Students flocking to the University of Connecticut in Storrs this week will be able, for the first time, to say they are in a college town -- or at least the beginnings of one.
Businesses are settling into their new storefronts and tenants are moving into the upper-floor apartments of the first buildings completed in the ambitious, $220-million Storrs Center development. Meanwhile construction is ramping up on future phases.
"The hope is that this becomes Main Street," said Cynthia van Zelm, executive director of the Mansfield Downtown Partnership.
The long-term aim is to create a true downtown area that Mansfield has lacked, a strong drawing card for visitors and a selling point to attract employers to town. The center, at the southern edge of campus, is across the street from Mansfield Town hall and the town high school.
Envisioned as a downtown where none has existed, the development is attracting plenty of attention. UConn Women's Basketball Coach Geno Auriemma plans a restaurant there, the wildly successful Vanilla Bean Cafe in Pomfret has leased space for a separate venture, Dog Lane Café and all 127 apartments now ready for occupancy — ranging from studios to three-bedrooms — have been leased.
And now, the private developer soon will announce a lease with the Price Chopper supermarket for a 35,000-square-foot neighborhood market that will focus on regionally grown and produced food. The store could open by late next year in a portion of Storrs Center called Market Square that is expected to break ground in the spring, pending approvals.
"Students and faculty want to have a there, there," said Howard Kaufman, managing member of Tuxedo, N.Y.-based LeylandAlliance, the project's master developer. "UConn has so much, but for some reason, this just never developed."
Eventually, there are planned as many as 675 apartments, 120 townhouses and condominium flats and 170,000 square feet of commercial and retail space, roughly equal to six city blocks of street-level retail in most cities.
Buzz is building among students on campus about the restaurants and shops that soon will open. That's coupled with the realization that this is shaping up to be a real commitment to building a downtown, said Stephen Petkis, president of the undergraduate student government.
What's been built so far is a good first step towards easing the isolation of the campus, Petkis said.
"Everyone is talking about it," said Petkis, a senior majoring in political science and human rights. "Everyone is optimistic this is going to develop into a good spot."
Urban design experts are watching the development closely. Typically, they say, an educational institution grows up in a city or town and not the reverse.
Alan J. Plattus, a professor at the Yale School of Architecture and founder of the university's Center for Urban Design Research, said universities and colleges are healthiest when they are integrated in local communities. The institution provides economic activity for the surrounding town or city; and the community, provides things for students, faculty and visitors at the institution to do, within easy walking distance.
The reversal is a challenge for Storrs Center, since it is basically starting from the ground up and setting a new direction for the area that will greatly shape how the university is viewed, Plattus said.
UConn's rural setting worked well when the school was founded in 1881 as an agriculture school, but it has moved far beyond its agrarian roots, particularly now as it works to develop its reputation as a research university. Even as early as the 1950s and 1960s, similar plans were floated, only to collapse in recessions, lack of financing or construction restraints.
"That is why this is going on," Plattus said. "How can we make this a more interesting, lively place? Whether the Storrs development provides that remains to be seen."
Development And Design
Storrs Center is being privately developed in conjunction with the Mansfield Downtown Partnership, a coalition of town, university, business and community members that formed more than a decade a go to guide the project through the planning and permitting process. The project is receiving $25 million in state and federal grants for roads, utilities and parking, including a 672-space garage and transportation center.
A separate builder, Education Realty Trust Inc. of Memphis, Tenn, is developing – and will own and manage -- the apartments, named The Oaks on the Square.
As Storrs Center unfolds through the end of the decade, UConn also is taking a serious look at how its campus is designed. Last week, UConn president Susan Herbst told the community that she is hiring a master planner-architect to instill architectural harmony, improve facilities and renovate existing buildings.