Storrs Is Trying to Keep Up with UConn's Growth
by Pat Grandjean
What becomes a world-class university most? A world-class university town—or so goes the thinking concerning UConn at Storrs, as our state university grapples with Gov. Dannel Malloy’s proposal Next Generation Connecticut. The $2 billion initiative is aimed at stimulating the state’s economic development by greatly expanding educational opportunities, research, and innovation in science, technology, engineering, and math. Toward this end, over the next decade the university will hire 200 new faculty, recruit approximately 6,500 additional undergrads and overhaul programs and facilities at the main and branch campuses in Stamford and Hartford.
But great scholars do not live by textbooks alone apparently. They tend to be attracted to universities surrounded by thriving town centers, the kind enjoyed by schools such as Penn State (State College, Pa.), the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign, Ill.), or New Haven’s Yale University. So says Howard Kaufman, managing member of Leyland Alliance LLC, the New York-based development company immersed in creating Storrs Center, what everyone hopes will be a thriving retail, service and housing district close to (but both independent of and cooperative with) UConn. It’s an overdue change for Storrs, a subdivision of the town of Mansfield that previously offered little more than a couple of fading strip malls and a dilapidated restaurant (Kathy John’s) along the university’s main drag, Route 195.
“The idea of trying to create a true town center has been around for about 50 years now,” says Cynthia van Zelm, executive director of the Mansfield Downtown Partnership (MDP), a coalition made up of university representatives, townspeople, local businesspeople and other professionals. Planning didn’t begin in earnest until the MDP gelled in the ’90s, and began working with Leyland Alliance in 2004.
Keynotes of the plan Leyland ultimately developed, using land largely purchased from UConn, have included the creation of two new streets (Royce Circle and Wilbur Cross Way)—courtesy of a $6 million grant from the Federal Transit Authority—and four neighborhoods (Town Square, Market Square, Village Street and an as-yet-unnamed residential area). Already in operation are a 322-unit apartment building (The Oaks on the Square), a variety of restaurants and services and a few mom-and-pop retail shops. Several businesses are new, such as Geno’s Grille, an American restaurant owned by UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma; others have been relocated to the center, like Storrs Automotive, a local fixture since 1975.
Businesses situated along Town Square’s Dog Lane have been in operation for nearly a year. How are they doing? Depends who you ask. Irene Schein, owner of Storrs Automotive, at first found it mighty rocky to move from a highly visible position on 195 to her current, somewhat hidden digs at 11 Dog Lane. She was faced with double the rent, from $1,700 a month (“I’d been on university property, which is always cheaper,” Shein says) to $3,400 a month, plus new expenses for property tax, insurance and advertising.
“I told the developers I needed another service bay in addition to the two the garage had previously had, otherwise I’d never generate the business I needed to keep up,” she says. Leyland built Schein her three-bay garage, but rather than making the bays 26 feet deep, to accommodate larger vehicles, workers built them at 21 feet, causing a two-week shutdown while readjustments took place. “I thought I was dead,” says Schein. “Luckily, I’d set up an agreement with Leyland that would allow me to walk away without repercussions if the business failed.”
Now, the outlook is brighter. “This isn’t as much of a suitcase town as it used to be,” she says. Because UConn has stepped up its summer curriculum, student summer enrollment has grown from 300 to 800, giving a potential boost to business owners resigned to enduring totally dead summer months. “I just had my busiest July ever,” says Schein.
Other businesses still in the planning stages include a Price Chopper supermarket, UConn-run medical, dental and urgent-care centers, a 100-room hotel, the Connecticut-based day-care and preschool service Educational Playcare and more housing (apartments and condos or town houses). An annex of the UConn Co-op bookstore is moving in, as is the university’s much praised Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry. The latter will have a performance space “for theater and other events,” says Leyland’s Kaufman.
Observers are divided about the impact Storrs Center will have on the larger community. When the project was first on the drawing board, both MDP and Leyland envisioned more shopping options at the center, from national chain stores to unique boutiques. That kind of mix, it was thought, would bring customers from as far away as West Hartford, even though West Hartford is home to Blue Back Square, and neighboring communities, like Manchester and South Windsor, also have their own shopping hubs.
“I think of downtown Durham during my graduate school days at the University of New Hampshire, when we had men’s and women’s clothing stores, independent bookstores and beer and pizza joints right across from campus,” says Roger Adams, recently retired president/CEO of the Windham Chamber of Commerce. “This is not that. But given the current economy, and the changes going on at UConn, maybe this is what’s required.”
Others carp that blending medical services and retail is a recipe for failure. Says one anonymous source involved in economic development, “Medical clinics don’t draw customers. If you’re sick, you’re not going to shop and lunch after seeing the doctor.” For his part, Kaufman advises patience. “Attracting retail turned out to be harder than we thought,” he says, but he’s hopeful that once Storrs Center develops a bit more, store owners will come to him.
It’s the smaller towns—contiguous rural communities like Tolland and Willington—for which Storrs Center may have the greatest impact. “It’s a great thing to have nearby,” says Christina Malhose, first selectwoman of Willington, “because we don’t have a downtown either—a place to walk around, get something to eat and just socialize.”