UConn is seeking preliminary proposals from the private sector to build a new private hotel on university-owned property near the Storrs Center development in Mansfield.
The university has published a “Request for Expressions of Interest” (RFEI) seeking proposals from potential developers to construct a hotel with about 100 rooms on the UConn-owned parcel at the corner of Route 195 and South Eagleville Road. The RFEI says UConn would plan to lease the property to a developer, which would build and operate the hotel as a private entity unaffiliated with the university.
“Every university of our size and every downtown like the one we have in Storrs should have access to a good hotel,” said Scott Jordan, UConn’s executive vice president for administration and chief financial officer. “Having a hotel in close proximity to both will help the university and help the community, and add even more life to Storrs Center.”
The site is currently occupied by the Mansfield Apartments, which is UConn student housing built in the 1950s. Due to the age and condition of the buildings, the UConn Master Plan envisioned that the buildings would be demolished and replaced with new construction and parking.
Students now living in the Mansfield Apartments will not be displaced, however; the residences will continue to operate through the spring of 2018. The apartments would no longer be offered as a housing option in advance of the fall 2018 semester.
The university previously considered locating a new ice hockey facility on the Mansfield Apartments site, but ultimately chose not to pursue that as an option. One of the university’s concerns had been the volume of traffic during games, when most cars would arrive and depart within a relatively short timeframe. Because hotel guest travel would be staggered throughout the day and evening, local traffic for that facility would likely be similar to the current traffic volume associated with Mansfield Apartments.
The RFEI notes that the prospective hotel should be sized appropriately so that it will fit in with the surrounding area and also should be an environmentally friendly facility.
“What would not be appropriate on that site is a very tall, narrow structure, because it would tower over the neighborhood around it and be very out of place,” said UConn Master Planner and Chief Architect Laura Cruickshank. “The topography of the Mansfield Apartments site will help in this because it is a very large area and the land slopes downward from the road. That means lower floors can be below grade, making the building’s visual impact modest and appropriate for the area.
“Any new building needs to be respectful of the fact that the Moss Sanctuary is behind it,” Cruickshank added. “We would expect potential developers to pay careful attention to the ecology of the site and the sight lines from the sanctuary to the rear of the building, not just from the road.”
The RFEI notes that the durability of the structure and its environmental sustainability will be taken into account as expressions of interest are reviewed.
The existing hotel located on UConn’s Storrs campus is the Nathan Hale Inn, which opened in 2001.
The university purchased the struggling hotel in 2015. The university was already renting half of the rooms for student residences, with the other half continuing to function as a hotel. Once the new hotel is constructed on the Mansfield Apartments site, the university would convert the Nathan Hale Inn entirely into a student residence hall.
The Mansfield Apartments accommodate roughly 270 student beds. When the complex is removed for the hotel project, 100 of the beds would be relocated to the Nathan Hale Inn, and the remaining 170 would be added in existing residence halls on campus, ensuring no net loss of student beds.
“Like student housing at most every large university, student housing at UConn is elastic, meaning it can grow or shrink based on need and demand,” said Michael Gilbert, UConn’s vice president for student affairs. “We will not have any problem accommodating this relatively modest number of beds elsewhere in campus residence halls.
“It is our goal to house as many of our students as possible on campus,” Gilbert added. “Housing students in UConn residence halls, rather than off campus, makes the Storrs campus a more vibrant environment and enhances the student experience. We are committed to ensuring that this project will not result in the permanent loss of any existing student beds.”
Potential developers may seek to develop a hotel only, which would use only a portion of the larger site. In that case, the university would seek potential developers for the remainder of the site. Developers may also submit expressions of interest that envision full use of the site for a hotel and other development.
The developer of Storrs Center had sought to open a hotel in downtown Mansfield, also consisting of about 100 rooms. However, in 2013, the town of Mansfield’s Planning and Zoning Commission denied the application and no hotel was built.
Jordan noted that many of the challenges faced by the Nathan Hale Inn were specific to that hotel, and were not the result of larger market forces or a lack of demand. This is why, he said, there was a private developer interested in building a hotel in Storrs Center even while the Nathan Hale continued to operate.
“We had been hopeful that the private market, without any assistance from UConn, would build a hotel on private property close to campus,” Jordan said. “We felt that Storrs Center was an ideal location for a hotel given its central location and the fact it is a transportation hub, along with its density and mix of businesses. A hotel on the Mansfield Apartments site will be complimentary of the Storrs Center development, in addition to meeting the need for a hotel in Storrs.”
Consistent with state law, the new hotel would be subject to local property taxes in the name of the lessee, as the Nathan Hale Inn was when it was privately owned. The hotel’s location on UConn-owned land would also mean that the UConn Police and Fire Departments would bear primary responsibility for public safety at the hotel and on the property.
The environmental approval process will be a public one, and members of the public will have opportunities to comment on the plans. The university also expects that any developer will work closely with the town of Mansfield and the Mansfield Downtown Partnership as the project moves forward.