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.