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UConn Greater Hartford Branch Leaving West Hartford For Location In Downtown Hartford

 Facing an estimated $25 million in renovations to its Greater Hartford branch in West Hartford, UConn plans to move the campus to downtown Hartford within a year, bringing along 2,100 students and 60 faculty members.
    UConn President Susan Herbst said in a statement Thursday that "moving the Greater Hartford Campus back to the city, where it began and belongs, will better enable the campus to fulfill its academic mission, provide a major boost for downtown Hartford and save the university millions in the process."
    The university is not revealing a new location for the campus because negotiations are underway.
    Herbst said that "ensuring that UConn is fully contributing to the life of our capital city is one of my highest priorities. ... The campus was originally intended to offer an urban education near the seat of state government and there is no better place to accomplish that than in the heart of downtown. This will be a win-win for UConn, our students and the City of Hartford."
    The university plans to move into an existing downtown facility and will sell the 58-acre regional campus off Trout Brook Drive. UConn's School of Social Work, also on the campus, will be part of the move.
    The move will add to the burgeoning number of students in downtown with Capital Community College in the old G. Fox building, along with nearby graduate programs run by UConn and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the arrival last year of the University of St. Joseph School of Pharmacy.
    "This is great news. Bringing UConn back to downtown Hartford is a great step forward in the effort to revitalize our capital city,'' said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who has led efforts to harness the state's universities to boost the economy.
    In Hartford, the decision was met with applause. Mayor Pedro Segarra said in a statement, "Since I took office in 2010, I have actively and consistently engaged UConn to have a bigger footprint in the capital city."
    The move will significantly boost vitality downtown, encourage life in the evening hours at bars and restaurants and build on the arts and entertainment scene, said Michael Freimuth, executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority. It could also create new demand for downtown housing.
    "It's a big to-do," Freimuth said. "Any city that can activate itself with a college student population offers opportunity for everyone else."
    The university originally opened a campus in Hartford in 1939, moving to different locations around the city over the years. In 1970, it closed the city campus and moved to West Hartford.
    The decision to move back to Hartford was prompted by a review of the aging West Hartford campus that showed it would cost nearly $25 million to repair and restore the deteriorated buildings and campus. In the past four years, the university has spent $7.2 million on repairs at the West Hartford campus.
    Three locations have emerged as leading contenders for the new campus: the former Travelers Education Center on Constitution Plaza; the two-towered Connecticut River Plaza; and One Talcott Plaza on Talcott Street. All three locations are within a block of a UConn graduate business program.
    The vacant Traveler's Education Center encompasses 135,000 square feet and has been for sale or lease for about a year. The building is outfitted with classrooms and meeting space.
    The 575,000-square-foot Connecticut River Plaza on nearby Columbus Boulevard has been under consideration by the state as a leading location to consolidate state workers in other leased office space, according to real estate sources.
    The smaller, 103,000-square-foot building on Talcott Street near the G. Fox building has long been vacant.
    "We're obviously sorry to see them go,'' said West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka. "Now we're hoping to work with the school in the transition to make sure that whatever goes in that space next is appropriate for the town and the neighborhood."
    Slifka said the University of St. Joseph and the University of Hartford have both expressed interest in UConn's West Hartford property, but he said those talks are in the early stages.
    The site, which is on a wetland and in a flood plain, will likely need to remain a school, Slifka said.
    "From a development perspective, it probably can't be developed much beyond what it looks like now," he said. "From a very early look, I think our inclination is the best use for the town and the surrounding neighborhood is for it to remain what it is, a school campus."
    The land, which straddles Trout Brook Drive, is in a residential zone. Rob Rowlson, West Hartford's director of community services, said, "If the two universities that are nearby are interested, that would be great."
    At the University of Hartford, President Walter Harrison said he doesn't think the university would have an interest in the West Hartford property, "but I haven't had a chance to fully explore it. I'm in the process of talking to people here."
    University of St. Joseph President Pamela Trotman Reid issued a statement saying she endorses UConn's decision to move its West Hartford campus, saying that it will join St. Joseph's School of Pharmacy "in creating additional vibrancy in downtown Hartford."
    Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, and co-chairwoman of the legislature's higher education committee, said that as a representative of West Hartford, she has concerns about the move, including the preservation of several ball fields on the campus.
    Bye said she hopes the relocation will enhance collaboration with Capital Community College, also downtown. "I think a four-year college in downtown Hartford would be fabulous."
    Faculty, who were informed of the move at a meeting Wednesday, have been enthusiastic, according to a UConn official who asked not to be identified.
    Several of the majors and programs housed on the West Hartford campus could benefit by moving downtown, including the Department of Public Policy; Urban and Community Studies; and an urban semester program. Those programs often involve internships in city and state agencies.
    Oz Griebel, president and chief executive of the MetroHartford Alliance, a business lobbying group, said UConn already has graduate business school programs at Constitution Plaza, but the introduction of undergraduate students brings a key element downtown, beyond the evening and weekend work of graduate students.
    "For most undergraduates, they are exclusively focused on education and the social life that goes with it," Griebel said. "It throws off more energy."
    On Thursday afternoon, several students on the snow-covered campus said they had not been informed of the impending move and didn't express much enthusiasm for it. They said they like the tranquil feel of the West Hartford location, nestled in a residential neighborhood and reminiscent of a small suburban high school.
    Told of the move, Dhurata Lluhani, 18, a freshman from Manchester, responded, "What? I'm not a fan of that. ... The campus is beautiful."

Courant staff writers Julie Stagis and Vanessa de la Torre contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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