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March 4, 2024

Set for Hartford growth spurt, UConn seeks to offer downtown student housing

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Mark Overmyer-Velazquez, dean and chief academic officer of UConn’s Hartford campus (left), and Pamir Alpay, UConn’s vice president for research, innovation and entrepreneurship, outside the XL Center in downtown Hartford.
UConn’s tentative XL Center lease terms 
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The University of Connecticut is deepening its ties to the Capital City, with plans to grow its downtown campus footprint while connecting students to new research, employment, internship and even housing opportunities.

The expansion includes UConn taking over 51,000 square feet of vacant space at the XL Center, where the school this fall will debut new research and clinical programs.

University leaders are also strongly considering the addition of student dormitory space downtown. The effort would likely include a partnership with a private developer who would convert an empty or underutilized office building into student housing.

The overall expansion, school leaders said, aims to create new work and internship opportunities for students, while also opening up potential partnerships with Hartford businesses, nonprofits and arts programs.

Dormitory space would also satisfy students’ long-running desires for a more traditional college experience in the city, said Mark Overmyer-Velazquez, dean and chief academic officer of UConn’s Hartford campus.

“For me, it’s all about how do I improve their education and their experience, and enhance those with what’s going on in the city,” Overmyer-Velazquez said.

UConn is finalizing a five-year lease for the XL Center space, which was previously occupied by the University of St. Joseph’s pharmacy school.

UConn has set a tentative $1.2 million budget to retrofit the space, which will host a new agricultural and food science program, sports medicine center, mental health clinic and two badly needed lecture halls.

[RELATED: Privately developed college dorm in downtown Waterbury pays off; UConn’s Avery Point campus leadership shows interest]

State lawmakers last year allocated $5 million in bond funding to support the expansion. The state Bond Commission approved those funds in December.

It will be the largest expansion in Hartford by UConn since 2017, when the school debuted its new $150 million regional campus in the former Hartford Times Building.

The Hartford campus, which relocated from West Hartford, brought with it much fanfare, originally hosting about 2,300 undergraduate and graduate students and 300 faculty.

UConn also has its graduate business school in downtown Hartford, located at Constitution Plaza.

Residential expansion

UConn could begin offering downtown housing options by the end of this year or in 2025, school officials said.

In addition to undergraduate students, it could accommodate pupils from UConn’s Hartford-based law school and Farmington-based medical campus.

Anne D’Alleva

“We are looking at establishing a residence hall for undergraduate students, and also possibly graduate students in downtown Hartford,” UConn Provost Anne D’Alleva recently told the Hartford Business Journal. “Students at the Hartford campus have for some time shared that they would like to have a housing option as part of their college experience.”

UConn is considering a pilot program in which it would lease downtown apartments from a private landlord and make the units available for students.

It’s a model the school already employs at its campus in Stamford, where UConn leases three residential buildings that house about 500 students who live in suite-style apartments.

UConn, which directly manages those residence halls, plans to lease additional space near its Stamford campus this fall to increase student housing options there, officials said.

UConn also has student housing available at its Waterbury campus that operates in a slightly different manner.

“There is a lot of demand for housing in Stamford, and we believe that demand would be equally strong for a residential experience at the Hartford campus,” D’Alleva said.

D’Alleva said UConn isn’t looking to acquire additional Hartford real estate, so any dormitory space would require a partnership with a private landlord or developer.

“The process right now is about identifying a suitable location and then, I think, we need to assess what renovations might be necessary,” D’Alleva said.

Christopher Reilly, president of prolific Hartford-based developer Lexington Partners, said his firm is speaking with UConn about possibly redeveloping existing office space into dorms, which would be leased to the university.

“They are very motivated, and we are still trying to work out how to do it all,” Reilly said.

New programs, greater impact

City officials said UConn’s Hartford expansion will provide downtown an economic boost.

The move will bring hundreds of additional students to the city each weekday during the school year.

“We are talking about all of these younger students and grad students who are going to be spending their time there, that will create a new attraction for business,” said Hartford Economic Development Director Patrick Pentalow. “I think it’s a huge win for Hartford, and I think it’s a win for UConn as well.”

Hartford Economic Development Director Patrick Pentalow outside City Hall.

The XL Center will host a new food innovation center headed by UConn’s Department of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources. The center is meant to help Connecticut farmers produce in-demand crops, increasing the value of the state’s agricultural sector. The center will also pair UConn faculty with industry to conduct research and joint projects.

The psychology clinic will provide low-cost therapy services to the public and hands-on experience for students. The Institute for Sports Medicine inside the XL Center will bring together researchers, physicians, clinicians and physical therapists from the UConn Department of Kinesiology in Storrs and UConn Health to provide instruction and services, said Pamir Alpay, UConn’s vice president for research, innovation and entrepreneurship.

“This will be a very central location where we can do clinical work, where we can do research work,” Alpay said.

Alpay said the university hopes the new clinical opportunities will help spur future enrollment growth. The Hartford campus began the 2023 fall semester with 1,473 undergraduate students.

D’Alleva said the upcoming Hartford expansion also complements the university’s recently adopted 10-year strategic master plan, which calls for “seven world-class campuses and one flagship university.”

The campuses include Storrs; the regionals in Hartford, Waterbury, Stamford and Avery Point in Groton; along with the UConn Health facility in Farmington and UConn’s law school in Hartford.

“The idea is that we want to build each of our campuses and take advantage of opportunities that each of our locations represent,” D’Alleva said. “Of course, Hartford is our capital and a major business city in the nation, and so we want to build our presence in Hartford.”

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