Storrs — Anyone who’s seen the rolling hills, winding roads and sparsely populated neighborhoods of the town of Mansfield might wonder if the term “downtown” belongs here at all.

Storrs Center — a new development which has partially opened this year, just down the road from the University of Connecticut — is supposed to change that. The two buildings that have opened so far with a mix of stores, restaurants and 125 apartments are buzzing with activity.

But new environmental concerns and a public funding crunch have made major changes to the development that critics say threatens the concept of “downtown Storrs” (or as one retailer here is hoping to coin it, “Sto-Do”).

One of the still-anticipated phases of the project, known as “Market Square Neighborhood” — originally planned as an upscale grocery store with more apartments and green space — is now likely to be replaced with what will mostly be a sprawling parking lot.

“The vision was set for this project, from single-use, suburban sprawl, to more of a mixed-use, walkable downtown,” said Peter Miniutti, an associate professor of landscape architecture who was involved in the early planning stages of Storrs Center. “And now, all of a sudden, they’re looking to revert back.”

Price Chopper site

This is what the future Price Chopper site looks like now, viewed from the south near the Route 195 intersection with South Eagleville Road in Storrs.

“The original plan envisioned a more intense amount of development than what we are now pursuing,” admitted Howard Kaufman, who works for Storrs Center’s master developer Leyland Alliance, which is based in New York. Developers say their plan will still fit in with the concept of a “downtown,” where sidewalks are full of pedestrians who can eat, shop and enjoy concerts or festivals all in one place. They say the original plan of underground parking for Market Square was too expensive, inspiring an alternate plan for a large surface parking lot instead. And, the developers were unable to lure the coveted grocery brands of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s; instead, Price Chopper is scheduled to move into the space.

By a measure of square feet, the Market Square Neighborhood portion of the development will be less than a quarter of what it once was. It was imagined as a charming green square surrounded by close to 160,000 square feet of apartments and commercial space. Underground parking would have eliminated the need for a large surface parking lot that has come to define much of suburban America.

The area as now planned will consist of a 30,000-square-foot Price Chopper and another, much smaller, building that is yet to have a tenant. The rest will be parking.

“All of a sudden, we went from a coherent, relatively large [downtown] to entering strip-mall land,” said Norman Garrick, an associate professor of transportation engineering at the University of Connecticut who also lives in the nearby neighborhood of Storrs Heights. “And then you have this rump of a [downtown] attached to it.”

10 years of pushing through a new vision

The idea of creating a “downtown” in Storrs was first kicked around 30 or 40 years ago. Only by the mid-1990s did it seem to be closer to reality, when the University of Connecticut and the town of Mansfield, of which Storrs is a portion, formed a partnership to finally get the project going.

Even then, it was another 10 years before residents finally came to accept a plan that was counter to everything else in Mansfield: a highly dense, mixed-use development with on-street parking and lots of pedestrian activity. The price tag, according to Kaufman, is about $220 million overall, including $15 million from the state and $10 million from the federal government.

The first phase of the project, made up of two adjacent buildings with the addresses “1 Dog Lane” and “9 Dog Lane,” has received high praise for embracing the original concepts. Even on the Monday before Thanksgiving, the newly opened Moe’s Southwest Grill and Froyo World were crowded during lunchtime, and most of the upper-floor apartments were snapped up as soon as they became available.

“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,” joked Barry Schreier, who owns a candy store in the new development. “They went to Manchester. Now people are coming to UConn and staying for Storrs Center.”

Schreier directed the counseling center at the University of Connecticut for five years, but he said he’s always wanted to open a candy store. He’s got a doctorate in psychiatry, but now also cheekily calls himself a “Doctor in Confectionary Medicines.” It’s Shreier who has been trying to coin the term “Sto-Do” to describe downtown Storrs.

A candy store wasn’t something Schreier thought would be possible unless the area had a “critical mass” of people. Once all the apartments at Storrs Center are completed and occupied, hundreds will be living here.

“I see my neighbors on the sidewalk. I mean, that seems like such a lame thing to say, but it’s revolutionary for this area,” said Schreier, who bikes to work from his home nearby.

Developers are now hard at work on the next phase of the project, which includes a larger building, called “1 Royce Circle” that will have 40,000 square feet of retail space and 200 more apartments. 1 Royce Circle, along with the two buildings on Dog Lane, will form the sides of a large and green town square that is also under construction.

The possibility of a real town square has excited many in Storrs, who’ve had to attend university and town festivals, along with farmer’s markets, in giant parking lots — sometimes covered over with fake grass. The town square is meant to be the new center of activity in Storrs.

Original concept

The original Market Square design called for a collection of retail spaces, anchored by a high-end grocery (left) and underground parking.

A map of the original concept for Market Square Neighborhood shows that “the heart of it was underground parking,” said Kaufman.

But that was to have been supported by public funds, and the $25 million from state and local coffers has already been spent. In addition, petroleum-based chemicals were recently found in the soil on-site, Kaufman said, making an already expensive proposition even more costly.

More than 30 Mansfield residents testified in public hearings about the changes to the plan. Many were furious that a parking lot was replacing valuable commercial space, along with more than 100 more apartments that were planned for the area. But others thought surface parking was a better fit.

Updated concept

The updated, less expensive, plan provides for a large surface parking lot.

“As a shopper, you would have to go below ground, go up in an elevator to the shop, take a shopping cart, fill it up, take the shopping cart into an elevator down into an underground garage,” Kaufman pointed out.

Still, he admits, the plan is far from what was originally imagined. The issue of parking has a way of holding up developments, often for years.

“Parking is an incredible science, actually,” he said. “That is the biggest limiting factor … it’s a downtown development. And we don’t have a lot of land to work with.”

When the much-praised Blue Back Square opened in West Hartford, visitors parked for free on residential streets nearby — prompting those residents to complain, and resulting in lost money for the town, which needed the revenues to help pay for the project.

In New Haven, traffic czar Jim Travers has long-term plans to eliminate the large surface parking lots that surround Union Station. If those don’t exist and are replaced by pockets of residential or commercial activity, “the train station will be downtown,” he insists, because people are willing to walk much farther in areas of activity rather than next to parking lots.

But in a state like Connecticut, with few convenient inner-city options for public transportation, parking has to go somewhere. And garages, while they can house a lot more cars in a much smaller space, are also far more expensive. The town of Stratford plans to add 400 parking spaces near its train station, for which a wait for a monthly parking permit is up to four years. But a garage was determined to be too expensive, so more parking lots will be built instead.

Residents of Storrs worry that the new plan for Market Square will discourage pedestrians from walking by a sea of cars. But Kaufman said Leyland will use landscaping as much as possible to shield the view.

“It’s going to be a parking lot unlike any one in the region,” he said. “I can guarantee you that.”

This story was produced in collaboration with WNPR. Listen to a radio version here.

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