The new Storrs Center just down the road from the University of Connecticut is buzzing with activity. But that project is only partly finished, and the developers have had to make some very big changes to what’s left of it. Critics say those changes could undo the attempt to create a college downtown atmosphere where none existed before.
I'm standing at the corner of Storrs Road and South Eagleville Road across the street from Mansfield Town Hall. This empty lot of grass and stray buildings will eventually be the tail-end of Storrs Center, the new “college downtown” in an area of Connecticut where that term is virtually unheard-of. Natalie Miniutti teaches landscape architecture at UConn and was involved in planning Storrs Center more than 10 years ago.
“This was really a gateway, right here, to the downtown," she says.
The original plan for this site was to surround a charming little green space with an upscale supermarket, more than 100 apartments, and a few other shops to form what was called “Market Square Neighborhood.” But in the past few months that has changed dramatically. The grocery store will be Price Chopper, instead of the Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s many hoped for. And now, the apartments and green space are gone, along with most other retail. They’ll all be replaced – will be a giant parking lot.
Peter Miniutti, an associate professor at UConn, was also involved in the early planning stages of Storrs Center. Miniutti says it took more than 10 years to get residents of Mansfield to buy into the idea of a walkable, livable “downtown” in this region of rolling hills, winding roads, and sprawling neighborhoods. A big surface parking lot seems like we’re headed right back to suburbia.
“It is, you know, obviously much more surface parking than had been in the original plan," says Howard Kaufman of Leyland Alliance, the master developer for Storrs Center.
But, he says, the original idea for Market Square Neighborhood depended on one important concept: underground parking. Turns out that is way too expensive, and there are some nasty chemicals in the soil that would make the prospect even more costly. But you’ve got to put the parking somewhere – so now it’s got to go above ground, pushing out the apartments and retail space that was supposed to go there.
“Our development, even though it’s in a somewhat rural area, it’s a downtown development And we don’t have a lot of land to work with.”
The question is, will Market Square Neighborhood – well, it’s not really going to be a neighborhood anymore – look like a downtown? Many Storrs residents say it won’t. UConn associate professor Norman Garrick says the point of Storrs Center was to get people to live, walk, eat and shop in one place, and big parking lots tend not to be the best places to do that.
“Once the students get out of the classroom, you never see them again. It’s like they just evaporate," he says. "And in college towns, you run into students into the stores, and it becomes a different kind of relationship. And in Storrs, we don’t really have that.”
Garrick says he’s happy with the first phase of Storrs Center which opened earlier this year, where he does often run into students. The first phase has two buildings with a mix of apartments, restaurants and shops.
As we walk by them on a nice, wide sidewalk, we’re just inches away from the windows of Moe’s Southwest Grill and Froyo World. They are buzzing with customers. More than 100 apartments are have already been rented here, and hundreds more will be added next to a soon-to-be-built Town Square. That critical mass actually led UConn’s former director of counseling Barry Schreier to resign and fulfill his dream of opening a candy store, called Sweet Emotions.
“One of the things we’ve always said is people came for UConn and stayed for the….the, uh…I don’t know why people stayed," he jokes. "They went to Manchester. Now people are coming to UConn and staying for Storrs Center.”
Past that area, though, we’re back in what Garrick calls “strip-mall land” – walking next to big surface parking lots, ending with Market Square.
Howard Kaufman of Leyland Alliance promises that the builders will do their best to make the parking lot look nice.
“It’s going to be a parking lot unlike any one in the region," he says. "I can guarantee you that.”
The hope is that pedestrians walking by won’t feel like they’re looking at that hallmark of suburbia – the giant sea of cars on asphalt.
Read more in the Connecticut Mirror at ctmirror.org.