Phase Zero Design
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UConn Co-Op Bookstore: A Community Cultural Center

UConn has been expanding and growing, and the needs of students changing. In recent years, the growth of the student body and general demand for more amenities at the university resulted in the development of Storrs Center, a new downtown destination. This mixed use development contains restaurants, retail stores, apartments, a museum and theater, and is enjoyed by students and the neighboring Mansfield residents alike. Bordering campus, this development is an extension of the university that brings students and the surrounding community together.

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The location of this development presented the perfect opportunity for the UConn Co-op and Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry to grow their presence both on and off campus. UConn is one of only two universities in the country offering a BFA degree in puppet arts and the only institution in the country offering masters degrees in the field. The Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry (BIMP) had previously been located several miles from the university’s main campus. This distinctive aspect of the university’s identity had been secluded from the majority of the student body, and never had the chance to become a part of the culture of the community. Bringing BIMP to Storrs Center and attaching it to the new branch of the UConn Co-op Bookstore has gained the program much deserved recognition and foot traffic, and has contributed to making both the bookstore and BIMP a destination.

The museum lobby contains a research area open to the public, allowing access to one of the largest collections of both physical and digital media regarding puppetry in the world. State of the art LED and fiber optic lighting, temperature and humidity controls in the galleries and the closed display cases allow BIMP to display portions of their extensive collection of artifacts. This also allows them to curate traveling and loaned exhibits from other museums and collectors from around the world. The theater contains special flooring, an advanced LED lighting system, a powerful sound system, and features complete integration among the systems to monitors throughout the BIMP spaces. This enables the space to host not only the originally intended uses, but gives traveling shows from around the world the opportunity to stage performances.

The bookstore is located on a corner of the mixed-use development, visible from busy Route 195. Although the bookstore is retail focused, the project required our team to mesh elements between the retail store, café, museum and theater in both design sense and technology. To accommodate security needs and different opening times within the same space, each section required separation, but with the added function of being able to convert into one connected entity for special events and performances.

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The unique challenge of this project was creating a design that allows customers to flow from one section to the next while still clearly defining each area. Our team was able to integrate each entity’s needs into a cohesive and functional design that brings value to the client. In the bookstore, the well-defined yet open sections increase visibility of each part of the store from every entry point. From the front entrance, Le Petit Marche Café is visible straight ahead, and to the right are strong sight lines to the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry, accessible via large glass doors. A removable wall separates the bookstore from the state-of-the-art black box theater, providing privacy and separation between the two spaces with the option to link them together during performances and book signings. An oval-shaped cash wrap anchors the space and becomes the central hub of the bookstore, providing customers access from all areas. These design features contribute to an enhanced customer experience and allow the customer to flow clearly from one area to the next, enabling them to navigate the space immediately upon entry. The bookstore is accessible from the café entrance, museum, and theater without having to exit the building.

The bookstore’s corner location, although important in establishing it as a central hub, involved designing all of the spaces on different levels. The varying elevations resulted in structural challenges throughout the design process, including complications in the column structure and complications in ceiling elements due to apartments located above and an open terrace within the buildings. In addition to the structural challenges, our team was asked to incorporate existing fixtures from a previous location along with new fixtures, as well as design all elements to work with the existing columns. We solved these issues by creating separation using different levels of the space, which added dynamic elements to the design and created more opportunities for merchandising.

Although the UConn Co-op is associated with the university, the design had to appeal to those in the surrounding community in addition to students. The design successfully incorporates university branding, but has the distinctive feel of a small town bookstore. The finishes, colors and layout give the bookstore a soft and inviting atmosphere, flooded with natural light from large windows the length of the exterior walls. Not only does it attract community members, it encourages them to enter. Both the bookstore and BIMP have hosted community events, including puppet shows and book signings, to engage the surrounding community. Additionally, a significant amount of wall space is available for local artists to paint and bring community influences to the bookstore.

The overall design intent was to create an environment where all community members would feel welcome, including students, their families, town residents and visitors, while showcasing UConn’s unique programs and encouraging involvement and interaction. The marriage of all four spaces – hospitality, retail, theater, and museum – create an inviting, unique and cozy atmosphere that offer an experience that has never come to campus before. The UConn Co-op Bookstore and Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry have become a local destination and contribute to the vibrant culture of UConn and its surrounding community.

The UConn Co-op Bookstore and Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry was honored as Best in Class Retail and Community Cultural Development at the 2015 CREW CT Blue Ribbon Awards Showcase. What are your favorite projects that have contributed to a community culture?

Photo credit to Joseph Ferraro Photography.