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”?
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.
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.