When you're master planner and chief architect of a state university making its way through a multi-billion-dollar building-expansion program, breaking away for a first-hand look at a project in progress is a rare luxury.
"I have directors like Robert, who are in charge of projects,'' Laura Cruickshank, said of one of her aides, Robert Corbett, who directs the college's regional projects and development, including the downtown Hartford campus.
However, Cruickshank, flanked by Corbett, recently took time away from Storrs to visit the Capital City to inspect and talk about one of UConn's biggest, most visible developments: The $140 million conversion of the former Hartford Times Building into 160,000 square feet of classroom, lecture and faculty space, along with 19,000 square feet of retail space, moving toward their fall 2017 debut.
The highly anticipated project will bring thousands of students, faculty and staff downtown, helping to fill the streets — and local businesses, cultural and other city institutions — with a new sense of vibrancy.
UConn's new downtown location aims to create a neighborhood campus by closely linking with nearby cultural institutions and state and government agencies, including the Hartford Public Library, which will house UConn classrooms and study areas. The project will also bring a Barnes & Noble bookstore and the School of Social Work downtown.
"For UConn, moving to downtown Hartford is a return to our roots since this campus originated in the city,'' Cruickshank said. "We are excited to be part of the energy supporting the growth and revitalization of Hartford and the opportunities that being in the state's Capital City make available to our students."
Although she arrived three years ago, well after UConn administrators and trustees had decided to open in Hartford, Cruickshank's eye and expertise were crucial in helping UConn avoid an embarrassing space-constraint situation. She credits the city, the Capital Region Development Authority, and the Hartford Public Library for partnering in a solution.
"It quickly became apparent that the [campus' programs] required a building larger than appropriate for the Hartford Times site and its neighborhood,'' she said. "I relayed that message to the UConn administration, and that led to research and discussion about the idea of an urban campus, such as [New York University], Temple and Yale, where academic and support space are located in multiple buildings."
Cruickshank is quick to note that the downtown campus, to replace its half-century-old one in West Hartford, is one of several underway or coming under the 10-year, $2 billion capital-building program now known as Next Generation Connecticut.
"This is a piece of the puzzle,'' she said, "and if one piece gets too big, it throws off the whole project."
Cruickshank arrived at UConn in Feb. 2013 from cross-state rival Yale University, where she had been a planner-designer since 2002. She is a 1975 graduate of Massachusetts' Mt. Holyoke College, and earned her master of architecture degree from the University of New Mexico School of Architecture and Planning in 1980.
One of her Yale projects was the creation of a Singapore campus for a liberal-arts college that Yale collaborated in establishing there.
Despite her career arc through academia, the married Mansfield Center resident is no stranger to the private sector. Cruickshank spent eight years in private practice, with stops in Westchester and Rochester, N.Y., and Albuquerque, N.M., before moving to Hamden in 1988.
She worked from 1988 to 1995 at Noyes Vogt Architects in Guilford, and from 1995 to 2002 at Nelson Edward Cruickshank Architects, now Nelson Edwards Co. Architects, in Branford.
At UConn's flagship campus in the Storrs section of Mansfield, the school this fall finished renovation of a classroom building. Also, work is underway on a $95 million engineering/sciences building and the $163 million Innovation Partnership Building in UConn's Tech Park development.
Like the downtown campus, both are set for 2017 completion.
As for UConn's Hartford campus, Cruickshank said she anticipates no major holdups as work progresses smoothly toward a late summer completion, in time for the start of fall classes.
"We believe it will be a terrific success — but it would make construction a bit easier if we don't have 3 feet of snow all winter!" she said " … We'll push right to the finish line.''