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