The University of Connecticut was placed in an ideal spot for its original 19th-century purpose, an agricultural school. But as it evolved into a multi-faceted research university, the location became something of a challenge. There wasn't much decent housing in the area, and no real town center.
Indeed, when my brother Jim was there he was known to crack wise about "beautiful downtown Storrs," a reference to a couple of nondescript strip malls. Back then, everybody left on weekends.
Other universities have college towns. I always thought one would work at Storrs, and son of a gun, the Storrs Center project is coming along very nicely. This bodes well for the university and the surrounding town of Mansfield (of which Storrs is a section), and also suggests that it is increasingly possible to create interesting downtowns, the sine qua non of smart growth.
Storrs Center, a public-private partnership that leveraged $200 million in private investment with $25 million in public funds, spent years on the drawing board but is now well under way. I visited last week. The first part of Phase 1, adjoining buildings at 1 and 9 Dog Lane on the northern end of the project, are finished. The architecture is what some call "historicist" — a modern take on older city design — reminiscent of Blue Back Square and some other town centers.
The mixed-use structures have four floors of apartments — 125 units — above 30,000 square feet of retail. The apartments are all leased, as is virtually all of the retail space. Indeed, most of the 190 apartments in the next phase are mostly spoken for, even though the building is under construction. "The demand has been amazing," said Howard Kaufman of master developer LeylandAlliance LLC. That this was done in the recession years makes it all the more remarkable.
In the retail area, the developers made a strong effort to keep businesses that were already there, such as Storrs Automotive, and have brought in an eclectic, college-town mix of news ones. You have to love Insomnia Cookies, "Delivery until 3 a.m." There's also a candy store called "Sweet Emotions," owned and operated by Barry Schreier, a Ph.D. psychologist who used to direct the UConn counseling center.
He always wanted to run a candy store and now he is, billing himself as a "doctor of confectionery medicine." The store is neat; it may be to candy what the UConn Dairy Bar is to ice cream. I had dinner at the airy, pleasantly informal and very popular Dog Lane Cafe, run by the folks who own the Vanilla Bean Cafe in Pomfret. They know what they are doing. They also have 50 full- and part-time employees, another plus.
There's more to come; Geno's Grille, a slightly more formal restaurant owned by a group that includes famed UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma, opens in a few weeks, and of course we all hope Geno has something special to celebrate.
The next three parts of the project will be completed over the next three years or so. At the end there'll be about 700 apartments and condos, along with a UConn Health Center facility, a UConn Co-op bookstore, a supermarket and a bunch of other stuff. Kaufman and his colleagues keep looking for ways to improve it; for example, they are talking to folks who could help them bring an art-and-indie movie theater to the property, a boffo idea.
On a project of this size and complexity, to borrow from the Mickster, you can't always get what you want. The developers wanted to build an underground parking garage with the Price Chopper supermarket, but couldn't make it work. The market is across from Mansfield town hall. An artful design of the parking lot would free some of it for occasional public events such as farmers markets, as a complement to the town square already proposed for the project.
Much of what is being built in Connecticut as the recession slowly ends is auto-dependent sprawl. It doesn't have to be. Storrs Center, on one side of Route 195, is walkable and on a bus line. A few Fridays ago. many residents crossed the street to campus to watch the play "His Girl Friday." They didn't have to leave for the weekend.
Tom Condon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2015, CT Now