Location of new gym raises questions weeks after announcement

In this photo, the UConn Student Recreational Facility, also known as the Rec Center, is pictured. (Jackson Haigis/The Daily Campus)

UConn administration officials failed to notify at least some board of trustees members about the selection of Connecticut Commons as the site of a new $100 million student recreational facility, according to a university source close to the matter.

In an email to students earlier this month, the university announced that the Connecticut Commons residence halls will be demolished in 2017 at the latest to clear space for the campus’ new student recreation center.

Multiple members of the board were unaware of the decision until Sept. 10, the day the location was officially announced in an email disseminated to the entire student body by Undergraduate Student Government president Rachel Conboy, the university source said. 

Board members were not set to vote on the new facility’s location until a monthly meeting on the morning of Sept. 30. However, a group of administrators made the decision to propose the Connecticut Commons site and announce it publicly weeks prior, according to Laura Cruickshank, the university’s master planner and chief architect.
 
Cruickshank said the decision was reached during an August meeting, with herself and and several other university administrators present: Vice President for Student Affairs Michael Gilbert, Chief Financial Officer Scott Jordan, President Susan Herbst’s Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Kirk, Recreation Services Director Cyndi Costanzo, Planning Office Director Beverly Wood and Design, Engineering and Technical Support Director Michael Schrier.

The administrators came to the decision after closely considering a study commissioned by the university to find the most suitable site for the facility. The study found selecting Connecticut Commons would be the most beneficial for students and the long-term plans for Hillside Road, Cruickshank said.

The university’s most recent master plan, approved by the board of trustees in February, designated two options for the site of the new recreational facility – the university’s field house or the Y-Lot parking area above McMahon Residence Hall. While the master plan is nonbinding, selecting a separate site altogether raised some flags among trustees, according to the university source.

The master plan did designate Connecticut Commons for eventual demolition, as the residence halls are some of the oldest on campus. Some trustees, however, were under the impression the decision would be made much further in the future.

UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz said this is the first time she has heard of any concerns about a lack of communication with trustees and added that the administration is “more than happy to provide anything and everything” they might need. Additionally, university officials contend any information the trustees needed has always been available to them.

The agenda of Wednesday’s UConn Board of Trustees meeting includes a diagram dated Sept. 1, detailing the feasibility of the Connecticut Commons site. The diagram shows that four parking spaces will be lost behind the Dodd Center with the potential of it transitioning into an unavoidable dead-end lot.

Reitz and Cruickshank both pointed to a decision the board of trustees made at its November 2013 meeting as the basis for the selection of the site. 

However, the meeting’s agenda and minutes show the recreational facility was initially slated to be built in the area near Lot 9 and King Hill Road, on the north end of the Storrs campus. These plans were adjusted in the new master plan adopted this year, as university officials believed a central location on Hillside Road would be more convenient for students.

The minutes from the November 2013 meeting also show that each stage of the project needed to be approved by two board of trustees committees: financial affairs and buildings, grounds and environment. 

The university source said that at least two members of the buildings, grounds and environment committee had not been made aware of the location before the announcement. It is unclear whether action had been taken at the last buildings, grounds and environment committee meeting, as the minutes from the Sept. 18 meeting are not publicly available.

Reitz said the administration believes it has an “excellent” relationship with the board of trustees.

“There is constant back-and-forth communication,” Reitz said. “The buildings and grounds committee has been very deeply involved in a lot of these discussions.”

Cruickshank said despite any controversy surrounding the announcement, Connecticut Commons is the best site going forward. She said the Y-Lot site is not as accessible to all students, being located on a hill. Additionally, leaving the field house site open allows for STEM developments on the north side of campus to extend upward onto Hillside Road.

The university plans to request an additional $2 million to move forward on assessing the Connecticut Commons site and laying out a complete design, which would begin in October, Cruickshank said. Bidding for construction is scheduled to begin in January 2017.

Demolition of Connecticut Commons was initially announced for Summer 2017 in Conboy’s email.  However, Cruickshank said it could happen as early as 2016 if the process is expedited. If the project stays on schedule, the new student recreation center will open in Fall 2019, according to Cruickshank.


Kyle Constable is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at kyle.constable@uconn.edu. He tweets @KyleConstable.