Did your grandparents ever regale you with stories of their youth, living in a village where most things were within walking distance? Or maybe you grew up in such a place yourself. Though small town life still exists in many places, the growth of the post-World War II suburbs means that a great many people did not grow up in a walkable village and probably do not live in one now.
Once seen as the ideal place to raise a family, the tide of popular opinion has turned against the suburbs today, and we hear now that they represent undesirable real estate "sprawl," leading to the unnecessary destruction of green space, wasteful use of energy (read: too much dependence on cars), and a psychologically unhealthy sense of isolation.
Is there a land use answer? Yes, and one name for it is New Urbanism. Though there are many who are responsible for New Urbanist planning, credit is often given to a trio of Yale-educated architects — Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberg and Connecticut resident Patrick Pinnell — for espousing and refining the concept, which is to recreate with modern techniques and technology the mixed use, higher density communities common in the early history of this country.
New Urbanist communities are designed to recreate the feel and utility of previous communities, where people lived and worked in closer proximity to each other and were less dependent on automobiles. These new villages are characterized by architectural designs that are varied but harmonious, a range of living units from studio apartments to single-family homes, work/live combinations and the absence of "big box" retailers. Usually included are generous open space, public areas resembling historic New England town greens, small parks and playgrounds, and walking paths connecting the varied uses. Many are designed to make use of mass transit options and to encourage walking rather than the use of automobiles.
Though real estate development slowed to a crawl in the past five years, New Urbanism is slowly coming to Connecticut. The redevelopment of Mansfield Center is an example of high density, mixed retail and residential development making efficient use of space and revitalizing that area. The planned IQuilt project in Hartford will knit together new residential and entertainment options in a New Urbanist manner.
Great Pond Village in Windsor may be the largest example of this kind of planning in Connecticut. It will be an entirely new town-within-a-town. Fully permitted and expecting shovels in the ground this spring, Great Pond Village will be built on 600-plus riverfront acres, 300 of which will remain natural woods. It will include 4,000 residential units, small scale retail, office, restaurant and recreational uses.
A unique feature of Great Pond Village is that it will be the only community within a special taxing district within the Town of Windsor, giving its eventual residents control over much of their governance while they still remain Windsor residents.
Special legislation was adopted by the Connecticut General Assembly to create the special taxing district for Great Pond Village, the purpose of which is primarily to facilitate the construction and financing of infrastructure improvements at the village. The district has the power to levy and collect benefit assessments and issue bonds secured by such assessments to finance the construction of infrastructure.
The bonds issued by the district also will be secured by a portion of the property tax increment paid to the Town of Windsor by the residents of the district, pursuant to an interlocal agreement entered into between the Town of Windsor and the district. This financing structure is similar to the financing of Harbor Point District in Stamford, another example of New Urbanism in Connecticut.
Making Great Pond Village a reality required the passage of an entirely new Form-Based Code by Windsor's Planning and Zoning Commission. Designed by Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh, the Form-Based Code assures that the new development will comply with comprehensive plans designed to replicate the look and function of a classic New England town while still meeting the requirements of Windsor's general master plan.
Done right, New Urbanist design should result in a place with a sense of community, a healthier lifestyle and a more sensitive use of land. The future in Connecticut may look a lot like the past, only better.
Diane Whitney heads Pullman & Comley's Environmental and Land Use Department. She represents Great Pond Village LLC. Marie Phelan, of the same firm, represents Great Pond Village as a special taxing district.