UConn, Hartford summit leads to detente over downtown campus choice
Over an hourlong discussion at a private club, UConn and Hartford officials reached a détente Wednesday over the prickly issue of the new campus that the university wants to develop downtown on the Hartford Times site.
The Times building remains the preferred site, but UConn reassured the city it will have input on the design to ensure that it adds to street life on the edge of a new entertainment district.
The accord came as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who says he has played no role in UConn’s selection of the site, signaled frustration with the city, suggesting they were about to fumble an opportunity.
“I’m a great believer that you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” Malloy told The Mirror.
Malloy spoke after an unrelated press event with Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra, who introduced Malloy by warmly describing the city’s constructive relationship with the state. The UConn flap had threatened to chill that warmth.
“We have new things coming to town, thanks to the wonderful collaboration we have with our governor,” Segarra said, adding, “UConn is going to be moving into our city, which is an excellent opportunity for economic development.”
UConn had surprised some city officials by deciding on the Times site for a new campus. The site has empty land, plus the façade of the historic newspaper building behind City Hall.
The site is the gateway to Front Street, a redevelopment project that’s moved in fits and starts. The project was supposed to knit the Connecticut Convention Center, which overlooks the Connecticut River by I-91, to the rest of downtown.
But the dispute was as much about relationships as differences over the best use of a site that Hartford has been trying to redevelop since before Gov. John G. Rowland, who pumped millions in the area by constructing the convention center, resigned in 2004.
Segarra and others, some who did not want to be quoted, said those relationships were established Wednesday at the Hartford Club, the venerable venue for deal-making a short walk from City Hall and the Times site.
The UConn Board of Trustees unanimously approved spending $1 million last week to fund a legal and engineering analysis of a proposal from H.B. Nitkin Group, a Greenwich real estate firm, to move the West Hartford campus to the former newspaper headquarters just west of the Connecticut River. That analysis is expected to be completed this fall.
Some city officials felt shut out of the decision, and they questioned whether a campus there would help or hurt Front Street, just now getting traction with a movie theater and music hall. A microbrewery also had made a pitch for the site as a brew pub.
Shawn Wooden, the council president, had urged UConn to look at sites that might spark development north of downtown, where the recession never ended.
UConn trustees were said to feel unappreciated, questioning whether Hartford had a right to dictate where a major purchaser or leaser of space should spend its money.
Both UConn President Susan Herbst and Trustee Thomas Ritter of Hartford have said the university did not want to begin what they hoped would be the final stage of the site selection in an adversarial role with the city.
“We think that we’ll get past any tensions,” Herbst said last week. “We so want to move into the city of Hartford. … We really want to enliven the city.”
Malloy lightly made that point Wednesday, smiling as he said, “Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but the consumer is supposed to have something to say about this.”
The consumer in this case was UConn, and Hartford needed to decide if the consumer was wanted, Malloy said. He said it was time the issue was resolved, but he was staying out of it.
“I talk to the mayor all the time. I talk to President Herbst all the time. But this is not my fight. This is not my battle.” Malloy said. “Ultimately, UConn needs to make a decision, and the city needs to make a decision.”
Segarra said city officials had a productive, air-clearing meeting at the Hartford Club earlier in the day with a UConn contingent led by Herbst and Ritter.
The participants declined to speak in detail about the meeting, instead issuing a joint communiqué:
This was a very positive and productive meeting. We believe it is the beginning of a stronger partnership between UConn and the City of Hartford.
“We are all committed to making this a win-win for both parties and ensuring that the new campus is designed and built to meet the needs of UConn students and faculty while adding incredible new life to downtown Hartford.
“While all of us understand and agree that the development of the downtown north area is critically important to the city, the former Hartford Times building remains UConn’s preferred location.
“The city will support the results of UConn’s due diligence process on the Times Building site and will fully participate in the design of the final site, including evaluating traffic concerns and the possibility of job opportunities for Hartford residents and contractors.
“The city and UConn have pledged to work together when the final chosen site is developed and on the programmatic initiatives and educational programs that will be housed in downtown Hartford.”
Staff Writer Keith M. Phaneuf contributed to this article.
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