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.