Guest Article: Be Careful What We Wish For

Today we're grateful to have Hans Rupert contribute his perspective on the proposed Kelley-Williamson gas station.  An advocate of the downtown for over thirty years, Hans and his family are pleased to both work and live downtown.  Hans is the founder of Hans Rupert Photography, and captures our city's built environment like no else.

Note: The Rockford City Council is voting on this proposal tonight: 5:30p, Monday August 7th.  Please contact your Alderman and let them know you are AGAINST this proposal as it stands. 

Image courtesy of Rockford Proud.

Image courtesy of Rockford Proud.

Introduction:

The recent announcement of the possible development of the vacant lots on Jefferson St. between 2nd & 3rd Sts. into a new, 14 pump Kelley-Williamson gas station & convenience store has fueled a lot of debate – both for and against the proposal. There have been heated arguments about the potential benefits and pitfalls of such a development in the news and on social media that will all come to a head at the next Rockford city council meeting Monday, August 7th, 2017. Many of the proponents of the development have made some very compelling arguments about private investment, continued in-fill development, and economic boosts to the community. Likewise, criticisms of the development have voiced very solid concerns about the urban planning, building model, and negligible –possibly negative– business & tax revenue impact of the proposal. However, this is a much more complex issue than a simple “yay / nay” vote. My hope here is to urge both sides, and all parties to seriously examine the longterm consequences of any decision; be it for or against the development. I truly believe we must be careful what we wish for, as we might just get it.

The issue at hand with this development doesn’t have any easy answers. In fact, it’s quite complex, and we had all better try to imagine the future impact of denying or approving the development as it is proposed now. As a 30 year resident & business owner in the district, I have watched dreams, developments, and businesses come and go. I’ve always believed in the vision of being able to live & work in the same district, same neighborhood, same building. I started my fist job in commercial photography at a studio in the Spafford Square building on E. State St. At the time, Gary W. Anderson Architects had just started their business there too. It now is home to Minglewood, Ground Floor Skateboards, Sanders Design Group, and others – all of which speak to the building’s excellent urban core reuse potential, in a building over 100 years old. My apartment at the time was a studio on the top floor of Park Av. Apartments, complete with the tiniest galley kitchen ever, huge walk-in closet, beautiful all-tile bathroom, and a Murphy bed. Needless to say, it was affordable, had a nice view, and I could easily walk to work at the photo studio. On the ground floor was The Fudge Factory, a going candy concern in the neighborhood, if you can believe it, and just a few blocks away was the 320 Store where I would walk to for my groceries. When this apartment building was first built just across the alley from the Coronado Theater, and across the street from the Women’s Club, legend had it that it was a speak-easy weekend getaway for Chicago gangsters. In fact, each of the apartments had hallway windows in the their huge coat rooms with sliding panes on them. Now, the apartment building is still there, and The Fudge Factory has been replaced by The Loc Shop, a beauty salon with a beautifully redone interior, and seasonal, vibrant window displays. Again, a nearly 100 year old building staying the course, and being reused over and over.

All this while, from the late ‘80s through today, I’ve watched as Rockford approved, assisted, and often promoted the suburban sprawl model that was taking over America. From the mid ‘60s through mid ‘80s we almost seemed to actively drive out businesses from the urban core. Yet, we also rewarded endless one-story development of strip malls, shopping centers and subdivisions while ignoring and abandoning the urban core; an urban core mind you that we had all already invested in and paid for over a century. In fact, from 1967 through 2017 –50 years– the population of Rockford has barely increased 5%, and yet our land mass as a municipality has nearly doubled. All that infrastructure & public service & safety costs money – we all take for granted new streets, curbs, traffic controls, water, sewer, drainage, lighting, police, fire, ambulance, parks, schools, etc. And yet today we struggle to pay for it.

Why do I feel it necessary to seemingly dribble on about all of this history when we’re all just trying to decide whether or not we want a shiny new 14 pump gas station in downtown Rockford’s urban core? Because all this history and its outcomes speak directly to the course we’ll set for the next generation –30 years– and the legacy we’ll leave to those behind us. Many of us won’t even live to see the result, but many of us have children who will. How will they judge us? What will they think of our decisions? In the course of my 30 years downtown, I’ve found it stunning the short memory we have as a community, and the even shorter foresight. I caution all of us to be very careful what we wish for, because if we’re not, we might just get it. In fact, I fear we may get exactly the opposite. Let’s have a look why: 

Pros:

First off, let’s look at the pros to approving a new 14 pump gas station in downtown Rockford. Any private, local business willing to spend millions of dollars on a new gas station in the urban core is nothing to sneeze at to be sure, and we’d be foolish to dismiss it all with a summary “no”. The simple fact is that Kelley-Williamson, who has been building this model of gas station & “Kelley’s Market” convenience store for a few decades now, and seem to have been very successful with it, so feel confident in what they’re hoping to achieve. Secondly, Kelley-Williamson choosing this location instead of some new suburban or exurban location is indication in itself that as an urban core, “we’ve made it”. That is, they certainly see the profit potential on what we’ve all been collectively building for the last decade, and according to reports, are willing to make the biggest, best investment they’ve ever made into one of their locations. (They have over 50 already) What this means is that along with the recent Jimmy John’s sandwich shop, the River District urban core is proving to seem like a more familiar, successful destination to those who don’t already live & work down here. We really should not dismiss this fact. People have complained for years that their perception of downtown is that it’s “unsafe”, yet nothing makes people feel more safe than what they’ve already got in their own neighborhoods elsewhere.

Moreover, that site is about the best location they could ever dream of to be successful. It is surrounded by three lane streets on three sides, and their proposal also allows for a fourth entrance on Mulberry St. What’s the last gas station you ever encountered where you could get to it from all sides? Not even the ones in Walmart parking lots are that accessible. Its visibility and access alone will make it the “go-to” gas station in the area, no doubt about it. Add to that its newer design, larger pump availability, and big convenience store –complete with alcohol sales– and not many drivers wouldn’t chose this station first. Lastly, for all the suburbanites, exurbanites, and out-of-town visitors we have for conventions, sports, and cultural attractions, the design, visibility, and accessibility of this station offer a familiarity and comfort that the other surrounding stations do not.

One other point to give careful consideration is what confidence a station like this will instill in other more popular national chains (Mobil is a national chain, not “Vinnie’s Gas Shack” after all). The Aldis Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, Walgreens, etc. all work on business model metrics. They don’t have hopes & dreams, they use big data. They analyze traffic patterns, demographics, income brackets, spending habits, etc. Anyone who might remember Starbucks wanting to build in downtown about 15 years ago might recall that without they City giving them 10-15 parking spaces adjacent to their proposed store right across from the County Courthouse led to their business model metrics not working. We simply do not have the urban density yet to support a walk-in customer only Starbucks. 

In summation, I think even if Kelley-Williamson builds their station however they want, they will be profitable there for a long time to come, and few people would complain they’re unable to find gas, a restroom, milk, eggs, snacks & beer in downtown Rockford. To simply tell Kelley-Williamson “not in our back yard!” might really be shooting ourselves in the foot; something we might all really regret one day.

Specious arguments for the proposal:

Before I address the outright “cons” to this proposal, I feel it’s necessary to address many of the short-sighted, hollow arguments being made for approving the plan. It’s been said:

• “If we don’t jump on this offer, we may never get another chance”

Yes, perhaps, but unlikely. Kelley-Williamson doesn’t make these business decisions lightly. Their 100 year history and 50+ stations prove that. If there really is that much market demand for a gas station of that type in this area, then we don’t have to say “yes” today. We could say “yes”, but let’s work out some important details. Or, we could shop the idea around to other super stations like Road Ranger, Pilot, etc. It is a risk to say no, but I’ll bet we still hold the cards here.

“We need more gas stations in downtown - there aren’t any.”

No we don’t, and yes there are. First, these people must not come downtown too often. Or, they’re unaware of even Google Maps. There already is a BP station just 1,000ft from this proposed site. That’s two very short blocks. That BP has a convenience store, and shares a space with a full McDonald’s restaurant & drive through. Just a few thousand feet East of that, there’s a Mobil gas station at Summit & State Sts. right across from Swedish American Hospital. In fact, there are no less than eight gas stations within 1.5 miles of State St. & the Rock River. We need more gas stations like we need more flat parking lots – as in there’s no shortage at all.

• “Who else has even shown interest in developing that lot?”

Yes, who? Well, Urban Equity Properties had the foresight to acquire the lot after it had already been sitting vacant for years. Certainly they were aware of its potential, and I’ll bet they’ve been working hard to get this Kelley-Williamson deal through. But it does beg the question: Has the City, County, Rockford Area Development Council, Chamber of Commerce, or Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau even tried to market that location to anyone? I’d argue that the River District Association has done more to attract & land development than all those other entities combined, and yet they hardly have the budget, funding, or staff that any one of those other agencies has. I’ll bet there hasn’t been a any effort from any of those entities, so that lot has sat there as the ugly duckling of downtown until somebody at Kelley-Williamson figured it out for themselves that it could be a great site. If we leave urban core development up to entrepreneurs and big companies, then we deserve what we get, and what we’ll get it is whatever they’re offering - like it or not. So, let's just not be so desperate that we have to take the first offer that comes along.

• “Be real and get a grip – this is only the 7th private development in the last 50 years”

I think the critics are being realistic, quite cautious, and as analytical as possible. And, the factoid of “only 7th private development in the last 50 years” is incorrect. That tidbit actually comes from a property values study prepared by Gary W. Anderson Architects in 2011, that you can read here: In that report, you’ll note that there have only been 6 new, private, commercial developments in the past 50 years, and that we’ve lost 2.5 million square feet of office space in the same time. The thrust of the report is not that anyone is unwilling to build in downtown, but rather because of the way property is assessed and subsequently valued. With the current system, it is extremely difficult to fund and service the debt on any investment in the properties downtown. The report recommends changing the way we assess & value properties so that banks & investors are actually willing to even consider financing them. Despite these facts, there have been scores of private developments in existing buildings and spaces, including the most recent, huge, market rate apartments by Urban Equity Properties at the 100 year old Trust Tower building (Burnam Loft Apartments now) But all of them have required city, state and federal assistance and tax credits at some level to make work. I do not recall any gas station ever having any trouble getting the financing it needs to build a new station, so that too is an empty argument.

• “But think of all the increased tax revenue & jobs this will create!”

Except, that it won’t, really. I’ve witnessed this old saw of trickle-down economics & job creation for decades, and it never pans out the way it’s promised. First off, an extra $1,250/mo. in real estate taxes is hardly going to make a dent in anything else in the City budget. In fact, I would argue that this might just offset the impact cost to the tax payer that the project ends up costing us all. No project just gets approved and then magically develops itself without city help, resources, and new infrastructure. Now, if there were 10 new projects in this area that were all going to generate an additional $1,250/mo, and the projects could all benefit from city coordination, assistance and infrastructure with a 10x economy of scale, that would be a different story. But this is just one project for an extra $1,250/mo. The next argument is that gas tax revenue will increase. Nonsense. Unless there is some sudden, significant boom in gasoline sales across the county that we’re unaware of, then this is simple economics: Gas consumption is essentially the same as it’s been, which is to say, flat. So, all the gas tax to be collected at this location is just a shift from it being collected in a different place. If the amount of gas we consume is essentially the same as it’s been, then people are going to buy their gasoline somewhere, and if it’s not here, it will just be somewhere else. That means, there is no “new” gas tax revenue being gained. In fact, the licensing, inspection, and accounting costs simply go up for the city. Lastly, there’s the argument that the retail sales will boost sales tax revenues. I don’t have any data to refute that claim, but I find it highly unlikely that it would amount to much. Again, unless consumption of convenience store items is on the rise around the area, then we’d once again just be collecting sales tax on items sold here instead of someplace else. We don’t live in a boom town, or even a seemingly ever-growing economy like Silicon Valley. Those are just facts.

Next, there’s the argument that it will bring new jobs to the area. On paper, this has to be true, but only for the few jobs it does bring. I’ll bet that the new station brings 4-5 full-time managerial jobs, and maybe two dozen high turnover, minimum wage, part-time jobs. We’re not talking about a new aerospace concern here, let alone even a new hotel & convention center. We’re talking jobs at a gas station. Sadly, these are the same arguments made for approving a Walmart; the taxes revenues are always a wash for the costs, and the jobs are rarely careers. So, let’s just be honest – there aren’t too many upsides to the tax revenues or job creation.

• “If you say no to this private development, then you’re picking winners & losers.”

This is the most worn-out, specious argument I keep hearing from the proponents of ALL new development that encounters criticism, or requires community considerations, or government approvals & intervention. Somehow, not letting private enterprise decide where, when, how, and why it wants to invest itself someplace in the community without any rules, regulations, criticism, or government involvement, has become a “freedom” issue, as if we’re all against free enterprise and the American Way. Poppycock. That’s just a bullying tactic that’s getting really tired. Let’s put it another way: If as a community, we simply green light every single development by private enterprise that comes along, but without any review, discussion or regulation whatsoever, then that too is “picking winners & losers”. If that’s what we really want, this unfettered “freedom” for free enterprise, then be prepared for the consequences – business will dictate solely by what’s profitable where to invest their money. Be it next to the park, golf course, school, church, you name it – as soon as we unleash “freedom” like that, then what’s going to stop someone from building a used car lot in your neighborhood, or loud, dirty, dangerous foundry next to your kids’ school? Nothing.

Cons:

I think most of the specious arguments above, and my refutations of them speak for themselves. However, there are still a number of serious “cons” to this project as it stands, that we had all better give serious consideration before rolling out the welcome mat to Kelly-Williamson’s plan. First and foremost in my mind is the fact that the City’s own employees have serious concerns about the project’s scope and impact on our own standards. Specifically, the City’s staff note that “The subject property is located in a C-4 District where the Design Standards must follow the Urban Street criteria... [yet]...the proposed development will not follow these criteria entirely. The only portion of the proposed development that will follow the urban design criteria is the future building setback along Market St.” [emphasis mine]. Translation? Kelley-Williamson wants to build their suburban model of gas station on more than 2 acres of property in downtown Rockford, and that’s not a building standard that we support by law. Nor is it one that would normally be approved in a C-4 district that requires mixed use, higher density development. It’s simply a bad idea to graft a suburban model of development onto a space that needs, and should have a better plan & use. We set these standards as a community for a reason – to be followed so we don’t have a patchwork of incongruous, Wild West properties that don't make sense together in the urban core. In fact, it’s the same reason that in your residential neighborhood, things like even light industry, bars, and yes – even gas stations have to meet certain criteria. Just because you’ve got a great metal plating business doesn’t mean we have to approve of you building a new facility in your back yard.

Next in my mind is the fact that there are already two gas stations within about 0.5 miles of the proposed site – both the BP/McDonalds at Jefferson & State Sts, and the Mobil at Summit & State Sts. This tells me a few things: 1) Do we really need or want yet another gas station so close to the existing ones? 2) Kelley-Williamson feels confident that they can compete, and probably beat either or both of these existing stations in the market. As the free market goes, this is fine & fair of course, but where do we draw the line? Four gas stations? Six? Sky’s the limit? What message are we sending to existing businesses, new businesses, plus visitors and customers of businesses in downtown Rockford if it becomes a sea of gas stations? If we say yes to this Kelley-Williamson station, can we say no to Road Ranger? To FasFuel? To Pilot?

More importantly in my mind though is the longevity of gas stations in general. Over 100 years of history have shown us –proven to us– that gas stations are single use designs. Try to think of a single gas station built more than 30 years ago that is still the site of a gas station today. Can you? I can’t. Now think of a gas station that is more than 30 years old that is anything other than a vacant lot or flat parking lot today. I can only think of a few sites that are anything else, and they certainly didn’t reuse the original gas station buildings. The only former gas station structure that I can think of having become something other than another gas station or small auto repair shop is the one that houses Uncle Nick’s drive-in gyros stand in the same neighborhood as the proposed development. Despite its quirky, urban legend fame, it’s not the first thing most of us want to show off when we want someone to experience Rockford. But then again, what gas station ever is? And therein lies the problem here: Are we willing to permit over two acres of downtown property to become a single-use, single generation business? Because I have serious reservations about what happens when we allow gas stations to be built: namely, we forget what they become – empty lots that are hard to develop because of the environmental impact of the previous gas station. In fact, there is a long list of gas station ghosts that have left environmental messes in their wake that have yet to be addressed to this day. Here’s a short list of the ones I can think of in or very near the downtown area:

• Standard Oil station at the corner of Church & Mulberry Sts. This station burned down in 1947, and has been a parking lot ever since. It has been a largely vacant, unkept lot for the last 30 years, and nobody really wants to try to develop it because the environmental impact that Standard Oil left behind with its sunken gas tanks is complex, and very expensive to remediate.

• Mobil station at the current City Market. Few people remember that the City Market parking deck once housed a two pump Mobil station. The removal of the tanks at that site and the parking deck were expensive, and Mobil certainly didn’t have to pay anything to help.

• Whatever gas station that was at the site Uncle Nick’s occupies now. I have no idea what that place was, but I’ll bet there are environmentally hazardous wastes lurking around leaking tanks underneath the site to this day.

• Gulf Oil station next to the current Mendelssohn Emerson House. This is a parking lot today.

• Clark Station on N. 2nd St, across from Nicholas Conservatory. This is an abandoned, vacant lot with existing sunken tanks, and has been for 20+ years. 

• Sunoco at Main & Auburn Sts. This is part of the roundabout and Alpine bank now. I’m assuming that the sunken tanks were remediated along the way. But the site obviously had no value beyond its initial use.

• Rural Oaks repair shop. There once were two gas stations in Rural Oaks at Prospect, Rural & Guilford Rds. The Phillips 66 is still a going concern. But the one on the south west corner failed and is no longer a gas station. It managed to grandfather itself in as a nameless repair shop of some kind. Yet, still the sunken tanks are lurking there.

• Just South of the N. Main St. Mobil near the roundabout there once was a gas station hat has now become another nameless, faceless, on-again, off-again repair shop. Once again, I’m certain the environmental hazard of the sunken tanks has never been addressed.

• Leonard’s Garage at Charles & Gardiner Sts. This was probably a ’30s era single pump gas station, and frankly one of significant historical significance. I can find scant history about it though. And while it’s still a going repair shop, it’s not much to look at, and surely has some frighteningly old underground tanks to be addressed.

• Sunoco service station on Charles St, just West of 20th. Thankfully, this is a bright, well-kept, nice looking repair shop now that once housed a gas station too. Sadly, this means the sunken tanks still lurk below the lot.

• Site of Sinnissippi Motors. I can’t recall what gas station was here, but at least the sunken tanks were remediated, and the site was improved. I question the value of a used car lot across from Sinnissippi park, and Nicholas Conservatory, but at least it’s not just a vacant lot with sunken tanks nobody wants to touch.

• Maria’s Pizza on Charles St. Few remember that Maria’s already had a nice restaurant down the street on Charles before the Swedish American expansion that took out an entire city block. We found them a new home up the street – at an old gas station, and thankfully cleaned up the sunken tanks there. 

Summary:

I hope that I have demonstrated that there are good arguments both for, and against approving Kelley-Williamson’s plans to build & operate a new gas station in the River District of downtown Rockford. However, the title of my analysis is "Be Careful What We Wish For”, and it’s meant as a warning to proponents & opponents alike. Approving or denying this project could have dire, unforeseen consequences 30 years down the road, and that’s what we all need to think about.

If we approve the project as it’s proposed, we’ll be breaking with our own design standards and community development guidelines for this newly revived district in the heart of downtown. We will certainly send the message to other big developers the “we’re open for business”, and that might attract tens of millions of dollars in new investment & construction. Sometimes all it takes is for a company like Kelley-Williamson to attract other bigger regional and national businesses. However, there is the thrust of the question at hand: do we want more single story, huge parking lot, chain store businesses in this district?

If we deny the project as proposed, we can maintain the vision set by River District, City, County, RACVB leaders for the past decade, and continue building upon them. We could stick to our plan of high density, multi-story, mixed use development with the knowledge we’ve already been successful at it. We’ve been successful enough in fact to attract a serious, strong local gas station business to want to invest in the district. That success alone proves that the plan laid out decades before is working – the district is becoming attractive to big, outside developers with serious plans. I doubt that Kelley- Williamson is the only company to take notice of the district’s success.

My biggest fear however, is what will happen if we approve this project and then continue our collective amnesia about the fate of gas stations as single use structures. In just a few years, I believe Kelley-Williamson could put one, if not both of the nearby gas stations out of business. That’s fine & fair, but what do we do with those sites then? Also, it’s unlikely that this proposed station will even be around itself in 30 years – history has shown us what happens to gas stations around downtown. Frankly, I think it’s highly unlikely that the generation behind us will consume gasoline like we do now, if at all. The world is changing, and as economics demand, it must. The next generation will likely have self-driving cars, or more likely self-driving taxis. And, as Tesla, Uber, and Lyft have already shown us, the future of transportation is all electric. Even Apple –most famous for the Macintosh, iTunes, and the iPhone– is developing a self-driving electric car! Think about that. I’m afraid that gasoline, and gas stations are the success of the last 30 years. Let’s think of the next 30 years, and what sort of torch we’re going to pass onto the generation behind us to fuel their future. 

Guest Article: Suburban-Style Gas Station? We Can Do Better.

This editorial was written by Gary Anderson, Architect at Gary Anderson Architects, and published by the Rockford Register Star on Sunday 30 July.  It is shared with Mr. Anderson's permission.

As a Downtown advocate, I’m compelled to speak out on our latest downtown proposed development. Kelly Williamson has proposed to build a new 2-acre, 28 pump gas station at Jefferson, North 3rd, and North 2nd streets. It takes up over 90% of the entire city block. This is a suburban sprawl approach to inhabit as much land as possible. It doesn't fit the urban context of good design or compactness, nor does it attempt to fit into the character of our revitalized Downtown. It disregards the values and aspirations we have for our neighborhood. 

It's disappointing that the standard corporate model can't be modified to fit the neighborhood. Even McDonald's is subject to community design standards, and they acquiesce if they want to be in that community. From the discussions at the ZBA, an all-or-nothing approach applies to any design changes. We’ve made remarkable progress to make Downtown a desirable place to be and invest in because of a mixed-use strategy and sensitive design.  

It's also disappointing that most of our planning documents for the past 10 years recommend that this site be a mixed use, multi-family site for development. This is yet another example of how a thoughtful planning process is disregarded in order to expeditiously allow any kind of development offer. We lack principles and standards and lower our expectations too quickly. 

The financial impact touches each of us in our effort to grow our market rate housing. We have to plan for the very near future of Downtown's densification and expansion. We are about two years away from building new housing in downtown Rockford. Can we at least discuss what we really want this site to be for the next fifty years in the context of those strategic plans? It’s about recognizing the market demand to return to our urban cores by offering density and walkability among livable spaces that are diverse and vibrant. It’s about attracting and keeping talent in our community. The city of the future doesn’t have a block-sized, mega gas station with 28 pumps. In 10 years, most of us may be driving electric vehicles. 

Our City Council is wringing its hands about revenue and how to cover our budget deficits. This type of development won’t relieve the downward spiral of declining property values. This gas station will only generate $25,000 in real estate taxes; that's only $15,000 more than the current vacant land is paying. Look at the real estate tax numbers for all our oversized gas stations: it’s in that range. 

If we are to find relief for homeowners, we need to encourage the type of development that will generate five to then times the tax revenue than that of a gas station. Downtown is a unique place that has deep historical roots, lots of character, and beautiful architecture. That's why people are flocking to the River District. It’s been the foundational role in the rebirth of our community. Suburbanization is what people are trying to escape. They don't want it downtown. 

The lack of site planning is disturbing. It’s already being suggested by Public Works studies that North 3rd Street be converted to a two-way aligning with Kishwaukee Street. How can a major thoroughfare be visually blocked by the station’s own car wash? Is that good planning for the future?

The size of the station needs to be reduced in order to utilize half the site for a mixed-use, multi-story development. Downtown would receive a quality gas station along with additional development that would contribute value and options for business, retail, and market rate housing. We urge our City Council to reconsider how this site should be utilized to become a major contributor to our economic future. 

Sincerely,

Gary W. Anderson, Architect

Gary W. Anderson Architects

Meet Me at...Which Market?

Quick: If you had to describe the places that make Rockford distinctively Rockford, where would you begin?  

Disregard the chain restaurants, big-box stores, and gas stations that typify much of the suburban experience, and consider:  Where are the places in our city that best represent the fruit of our collective endeavors?  Where are the places that you explore, linger, and enjoy, all because the place is worth your time?  Or which places serve as examples of our familiar slogan, “Real, Original, Rockford”? 

From Flickr user Jim Simonson.

From Flickr user Jim Simonson.

There’s a good chance these places are located in our downtown.  And there’s an even better chance that you, like many residents and visitors of our city, are already describing our downtown to your friends, neighbors, and coworkers.  You’ve told the story of the tree-lighting ceremony during Stroll on State.  You’ve shared a picture of our riverfront from the Prairie Street Brewhouse on your social media networks.  Even more, you’ve invited your friends to meet up at City Market and spend the evening together. 

Image courtesy of RockfordReminisce.  

Image courtesy of RockfordReminisce.  

It turns out that when we create distinctively urban places–compact, walkable spaces with a variety of uses–we make places that people want to be.  Boutiques.  Coffee shops.  Art galleries.  Markets.

But there is another “market” proposed downtown that threatens to tell a different story, one that undermines the character of our built environment and the place-making efforts therein.  On July 18th, the Zoning Board of Appeals approved a Planned Unit Development for a Kelley-Williamson gas station, car wash, and “Kelley’s Market” convenience store.   The proposed development would occupy an entire city block of our downtown. The site plan is distinctively sub-urban–a one-story, single-use building set far back from the street–and sharply contrasts with the surrounding traditional developments that end up in our downtown stories. 

But this more than a mere deviation of form.   The very function of a gas station is inconsistent with the intentions and objectives shared by a number of stakeholders, not least the City of Rockford.  Here are four excerpts from the city’s own planning documents that call for a markedly urban land use for our downtown, not auto-oriented developments: 

1. Zoning Code.  The proposed development is located in a C-4, mixed-use urban district with an arts and creativity overlay.  This district aims to “maintain and promote a compact, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use district”, “promote a walkable environment”, and “encourage residential living environments”. 

 2. 2020 Comprehensive Plan.  Adopted in 2004, the Plan aims to adopt Smart Growth principles that provide for mixed land uses,  raise residential densities, and enhance active transportation efforts.  

3. 2015-2019 Implementation Plan.  Adopted in 2014 as a means to fulfill key objectives in the 2020 Comprehensive Plan, one of the strategic initiatives for land use isto "encourage compact and sustainable development to maximize walkability and access within neighborhood centers and commercial corridors.”

4. Downtown Strategic Action Plan.  This plan calls for a number of urban design standards for the C-4 district including “maintain day to day vibrancy” and “develop more residential options in and around downtown.”

These excerpts are from actual planning documents recommended by city committees and approved by your city council.  Why, then, would we deviate from those plans, compromise our principles, and settle for something less? 

The Downtown Strategic Action includes another urban design objective: “Create a narrative and brand identity.”  You can help shape the story of our downtown by contacting your City Council before the August 7th Council meeting and expressing your opposition to a gas station in the heart of our downtown.  Let’s continue to tell the story about the highest and best places that make Rockford distinctively Rockford.

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.