Student Apartments Proposed For West End Property

A developer's $23 million proposal would turn a portion of the former Hartford College for Women into roughly 225 apartments for students at the UConn Law School and elsewhere. An early, conceptual draft of the project would locate three new apartment buildings, in red, on the property. (Mercer Realty Partners / September 4, 2014)

HARTFORD — The former Hartford College for Women campus in the West End — on the market for six years — may be developed for student housing for the nearby UConn School of Law.

A development partnership including city lawyer Dwight H. Merriam, has reached an agreement with the property's current owner, the University of Hartford, to buy the property.

The $23 million plan calls for about 225 apartments in three new buildings that would likely be constructed in phases. Financing still needs to be lined up. The development would be privately funded and, if built, would be privately-owned and managed.

The property is between Asylum Avenue and Elizabeth Street. At least three existing structures — historic, Georgians — would be retained, but they wouldn't be part of the apartment project.

Merriam, a longtime land-use lawyer at Robinson & Cole in Hartford, said he has taught at the law school as an adjunct professor for years and has long noted the need for student housing nearby, similar to what now exists at Yale University in New Haven.

"The law school is a great institution," Merriam said, "and it will be made even better with this residential opportunity for its students."

Timothy Fisher, the law school's dean, said the addition of nearby housing would be a powerful recruitment tool to attract more students from farther away, especially international students. Currently, out-of-state students must find their own housing in the area.

"For 94 years, we've been a commuter school," Fisher said. "This gives us the opportunity to move the UConn Law School to a new level among all law schools in the country."

Fisher said housing is a key consideration for those attending the school, and the ability to get settled quickly into a place to live.

The plan also has the potential to more fully integrate the law school into the surrounding community, adding to pedestrian traffic in the evenings and on the weekends, Fisher said.

Merriam said the addition of housing would help reduce motor vehicle traffic in the area from commuting students. It also would fit with the preference of the city — and the neighborhood — to encourage residential uses in the area. A decade ago, the former Goodwin estate across Asylum Avenue, damaged by fire, was redeveloped for upscale condominiums.

Merriam said the apartments also could be marketed to University of Hartford graduate students and St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center residents and physicians.

The plan would require a change in the city's zoning regulations to permit smaller residential units on the 10.4-acre property in the neighborhood. The apartments, which would be privately owned and managed, would average about 400 square feet — larger for units designed for more than one person — much smaller than the 2,000-square-foot and larger dwellings that are now predominant in the area.

The women's college moved to Asylum Avenue in the late 1950s. The campus was "grandfathered" into the residential neighborhood that is home to Hartford's wealthiest families. It became part of the University of Hartford in 1991 and closed in 2003, although the university still uses some of the buildings for graduate and administrative offices.

This is the second time Merriam has attempted the project on the property. Three years ago, a similar plan fell through when a developer backed out.

In the meantime, in 2012, the Capitol Region Education Council proposed a magnet school on the former college campus. The plan was rejected by the city's planning and zoning commission, amid opposition from the neighborhood.

Then, last year, Merriam met and became partners with Garrett Heher, principal of Mercer Realty Partners in the Centerbrook section of Essex. Mercer has worked on both commercial and residential developments, including at ESPN in Bristol and at Foxwoods Resort and Casino in Mashantucket, as well as high-end residential development along the High Line, a public park built on a historic freight rail line elevated above the streets in Manhattan.

Three historic structures — the largest being Butterworth Hall — date to the early 1900s and were all originally single-family homes. Merriam said two could be sold to private buyers, while Butterworth could become a conference center for the university.

It is likely some of the 10 buildings on the property — built in the 1960s and 1970s — would be demolished.

Neither Merriam or the University of Hartford would disclose the agreed-upon purchase price. But CREC had agreed to pay $6.9 million for the property.

John Carson, senior adviser for external affairs at the university, said he believes the plan has a good chance at getting the backing of both the city and neighbors. The developers have conducted focus groups with both students and neighborhood groups.

"We know the city wants to return the property to the tax rolls," Carson said. "And the development has to be acceptable to the neighborhood."