Plans to transform Storrs into a bustling college town have long been the word on the street — among quite a few generations of UConn Huskies. It was 44 years ago, in October 1969, when the University first announced that its Board of Trustees had approved plans for a $12 million project that would provide “the latest word in shopping convenience and contemporary housing” for the campus community. The plans included apartments, chain department stores, a gourmet food store, a sporting goods store, a bookshop, and several restaurants, among other retail businesses.
Although scheduled to become reality in early 1971, the plans for an energized downtown never came to fruition. Decades later, renewed discussions between the Town of Mansfield and UConn led to agreement on a new plan — one that is now materializing adjacent to the south end of the Storrs campus.
An emerging destination for local residents, visitors, students, as well as the rest of the UConn community, the new Storrs Center is no longer mere rumor. With cafés and restaurants, specialty shops, high-end apartments, and more still to come, this downtown community center is the product of years of shared effort and vision.
Movin’ on up
Plans for Storrs Center resumed in 2001 with the formation of the Mansfield Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit led by a board of directors representing Mansfield residents, business owners, UConn, and the Town of Mansfield. LeylandAlliance was hired as the master developer for the $220 million mixed-use project that, in addition to 322 apartments and an array of shops and restaurants, will also eventually include a UConn Co-op bookstore, the relocated Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry, and a clinic operated by the UConn Health Center. A supermarket is scheduled to open in 2014, and there are plans for a residential neighborhood as well.
When former UConn President Philip Austin asked trustee Philip Lodewick ’66 (BUS), ’67 MBA to represent the University in the project planning, the businessman and philanthropist recalled his undergraduate days in Storrs, when few activities were available beyond campus.
“It was a place almost barren in terms of the opportunity for people to socialize,” he says. “To see the town evolve is wonderful. It’s been a good collective effort on the part of a lot of people … I think this downtown will cement the community within Storrs and Mansfield. From a standpoint of camaraderie, collaboration, and the ability to enjoy social interaction, it’s vital.”
In the early planning stages of Storrs Center, Thomas Callahan was associate vice president for government and community relations and also served as co-chair of the University’s Town-Gown Committee. He says the University and Town of Mansfield worked together to forge consensus on a development plan that would meet the needs of both entities.
“It was gratifying to see the amount of political consensus that emerged to get it on the ground,” says Callahan, now associate vice president for infrastructure planning and strategic project management at UConn. “The citizens and political leaders of Mansfield who wanted to see something like this happen mobilized to ensure that the project moved forward. You also had strong presidential leadership, with Phil Austin and now Susan Herbst supporting the plan, and support from the Board of Trustees to make it go.”
The new downtown center has presented unique opportunities for new businesses, including ventures led by local residents and young UConn alumni.
Barry Schreier, formerly the director of Counseling and Mental Health Services at the University, had always dreamed of opening a candy store. He became involved with the Downtown Mansfield Partnership and helped form the advocacy group Smart Growth for Mansfield. In 2012, he opened Sweet Emotions, a boutique candy store in Storrs Center that he says has “all the duties of parenthood.”
Schreier stocks a range of candies that would appeal to college students, children, and the wider community. His website draws orders from around the nation, and his store offers services including candy bouquets and baskets, children’s parties, “retro” candies such as Chuckles, Bonomo Turkish Taffy, and Sen Sen, and delivery service to campus residence halls. He has proclaimed the back wall of his store as “the largest candy counter in Connecticut,” with 120 different candies on the shelf. He has six employees, including five UConn students.
For friends Jessica Chiep ’12 (CANR) and Ron Liu ’11 (BUS), the chance to open their own restaurant adjacent to the UConn campus was an opportunity they could not resist. After starting their post-college careers, they realized they wanted to be self-employed. They formed a partnership with their friend Thomas Wang ’11 (BUS), whose family has operated restaurants for many years, including two in Middletown, Conn.
The partners will open the Japanese restaurant Haru Aki this month, which they say will serve authentic Japanese street fare with traditional elements.
“Our menu items are taken from influences straight from Japan with a little bit of fusion twist. We’re not taking shortcuts with the ingredients,” says Liu. “There’s more to explore in this cuisine than the old clichéd approach.”
Chiep and Liu say that after initially meeting with the developer and learning more about the downtown project they found “everyone’s willing to help make things work.” In addition to a diverse menu, Chiep says they plan to offer activities such as sushi rolling, dumpling making, screenings of Japanese-style animation known as anime, and fresh mochi tastings.
Geno Auriemma, UConn’s Hall of Fame women’s basketball coach, who has been involved in the restaurant business with his Geno’s Fast Break Food Court and Pub at Mohegan Sun, opened Geno’s Grille, a 100-seat restaurant with primarily Italian cuisine, in Storrs Center this past spring.
He says the close collaboration between the University and Town of Mansfield has benefited the entire community.
“For the first time, the Town of Mansfield and UConn had the same vision. They came together to enhance the experience, not just for the students and faculty, but for the people who live in this area,” he says. “As a result, look at what we have.”
At the same time, community group StoDoArts at Storrs Center has been working to help create a vibrant and lively environment in Storrs Center, partnering with the Mansfield Downtown Partnership, Leyland Alliance, UConn Summer Programs, and the School of Fine Arts to present such activities as local film screenings and live music performances in the downtown plaza.
“We formed strong partnerships with the community, the University, and many organizations through the planning and construction process for Storrs Center,” says Cynthia van Zelm, executive director of the Mansfield Downtown Partnership. “We hope that we can continue to draw upon those partnerships to populate Storrs Center and provide a variety of programming that will appeal to all ages.”
This article was first published in the Fall 2013 edition of UConn Magazine. To see more videos and stories like these, along with 360-degree panoramic views and an interactive map of the new downtown Storrs Center, download UConn Magazine‘s free interactive app for tablet devices.