A Letter to The Zoning Board of Appeals: No Gas Stations Downtown.

The former Humphrey Cadillac and Olds.  Image via Google.

The former Humphrey Cadillac and Olds.  Image via Google.

Demolished in 2009.  Image via Google.

Demolished in 2009.  Image via Google.

Good Evening Board Members, City Staff, 

My name is Michael Smith.  I am a Rockford resident, a second-year graduate student in Public Administration, and an advocate of the traditional development pattern exhibited in our central city and adjacent neighborhoods. Thank you for the opportunity to speak this evening regarding the proposed 221 North Second Street development. 

Over the last few years, the downtown has sustained nearly $120 million of private development.  This development is characterized by adaptive reuse projects of traditional buildings that knit the urban fabric together, contribute to the reactivation of the public realm, and typify the activity called for in a C-4, mixed-use urban district with an arts and creativity overlay.  Organizations like the River District and other stakeholders know how to program within and around this type of development, and have worked hard to accomplish an implementation goal identified in the City’s 2015 Downtown Strategic Action Plan: “Maintain day-to-day vibrancy.”  From coffee shops to clothing boutiques, to restaurants and brewpubs, commercial activity within traditional buildings has increased dramatically in the last several years.  Further, many traditional buildings were designed to incorporate residential spaces above the ground floor, and we are seeing a sustained demand for mixed-use urban living in these very spaces located within the C-4 district.  

Indeed, thanks to the efforts of the City, the River District, key developers, and many advocates, we have begun to see substantial progress in our efforts towards revitalizing our downtown.  But tonight I contend that such efforts are frustrated when we allow suburban-style, single-use, auto-oriented development to be sewn into the urban fabric, and that’s precisely what is before you this evening with the proposed 221 North Second Street development. 

Image via csnews.com

Image via csnews.com

I understand that Kelley-Williamson is seeking to construct a gas station, convenience store, and car wash, which would be the first of its kind within this district.  A gas station should not be construed as a contributing building to a mixed-use urban district, not to mention one that sits in an arts and creativity overlay.  No amount of cultured stone or decorative landscaping on this development could purport to accomplish the same level of conviviality and fiscal productivity accomplished by its traditional urban counterpart.  Further, single-use developments of this nature have not demonstrated any sort of resiliency beyond their first life cycle.  What does one do with a vacant gas station once its original use is no more? The current properties within the district, especially mixed-use properties exemplified on State Street, have sustained multiple uses since their inception. I find it difficult to believe that this property would be a consistent contributor to the tax base in a way that would outperform adjacent traditional developments. 

I’m aware that we have only seen seven new privately developed buildings constructed downtown from 1960 to the present, making this proposed development the eighth.  I’m also mindful of the reality that the proposed development would be a more productive use of land than its current status as a vacant lot.  I am asking, however, on the basis of the goals and strategies outlined in the City’s Comprehensive Plan and Downtown Strategic Action Plan, that you deny this project.  And I urge City staff and other stakeholders to advocate for the highest and best use of this parcel, which is mixed-use, retail-residential development. 

The City’s 2015-2019 Implementation Plan includes the following goal: "Encourage compact and sustainable development to maximize walkability and access within neighborhood centers and commercial corridors.” This development is neither compact nor sustainable, and does not advance efforts to improve active transportation within the district.  I am ardently opposed to this development, and will be contacting both City staff and Council members to express my opposition.  Thank you.

 

Sidewalk Friction

'Then'. Courtesy of Rockford Reminisce.

'Then'. Courtesy of Rockford Reminisce.

Rockford, Main and Cedar Street.  The Chicago & Northwestern Depot was constructed in 1893, and occupied the southwest corner of Main and Cedar for seventy years.  Someone, somewhere, thought it was a good idea to have passenger rail service located in the heart of our city.   I agree.  This station is long gone, however, and romanticism for what once was is an exercise in futility.  Nonetheless, this picture offers a glimpse into life before the Automobile Age, with indicators that this place was characterized by slow, multimodal transportation options.  Consider: 

  • There are no traffic signals, beg buttons, or pedestrian timers.  Cross as you will, when you will. 
  • There is no lane striping in sight.  Striped crosswalks and dedicated turn lanes are absent.
  • The electric poles are awfully close to the street.  Traffic engineers may refer to these as ‘fixed hazardous objects’ today, and recommend relocating the lines or burying them underground.
  • Can you find a traffic sign? Neither can I.  ‘Stop’, ‘Speed Limit 30’, ‘Right Turn Only’…not a single sign to be found. (Note: The date this picture was taken is unknown.  This street was certainly modified over the Depot’s seventy-year stretch.)
Now.  A future parking lot, a transaction in decline.

Now.  A future parking lot, a transaction in decline.

Rockford, Main and Cedar Street.   The Depot was demolished in 1963, and the Warshawsky ‘Muffler Graveyard’ shop occupied this site until earlier this year when it was demolished for–you guessed it–surface parking.  I rode my bike downtown to take some pictures of the main Warshawsky building, a nondescript 1920s-era brick building, before it too was razed for surface parking.  In addition to noting the traffic bling at this intersection, fancy lights and all, I noticed this sign: 

“Sidewalk closed”.  Someone, somewhere, thought it was a good idea to close a sidewalk when adjacent construction is pending or underway.  At face value, I agree.  So what’s the problem here?  Ignore the obvious absence of a barricade or the remaining presence of the sidewalk.  Never mind the likelihood that people continued to walk this stretch of sidewalk without the slightest pangs of guilt.  There is a bigger question to ask: What if this stretch was a roadway instead of a sidewalk? Or, put another way:  What if I was a motorist instead of a pedestrian?   

I’m sure it's anathema for walkability advocates to think like a motorist, but indulge me for a second.  As a driver, would you expect a sign placed in the middle of the roadway that reads “ROAD CLOSED: YOU FIGURE IT OUT”? No: You expect a detour, an alternate route, one that does not stray too far from the roadway you started on, and includes signage directing you back to the original route once the construction zone has been passed.  It’s completely reasonable for you to expect these solutions, as this is standard practice across the entire country for one mode of transport: Your vehicle.  So why, then, do we not expect the same solutions contextualized for pedestrians?  Because pedestrians are not prioritized.  

Image via the Copenhagenize Facebook page.  Best bicycle planning organization on the planet.

Image via the Copenhagenize Facebook page.  Best bicycle planning organization on the planet.

Over the last several months, my coursework has required me to dive into strategic documents intended to guide planning and development throughout our city: The 2020 Comp Plan, our planning agency’s Regional Sustainability Plan, and more.  We say traditional, walkable places are becoming more desirable, and that we should recognize our grid-based development pattern as an asset; we recognize the positive outcomes that come from reducing auto dependency; we even understand that a significant amount of residents in zip codes west of the river do not own or have access to a vehicle.  We ‘value’ walkability.  But if our values cannot even modify the slightest city ordinance requiring us to close a sidewalk and not offer any alternatives, I sincerely question if we truly value walkability, much more prioritize pedestrians as a normative form of transportation.

Same intersection.  Taken one month after demolition.  No sidewalk left...but, lest you forget: That sidewalk is still closed.

Same intersection.  Taken one month after demolition.  No sidewalk left...but, lest you forget: That sidewalk is still closed.

Two Wheels, One City, No Limits

Recently, I (Jennifer) was asked to write a piece for The Voice, a monthly newsletter created by the Rockford Chamber of Commerce.  There are so many activities our city has to offer throughout the summer, and I believe there’s no better way to get to these events than on a bicycle.  

Rockford's new 'rails to trails' bicycle path, just south of downtown.

Rockford's new 'rails to trails' bicycle path, just south of downtown.

There’s nothing quite like seeing Rockford come alive in the summer. I have the great fortune of living in the Edgewater Neighborhood, where dog walkers and families with strollers traverse freely year-round, but the onset of summer is really something to behold. From a jam-packed Sinnissippi path and the strains of music from Anderson Gardens floating across the Rock River, from the Forest City Queen gliding by to the roar of the crowd at Ski Bronc shows, the sights and sounds of summer permeate the long, sunny days. 

And what if I told you that there was a way to amplify your enjoyment of these amenities that not only improved your own physical health but the fiscal health of our community, decreased your impact on the environment, improved your access to familiar and new adventures, and afforded opportunities to get to know the people and places of our city more deeply? There is no better way to explore our city and enjoy all it has to offer than from a bicycle. Today, I’ll focus on three reasons: Proximity, Perception, and Practicality. 

State Street, looking west.  This temporary bike lane has been applied each year for the past three years.

State Street, looking west.  This temporary bike lane has been applied each year for the past three years.

Proximity: One of the great advantages of the amenities already mentioned is their proximity to each other and many more on both sides of the river, spilling out to the north and south from downtown. Some are accessed directly from the Sinnissippi path or are immediately adjacent, and many more are within a short ride on streets to which the path connects. Madison Street in particular is now active and lively from north to south. The summer addition of separated bike lanes on the State Street bridge opens even more of the city to bikes and pedestrians, and the “Rails to Trails” bridge just south of Davis Park provides a new East-West connection. While it may seem too far to walk from a concert at Nicholas Conservatory to have a drink at Owly Oop, hop on your bike and the distance is covered in just a few minutes – I give you permission to have another beer because you burned extra calories on the way! 

Perception: Let’s begin by discussing the perception of safety when exploring the city by bike. While it is very true that some high-traffic areas are not suitable or advisable for bicyclists, streets in downtown and adjacent neighborhoods in particular are well-suited for riding. Narrower streets, on-street parking, and the all-day presence of pedestrians lead to slower traffic and more attentive drivers. The perception and reality of safety can be greatly improved by planning your route ahead of time (perhaps trying out an unfamiliar route at a less busy time of day) and knowing how to respond to changing traffic patterns and intersection layouts. 

Another area to address is how your perception of a city can be changed by exploring it on two wheels. Appreciation of the natural beauty of a tree-lined street and the physical beauty of the buildings of downtown is greatly enhanced while biking; chance encounters with friends are easily facilitated by simply pulling up to the curb (no need to hold up traffic or scramble for a parking spot!); community activity that is unapparent from 30+ mph suddenly make a district seem vibrant, lived-in, viable. Suddenly, streets and whole sections of the city aren’t just thoroughfares, they are destinations! Further, some of the most beautiful views in the city are accessible only by bike or by foot, such as the cliffs along the river just north of Riverside and the cityscape and dam by means of the new bike/ped bridge just south of Davis Park. 

Practicality: The best argument for enjoying a Rockford summer on two wheels is the fact that it is immensely practical. Imagine riding up to front row parking every time, everywhere, even at busy City Market and Dinner on the Dock. If you’ve spent more than 10 minutes getting from one parking space to another in the downtown corridor, you’ve exceeded the time it takes to bike from Nordlof Center to Rockford Art Museum, from 317 Gallery to Octane. 

City Market attendance averages 5,000 persons weekly.  Imagine if everyone drove separately in their own cars to the market; how does that affect the sense of conviviality and place-making that downtown advocates are fighting for?  Arrive on your bike, however, and you'll find 'parking' in a flash.

City Market attendance averages 5,000 persons weekly.  Imagine if everyone drove separately in their own cars to the market; how does that affect the sense of conviviality and place-making that downtown advocates are fighting for?  Arrive on your bike, however, and you'll find 'parking' in a flash.

Improving bike facilities makes fiscal sense for a community. Domestic and international studies have shown increased retail traffic along streets with improved bike facilities. Recent research (Lund University, Sweden) has demonstrated that every kilometer driven by car costs society 17 cents, while biking one kilometer saves society 18 cents (in health, infrastructure, car collision, environmental impacts, etc.). 12 bikes can easily be parked in the space it takes to park one car. Further, a large portion of Rockford’s population simply doesn’t drive, whether they are too old or young, can’t afford a car, don’t have a license, or simply choose not to. Ensuring adequate space for the mobility of all residents goes a long way to improving the equity of our community. 

Take time this summer to explore Rockford by bike and discover the freedom that two wheels can offer! 

**Want to get to know other bike enthusiasts, learn about upcoming events, or help advocate for bike initiatives in our city? Follow I Bike Rockford on Facebook or email ibikerockford@gmail.com to learn more. 

 

A CitySmiths Update

Hello Dear, if not Faithful, Readers, 

Clearly we’ve given you no reason in the last nine months for you to be interested in our lives or the activities that have kept us busy.  We’ve been exceptionally occupied with so many adventures since last August, and wanted to catch you up on some of them: 

After ten years of ministry, I (Michael) left my position as Youth Director at Kishwaukee Church to pursue a graduate degree in Public Administration from Northern Illinois University.  It was a bittersweet transition; the position allowed me to disciple hundreds of students, lead alongside a top-notch team of adult and student volunteers, teach multiple times during the week, and serve in cities throughout the country.  I continue to miss my students, leaders, and the Kish family, but am grateful to live not far from many of them and continue to see students often. 

These students are my favorite people.   Now you’ve graduated; where does the time go?

These students are my favorite people.   Now you’ve graduated; where does the time go?

Since then, I’ve been working as a Management Intern in the City of Janesville, while taking three classes per semester.  The coursework has been rigorous yet timely, and the internship allows me to apply what I’m learning each day.   The internship has given me a fresh appreciation for local government leadership and the public servants who continue to improve service delivery in a variety of ways.   

I took this shot after my interview with the City of Janesville, May of last year.  Charming, resilient…but, alas, the ‘shiny and new’ near interstate 90 commands the wallets of most.

I took this shot after my interview with the City of Janesville, May of last year.  Charming, resilient…but, alas, the ‘shiny and new’ near interstate 90 commands the wallets of most.

Jennifer continues to serve as the Program and Membership Coordinator at the Northern Illinois Center for Nonprofit Excellence (NICNE).  From Leadership Cafés to Business Luncheons, Jennifer handles the logistics for every NICNE program: Registration, marketing, set-up/tear-down, and much more.  Nonprofit organizations that are members with NICNE have access to Jennifer’s expertise as well.  Board training, strategic planning, grant applications, and technical assistance are among the many inquiries that Jennifer receives from nonprofits in her position. 

Last Fall, Jennifer completed a volunteer position for Transform Rockford, an initiative which aims to make the Rockford region a Top 25 city by 2025.  Jen’s role was an ‘ arts and recreation spoke lead’.  The work was extensive and varied, and involved leading a team of volunteers in discovering best practices in cultural and recreational planning throughout the country.  Jennifer also serves as a board member on our local neighborhood association, where she manages the social media pages, assists with neighborhood programs, and much more.  

So, although we don't expect our schedules to diminish anytime soon, we’re working to get back to our original intent for this blog: “Every day presents an opportunity learn more about what creating a better city means, and this site is our effort to work through some of those lessons…” Not a week goes by where we discover a great idea, or are discouraged by a certain outcome, where we say,  “we need to write about this.”  So expect more regular, ongoing content from us in the months to come.  For now, here are some photos to serve as updates of what’s been keeping us busy the last several months.

In May we spent two weeks in Copenhagen.  One of the most formative experiences of our lives.  Put simply: Once you see the bicycle as the normative, dominant means of transportation, you see cities in a different light.  We’re smitten, and we can’t wait to go back.  Check out Copenhagenize; Mikael Colville-Andersen is my hero.

In May we spent two weeks in Copenhagen.  One of the most formative experiences of our lives.  Put simply: Once you see the bicycle as the normative, dominant means of transportation, you see cities in a different light.  We’re smitten, and we can’t wait to go back.  Check out Copenhagenize; Mikael Colville-Andersen is my hero.

In July Jennifer organized a ‘Rally at The Roaster’, an event at our local coffee roaster to promote a bicycle path on a heavily-used thoroughfare in Rockford.   It was the first smattering of bicycles we saw since Copenhagen, and it was amazing to have news networks arrive and get the word out. 

In July Jennifer organized a ‘Rally at The Roaster’, an event at our local coffee roaster to promote a bicycle path on a heavily-used thoroughfare in Rockford.   It was the first smattering of bicycles we saw since Copenhagen, and it was amazing to have news networks arrive and get the word out. 

In August, Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns visited Rockford to give a Curbside Chat and participate in a series of neighborhood walking tours.  The Strong Towns message continues to inspire and challenge us, and we’re grateful that Rachel Quednau, Communications Director for Strong Towns, was able to swing by as well.

In August, Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns visited Rockford to give a Curbside Chat and participate in a series of neighborhood walking tours.  The Strong Towns message continues to inspire and challenge us, and we’re grateful that Rachel Quednau, Communications Director for Strong Towns, was able to swing by as well.

In October, Michael attended the Growing Sustainable Communities Conference in Dubuque Iowa.  We’re inspired by Dubuque’s passionate, dedicated, and progressive leadership, and it shines through in conferences like this.  2 days, 80 bucks, and a tour of the City?  Yes and yes.

In October, Michael attended the Growing Sustainable Communities Conference in Dubuque Iowa.  We’re inspired by Dubuque’s passionate, dedicated, and progressive leadership, and it shines through in conferences like this.  2 days, 80 bucks, and a tour of the City?  Yes and yes.

Did we say that Copenhagen was influential?  We rode more in the past year than we have in the past twenty.  We rode through the winter as well, and I’ll tell you: I’d rather be riding at 10 degrees than 100 degrees.  Winter riding is so much fun.  

Did we say that Copenhagen was influential?  We rode more in the past year than we have in the past twenty.  We rode through the winter as well, and I’ll tell you: I’d rather be riding at 10 degrees than 100 degrees.  Winter riding is so much fun.  

In January, the Rockford Register Star selected us as part of the paper’s “People to Watch in 2017”! To whomever nominated us: Thank you.   

In January, the Rockford Register Star selected us as part of the paper’s “People to Watch in 2017”! To whomever nominated us: Thank you.   

This Spring, Jennifer was a Ward Co-Lead for the Tom McNamara mayoral campaign.  Jennifer walked dozens of blocks and knocked on doors to get the vote out.  Campaigning is exhaustive, intensive work…but the work paid off.  Tom received 70% of the vote with four candidates running; pretty impressive.

This Spring, Jennifer was a Ward Co-Lead for the Tom McNamara mayoral campaign.  Jennifer walked dozens of blocks and knocked on doors to get the vote out.  Campaigning is exhaustive, intensive work…but the work paid off.  Tom received 70% of the vote with four candidates running; pretty impressive.

Finally: We are a part of I Bike Rockford, a group of riders who work to ensure that more people of all ages, abilities, and biking styles can say “I Bike Rockford” for fun, recreation, and transportation. Over the last six months our group has increased sizably, and is working on programming, safety, and policy initiatives.   If you’re in the Rockford area, check out I Bike Rockford, and join us at City Market this summer for a post-market ride! 

Finally: We are a part of I Bike Rockford, a group of riders who work to ensure that more people of all ages, abilities, and biking styles can say “I Bike Rockford” for fun, recreation, and transportation. Over the last six months our group has increased sizably, and is working on programming, safety, and policy initiatives.   If you’re in the Rockford area, check out I Bike Rockford, and join us at City Market this summer for a post-market ride! 

 

 

 

 

 

Vote NO on Proposed Transportation "Lockbox" Amendment

When you go to the polls November 8 (You are going to the polls, right? Get your shit together and register right now if you haven't already), if you live in the state of Illinois there is a down-ballot decision that will have lasting implications for transportation spending. You recently should have received a printed copy of the full wording of the amendment and arguments for and against. View a PDF of the mailing HERE.

You can learn what the supporters of the amendment tout as the values of the amendment to the citizens of Illinois; they've created a website SafeRoadsAmendment.com and are airing a TV commercial that both lay the dismal facts about Illinois transportation infrastructure bare: 4,200 bridges in "poor condition", 50% of roads in "poor condition", $6B in "road money swept away in the last 10 years" for other uses.

If those facts and video of traffic jams and potholes don't convince you, perhaps the photos of bridge collapses in Minnesota from 2007 will scare you sufficiently to prompt a yes vote. And what will a "yes" vote do, exactly? It will add Section 11 to Article IX (Revenue) of the Illinois Constitution, which effectively locks in any proceeds raised for use on transportation expenses for the explicit use of transportation expenses. It will keep legislators from diverting critical money for our failing infrastructure for other uses. And as visitors to the "yes" camp website will note from the cover page banner, protecting these funds will "Keep Illinois Safe".

Of course, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. It may seem reasonable to draw a straight line from secure transportation funds to safe roads, but potholes alone haven't caused the over 800 deaths from vehicular crashes in Illinois this year. And all those bridges and lane miles that are in bad shape? That didn't happen in just the past decade, the time frame in which the "yes" camp notes so much money was diverted for other uses.

I typically write too much so I'm going to cut to the chase today, but if you want to read more about the various arguments on either side of this issue check out the op-ed from the Chicago Tribune (which labels the amendment "diabolical"), from the Chicago Sun-Times, from Streetsblog Chicago, IllinoisPolicy.org, Progress Illinois, Governing.com, and Reboot Illinois.

Here are three key reasons why we think you should vote NO on this proposed amendment:

1. The constitution is not (or should not) be a primary budgeting tool. Transportation funds are not the only funds that have been raided to pay the State's mounting backlog of bills; education, human services, and more have been faced with cuts and broken contracts. Also, there are other "lockbox" amendments currently in the Illinois constitution -- perhaps you're familiar with our pension crisis? "The Illinois Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that public pensions were a constitutionally protected right. Their benefits, once promised, cannot be 'diminished or impaired.' That exact wording was in the constitution. And if the transportation lockbox question passes, transit funding could be just as untouchable as public pensions." (Source: Op-Ed by Reboot Illinois).

Even if we had a budget for FY17, the pie is only so big. The vast majority of that pie is already sliced up for mandated obligations. Adding a transportation lockbox amendment makes another slice of that pie untouchable, and does nothing to improve the odds that lawmakers will stop robbing other funds. So public schools, mental health and disability services, early childhood and senior care, parks and museums, will continue to be robbed for the state's mounting obligations. Don't give lawmakers an "out" that will make this any easier.

2. Without an accompanying "maintenance only" or similar clause we're guaranteed business as usual (forever?) from IDOT. It's one thing to recognize the system is underfunded. It's another thing entirely to tout the size of the system as a benefit in and of itself: from IDOT 2015 Annual Report, "Illinois boasts the nation’s third-largest road network with more than 146,700 lane miles of state and local roads, behind Texas and California, respectively...There are 26,667 bridges in Illinois, the third-largest inventory in the country." The same report lists a $600M interstate interchange project alongside a $500,000 protected bike lane on one stretch of one street in Chicago as though they are equivalent. Never mind that upon further digging that bike lane is the only exception to IDOT's ban on protected bike lanes on state-jurisdiction roads in Chicago, an exception that was made only after a biker was killed by a drunk driver on that stretch of road.

Further evidence that IDOT should not be given this guarantee of perpetual funds is found in recent reports that the Illiana Tollway project may not actually be dead, but is being strung along with court cases and back-room reworkings of environmental studies, in spite of continued evidence that this 47-mile, $3 BILLION project will not provide even enough economic benefit to cover its own construction.

Putting an amendment in our state's Constitution that guarantees untouchable funding for transportation is drawing a line in the sand and saying the trajectory and strategy of this division is acceptable. We do not believe IDOT is interested in sustainability, resilience, or place-sensitive context for their projects (note cover photo of IDOT project on South Main with its careful consideration for pedestrians). We will not support an amendment that rewards this behavior to the detriment of other vital services in our state.

3. There were lots of amendments proposed. Only this one made it through. Hmmm.... This year over 90 amendments were proposed to the Rules Committee of the state legislature. One that received considerable attention and had the potential to actually do lasting good for our state was the amendment to change the way legislative districts are redrawn; it received significant support throughout the state from a myriad of entities but was eventually overturned. The transportation amendment was the only one to make it through to the ballot. This could be indicative of unity across the aisle. Or it could be indicative of a very strong lobby that legislators are unwilling to oppose. After all, if more roads equal a stronger economy, who wants to turn that down? In proportion with the size of our road system, we're the third strongest economy in the nation, right? Hmmm...

This November 8 we strongly urge you to vote NO on this proposed amendment. Resist the urge to equate highway funding with safety. Transportation funding is not a constitutional issue. There are many questions that must be answered about the future of transportation in Illinois before it is written in stone, locked in perpetuity.