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.
Storrs Center has not been without controversy since ground was broken June 2011. The Connecticut Laborers' District Council has criticized LeylandAlliance for using out-of-state contractors and nonunion workers. Kaufman said LeylandAlliance has held on-going talks with union leadership, noting that 71 percent of contracts to build the parking garage were union contracts. In addition, 70 percent of the workers on site for the privately-constructed portions of the first mixed-use buildings were from Connecticut and 85 percent of the work was subcontracted to Connecticut subcontractors, van Zelm said.
One challenge designing Storrs Center was to create the feel that all the structures were not built at the same time as would have been the case in a town or city that had developed over decades or even centuries.
To achieve that look, buildings were designed with irregular walls on street-level, some jutting out, others receding back. Entrances to storefronts are at different intervals. Sidewalks include steps up and down. Windows are different shapes and sizes. Clapboard, brick and metal roofs are intended to bring a touch that is quintessentially New England.
"It gives the feeling of something that happened organically over time," Kaufman said.
Banking On Success
In one of those storefronts last week, Holly Upton, owner of a longtime barber and styling shop on campus, settled into her new space. She's anxious for more prominent signage that will direct her customers to her new place from the aging, nearby shopping center where the shop had been located since the 1950s. That center soon will be demolished to make way for more of Storrs Center.
The hair styling shop, Skora's Barber Styling Shop, joins a tattoo shop, a Bank of America kiosk, a travel agency, a physical therapist and an automotive repair shop that are now open, with a Subway sandwich shop soon to follow. Additional openings such as Froyoworld, Insomnia Cookies, Moe's Southwest Grill, Mooyah Burgers & Fries and Sweet Emotions candy, are expected through the end of the year. Some shops are expected to accept student Husky Bucks.
Upton started working at the shop in 1984 when she was 19, just out of hair styling school. She bought the business six years later and has run it ever since, keeping its longtime name. She counts former UConn men's basketball coach Dee Rowe among her clients.
Pulling out a newspaper clipping from 1969, detailing plans for a similar development, Upton says she can hardly believe that Storrs Center is being built.
"I've been hearing about this for a long time," she said. The clipping predates her, but she points out the development cost. "Twelve million. Can you believe that?"
At first, Upton was worried about the move and was pleased that workers were able to move the 1950s wooden barber stations and vintage, swivel chairs, complete with razor-sharpening strops. Upton said she didn't have much choice but to move because the shopping center was being razed. Her rent and expenses will be double what they were. But she hopes the new visibility — her shop was on a lower-level — will boost her business. She also plans to eventually rename the shop Husky Head.
"I hope this place will be the place to go," Upton said. "People don't want it to fail. They want it to do well."
A day later, Kristen Quann was moving into an apartment on one of the four floors above Upton's shop.
As an undergraduate at UConn and now a second-year graduate student, Quann has watched the apartments at 1 and 9 Dog Lane being built. She looked at other apartments off-campus but didn't like their condition.
The Storrs Center apartments are pricey on a grad student's budget. Quann said she is paying $1,400 a month, but that includes all utilities except electricity, plus trash removal. There is a $60 monthly parking fee and a one-time, $300 fee for pets.
Quann had hoped to rent a studio, but they were all leased.
Prices range from $1,000 a month for a studio to $2,650 a month for a 3-bedroom, 3-bathroom unit. Sizes range from 420 square feet for the studios to nearly 1,100 square feet for the largest units. Apartments are outfitted with stainless steel appliances, and a washer and dryer in each unit.
"Even if they are a little more expensive, they are new and corporate run," Quann said. "It's beautiful, and if I get a job around here I would love to stay here."
Kenneth R. Gosselin covers real estate for The Courant. Follow him on his blog at courant.com/propertyline and on Twitter @kennethgosselin.Copyright © 2015, CT Now