The University of Connecticut announced Thursday that its Greater Hartford Campus will be moving from West Hartford to downtown Hartford within a year.
"We're disappointed to see them go, but we think that this opens up an exciting opportunity for other universities in town," said West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka. He said that both the University of Saint Joseph, which is adjacent to the UConn property on Asylum Ave., and the University of Hartford, have expressed interest in the property.
West Hartford Town Manager Ron Van Winkle said that he and other town officials have had recent discussions about the relocation with University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst.
Talks of a move were first raised more than a decade ago during Gov. John Rowland's administration, Van Winkle said, and are in line with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's plans to relocate state offices to Hartford as well.
The site is currently zoned "R-13" (residential), Van Winkle said, with much of the property in a flood zone. "It is substantially encumbered by wetlands," he said, and the visible grass area is not just for aesthetics but is a flood plain.
Van Winkle said that as a property owner the state is not subject to zoning regulations, but if the land is purchased by a commercial entity, any changes to the single family residential zone would have to be approved.
"I assume they would sell it," Van Winkle said when asked about the future of the property.
In addition to the educational facilities, the UConn property is also the site of several town athletic fields, including the Miracle League baseball field. Van Winkle said that West Hartford currently has a five-year lease for the property.
State Sen. Beth Bye (D-5th), who is chair of the Higher Education Committee, said Thursday evening that the fields were brought up as a concern when she discussed the potential move with UConn last month, but she did not realize that the university was ready to move forward so quickly.
Bye contacted university officials on Wednesday when she heard that the planned move had been announced to faculty, and was told that the state would not include the fields in the sale of the property but would convey that land to West Hartford.
"UConn has assured me that the fields would remain with the town," Bye said.
She said that she and other members of the West Hartford delegation would ensure that the land is included in the conveyance bill to be passed in the next legislative session.
Ronit Shoham, co-chair of the Miracle League of Connecticut, said she was relieved when Bye informed her that the fields would convey to the town and would not be sold along with the rest of the UConn property.
Shoham said she was tremendously grateful to Bye and other members of the West Hartford delegation for working behind the scenes to ensure the continued availability of the athletic fields, and to UConn for agreeing to the conveyance.
Slifka said he was also concerned about preservation of the fields. "We have had a nice relationship with the state [regarding the fields], and I would like to find a solution that doesn't involve using taxpayer money for what we're already using," said Slifka.
He thinks it may be best to have the rest of the property, which is completely surrounded by residential neighborhoods as well as the University of Saint Joseph, remain a school.
Regarding the effect of the move on West Hartford's tax revenue Slifka said, "We need to examine the PILOT [payment in lieu of taxes] payment to make sure we continue to receive appropriate compensation." Van Winkle said that there is another type of PILOT, involving a level of state reimbursement, which would be available if the property was purchased by another university.
If the land is sold to a non-profit, Van Winkle said, the town would lose tax revenue. If single family homes are built on the site, West Hartford would gain additional property tax revenues.
"I don't think that this is a commercial site," said Van Winkle.
University of Connecticut spokesperson Stephanie Reitz said Thursday afternoon that the projected cost of upgrading the Greater Hartford campus facilities and a desire to relocate to Hartford figured into the university's decision.
Reitz said that the university projected that approximately $25 million would need to be spent to upgrade the campus. In the past four years, UConn has already spent $7.2 million on "critical repairs," she said.
Reitz also said that a move to downtown Hartford would provide additional opportunities for existing students in social work, public policy, and Masters of Public Administration programs.
In an official statement, University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst said, “Ensuring that UConn is fully contributing to the life of our capital city is one of my highest priorities. 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 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.”
UConn's Greater Hartford campus was located in Hartford from 1939 to 1970 when it moved to West Hartford. The campus currently serves approximately 2,100 students on the 58-acre site. There are five buildings, encompassing approximately 164,000 square feet, and 60 faculty members are employed there. According to UConn's website, the campus offers undergraduate programs in American Studies, Business and Technology, Human Development and Family Studies, Psychology, and Urban and Community Studies, as well as a "Master of Education with Teacher Certification" program.
Slifka said that in discussions with Herbst, he "planted the seed" regarding the opportunity for continuing a relationship with the university in West Hartford – perhaps in the Center – at some point in the future.