River Oaks: Big Change Or Big Box?

Rick Green

September 26 2006

If somebody mentions "new urbanism" or "smart growth" again, I'm going to spit up my double cap decaf latte.

What about developers who just do the right thing - who think about traffic and congestion and the values of a community at the same time they think about lining their pockets?

Don't get me wrong. I can't wait to walk from my West Hartford home over to Blue Back Square. I'm all for junking the SUV and imploding Buckland Hills.

So I approached the Farmington Valley's latest hot button development, "River Oaks," with intrigue. It sounds like a TV mini-series, but this is way more interesting.

Here in the valley of sprawl, where they love to turn green fairways into asphalt, a mall-builder has found religion, proposing a new urbanist nirvana where people live, shop and can walk to work.

Or so it seems.

In the shadow of Heublein Tower in Simsbury, along Route 10, Konover Development Corp. is offering candy to the "smart growth" crowd.

"The view will be attractive, with small-scale buildings and an abundance of trees" emphasizing a "balanced mix of uses, with small office buildings, high-quality residential units, as well as restaurants and other retail shops and services," Konover's website tells us.

River Oaks, Konover says, "is a `smart growth' use of embedded infrastructure and the opposite of `sprawl.'"

Gosh, maybe even Al Gore will live and shop here.

Hold on, though. The project also includes a 128,000-square-foot, single-story anchor store. Outraged Simsbury citizens smell a rat and have mustered a sizable army to oppose Konover, a Farmington company led by one of their own, R. Michael Goman.

These critics say all this smart growth gobbledygook is just hiding the real mission: to plunk a "big box" store in Simsbury.

Konover says "a first-class national retailer" in an anchor store is essential to make the numbers work for this unusual project.

"Just plopping one of these things down in a field in the middle of a well-established suburb doesn't make it new urbanism," said James DeVivo, of Simsbury Homeowners Advocating Responsible Expansion. "Having a big box at the foot of Avon mountain is a sin."

There's been a lot of sinning out here. Route 44 is bursting with strip malls. The ridgetops are lined with garish mansions. And Route 10 is already clogged with condos, office parks and shops.

Project architect Patrick Pinnell - a persuasive, Yale-trained disciple of new urbanism - says River Oaks isn't perfect, but it's a fresh beginning after years of nonsensical development.

"It's a better example of how to do things," he told me. Pinnell sees employees from The Hartford, with a sprawling campus next door, shopping, eating and living at River Oaks - maybe even walking to work.

Maybe we should be praising Goman, a strip mall impresario who wants to bring suburban Connecticut into the 21st century. We're not going to change this car-and-mall culture overnight, after all.

But if Konover and Mr. Goman are really serious about showing Connecticut a different kind of development, they will come back with a plan without a mega-store.

I'm glad the mall-and-more-concrete crowd is rethinking things. But giving the Farmington Valley another big box isn't progress. It's old-fashioned dumb.

Rick Green's column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. He can be reached at

Copyright 2006, Hartford Courant