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UConn's Choice Ruffles Officials

Segarra, Wooden Say City Deserved More Input

Jenna Carlesso

August 02, 2013

City leaders are calling on the University of Connecticut to consider locations other than the former Hartford Times building for its downtown campus, saying that an educational institution would divide the Front Street area, a blossoming entertainment district.

Mayor Pedro Segarra and city council President Shawn Wooden sent a letter to UConn President Susan Herbst last Thursday, saying the selection process for a campus location downtown "did not adequately consider the long-term economic interests of the city."

Sources with knowledge of the process told The Courant in June that UConn had chosen the former Hartford Times building as the site of its downtown Hartford campus, attracted by the building's central location in the city.

The building is part of the Front Street district. The state owns the Times building, and HB Nitkin Group has the development rights. UConn hopes to move its West Hartford campus there in 2016 or 2017.

But the mayor and council chairman fear that the facility would break "the connection" between the Connecticut Convention Center and downtown museums and restaurants.

"We do not share the university search committee's view that the Times building is the best site for the campus," Segarra and Wooden wrote in the letter to Herbst. "Front Street is being developed as an entertainment district, an area where local residents and conventioneers can go to enjoy a night out. ... Because the proposed educational use is inconsistent with the entertainment focus of the area and, as proposed, is an inward-oriented development, the location of the UConn facility at the Times building breaks the connection between the Connecticut Convention Center and Connecticut Science Center with downtown Hartford."

Traffic congestion along Columbus Boulevard would only worsen with the addition of the campus, Segarra and Wooden said, creating problems for the convention and science centers, which hold large events.

"UConn's development of the proposed site exacerbates past development mistakes," they wrote. "From highway locations to those of government buildings, such decisions have negatively impacted Hartford's neighborhoods and the city's economy."

Wooden pointed out Thursday that the campus would not add to the city's tax base.

"Part of the idea around Front Street is that the retail, housing, entertainment -- all of that was part of developing a tax base for the city," he said. "This project would not generate taxes. A tax-exempt institution is very much inconsistent with the original plan for that area and inconsistent with the city's development needs, and the need to build our tax base up."

The fact that a tax-paying company is also interested in the site further complicates matters, Wooden said. The Thomas Hooker Brewing Co. is looking to move from Bloomfield to Prospect Street, which would allow the company to expand its operations, a source familiar with the plans has told The Courant.

"The idea that this is happening at the same time as there are other interested parties that would meet our objectives does heighten the concerns around this decision," Wooden said. "Right now, there's at least one very credible party interested in that space that would add to the city's tax rolls."

In a letter dated last Friday, Herbst responded, saying the university will continue to consider the city's needs and "incorporate them as best we can." But, she said, "We have our own constituencies and must make decisions which are in the best interests of the university."

Segarra and Wooden also expressed dismay over the selection process.

The long-vacant Times building, on Prospect Street, was selected from a field of 13 potential sites in the downtown area. The city had proposed relocating the campus to vacant city-owned property on the northern edge of downtown. It had suggested leasing the 3-acre parcel at 1214 Main St. for $1 a year to the university so that UConn could construct a 237,000-square-foot facility on the site.

But officials later withdrew that proposal "with the understanding that UConn would include the city's interests in the selection process and allow us to influence the location of the campus," Wooden and Segarra wrote in their letter.

"Unfortunately, we were informed after the fact that a site had been selected and now are being told that we will be involved only in the design of the facility," they wrote to Herbst. "We urge you to intervene and open up the process to include the city administration in the final decision."

Segarra said Thursday that although he is excited about UConn's move, city officials need to have greater input into the process.

"I'm committed to having something that works for the university, but also the long-term development of our city," he said. "We don't feel like we should be in the back seat. What I'm looking for is a significant opportunity to be heard, and I don't think that has happened yet."

Segarra said he would prefer that the university consider another proposed location for the campus, at Main and Talcott streets. He said he also would like to see a business occupy the former Times building, like the brewery, which would add to Hartford's tax base.

"We want our plan for the entertainment district to stay on course," he said.

After the city withdrew its bid, Herbst said, the university's master planner and architect discussed the project with city officials, including the mayor's former chief of staff, Jared Kupiec. The city's concerns were reported back to UConn's downtown Hartford committee, she said.

"As a state agency, we have followed state procurement rules during the process that led to the selection of both the preferred site and the development team," Herbst wrote in her letter. "We are excited to be moving to downtown Hartford and contributing to the vibrancy and economic development of the city."

UConn was expected to negotiate an agreement with HB Nitkin, which had proposed the Times site for the relocation. If a final agreement is reached, UConn's board of trustees must approve the deal.

Herbst could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Stephanie Reitz, a spokeswoman for UConn, said the university "remains in discussions with the owners of the preferred downtown site, but an agreement hasn't been finalized."

The campus is expected to bring 2,200 students and 300 faculty and staff members downtown, a significant boost to a city struggling to increase foot traffic beyond the 9-to-5 workday.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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