s often hard to distinguish when one is in Simsbury and not somewhere else. The strip of Avon along Route 44 is what would basically characterize as a disaster of “growth.” I can’t walk from my house to the Center of Simsbury to meet with friends because Simsbury doesn’t have a center. River Oaks seeks to ameliorate this “lack of center” by building a “new” community within a 60 acre area at the Avon border that conforms to “smart growth” principles. This would simply multiply the essential asymmetry problem Simsbury already suffers.

I bring up the suburb issue only to highlight the problem of perfuming a fish. Simsbury doesn’t need a new community within a community, nor can Simsbury use an “urban” concept to redraw its center of gravity. Simsbury, Avon, and other “New England towns” need total redesign. Until people begin to think in “total redesign” terms, I want nothing to do with ventures like River Oaks. Here’s what I mean by total redesign.

In Simsbury (and in places like Canton), development needs to take on the attitude of incremental spatial redesign beginning with road design. We don’t need wider roads to handle growing traffic, we need to widen the center of the road then redesign from that consequence. (I would suggest planting trees in the center of Route 10 to complement the Sycamores along the strip from West Street to the Town Hall). The alternative would be to make Route 10 a one way Boulevard. The next step would be to consolidate and connect the minor sprawl happening on either side of the Dyno Corp facilities into a mixed use area that would offer regions that could be walked one side to the next. If this were the case, then River Oaks would fit nicely and would become an extension to the human surfaces already designed as “the town.”

Jack Kaplan writes in the Hartford Courant:

As a longtime environmental activist with the Sierra Club, my personal view is that we should support it. From a smart growth perspective, River Oaks falls far short of perfection.

Among other things, it is not served by mass transit, it is built on land that is currently open space, and the housing will probably be expensive and undesirable for families. I doubt that residents will feel any great sense of community. Plus, we all love to hate big-box stores.

If the standard is perfection, then River Oaks does not measure up.

But if the standard is – as I think it should be – whether the project reduces sprawl, then River Oaks probably deserves at least a B+. As a mixed-use development near large employment centers and along a pedestrian/bike path, it will reduce automobile traffic by allowing people to live close to their place of employment. People who work at River Oaks and nearby office buildings can, if they choose, live at River Oaks and bicycle or walk to work. They will also be within walking and bicycling distance of restaurants and stores. Some may do without cars altogether. Others will own cars but rarely use them.

I don’t think River Oaks could possible reduce traffic or reduce commuting issues. But we could manage these things better using River Oaks as a model for a larger redesign of the town.

Would this notion ever be considered?

Smile now.


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