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.

Two Wheels, One City, No Limits

Recently, I (Jennifer) was asked to write a piece for The Voice, a monthly newsletter created by the Rockford Chamber of Commerce.  There are so many activities our city has to offer throughout the summer, and I believe there’s no better way to get to these events than on a bicycle.  

Rockford's new 'rails to trails' bicycle path, just south of downtown.

Rockford's new 'rails to trails' bicycle path, just south of downtown.

There’s nothing quite like seeing Rockford come alive in the summer. I have the great fortune of living in the Edgewater Neighborhood, where dog walkers and families with strollers traverse freely year-round, but the onset of summer is really something to behold. From a jam-packed Sinnissippi path and the strains of music from Anderson Gardens floating across the Rock River, from the Forest City Queen gliding by to the roar of the crowd at Ski Bronc shows, the sights and sounds of summer permeate the long, sunny days. 

And what if I told you that there was a way to amplify your enjoyment of these amenities that not only improved your own physical health but the fiscal health of our community, decreased your impact on the environment, improved your access to familiar and new adventures, and afforded opportunities to get to know the people and places of our city more deeply? There is no better way to explore our city and enjoy all it has to offer than from a bicycle. Today, I’ll focus on three reasons: Proximity, Perception, and Practicality. 

State Street, looking west.  This temporary bike lane has been applied each year for the past three years.

State Street, looking west.  This temporary bike lane has been applied each year for the past three years.

Proximity: One of the great advantages of the amenities already mentioned is their proximity to each other and many more on both sides of the river, spilling out to the north and south from downtown. Some are accessed directly from the Sinnissippi path or are immediately adjacent, and many more are within a short ride on streets to which the path connects. Madison Street in particular is now active and lively from north to south. The summer addition of separated bike lanes on the State Street bridge opens even more of the city to bikes and pedestrians, and the “Rails to Trails” bridge just south of Davis Park provides a new East-West connection. While it may seem too far to walk from a concert at Nicholas Conservatory to have a drink at Owly Oop, hop on your bike and the distance is covered in just a few minutes – I give you permission to have another beer because you burned extra calories on the way! 

Perception: Let’s begin by discussing the perception of safety when exploring the city by bike. While it is very true that some high-traffic areas are not suitable or advisable for bicyclists, streets in downtown and adjacent neighborhoods in particular are well-suited for riding. Narrower streets, on-street parking, and the all-day presence of pedestrians lead to slower traffic and more attentive drivers. The perception and reality of safety can be greatly improved by planning your route ahead of time (perhaps trying out an unfamiliar route at a less busy time of day) and knowing how to respond to changing traffic patterns and intersection layouts. 

Another area to address is how your perception of a city can be changed by exploring it on two wheels. Appreciation of the natural beauty of a tree-lined street and the physical beauty of the buildings of downtown is greatly enhanced while biking; chance encounters with friends are easily facilitated by simply pulling up to the curb (no need to hold up traffic or scramble for a parking spot!); community activity that is unapparent from 30+ mph suddenly make a district seem vibrant, lived-in, viable. Suddenly, streets and whole sections of the city aren’t just thoroughfares, they are destinations! Further, some of the most beautiful views in the city are accessible only by bike or by foot, such as the cliffs along the river just north of Riverside and the cityscape and dam by means of the new bike/ped bridge just south of Davis Park. 

Practicality: The best argument for enjoying a Rockford summer on two wheels is the fact that it is immensely practical. Imagine riding up to front row parking every time, everywhere, even at busy City Market and Dinner on the Dock. If you’ve spent more than 10 minutes getting from one parking space to another in the downtown corridor, you’ve exceeded the time it takes to bike from Nordlof Center to Rockford Art Museum, from 317 Gallery to Octane. 

City Market attendance averages 5,000 persons weekly.  Imagine if everyone drove separately in their own cars to the market; how does that affect the sense of conviviality and place-making that downtown advocates are fighting for?  Arrive on your bike, however, and you'll find 'parking' in a flash.

City Market attendance averages 5,000 persons weekly.  Imagine if everyone drove separately in their own cars to the market; how does that affect the sense of conviviality and place-making that downtown advocates are fighting for?  Arrive on your bike, however, and you'll find 'parking' in a flash.

Improving bike facilities makes fiscal sense for a community. Domestic and international studies have shown increased retail traffic along streets with improved bike facilities. Recent research (Lund University, Sweden) has demonstrated that every kilometer driven by car costs society 17 cents, while biking one kilometer saves society 18 cents (in health, infrastructure, car collision, environmental impacts, etc.). 12 bikes can easily be parked in the space it takes to park one car. Further, a large portion of Rockford’s population simply doesn’t drive, whether they are too old or young, can’t afford a car, don’t have a license, or simply choose not to. Ensuring adequate space for the mobility of all residents goes a long way to improving the equity of our community. 

Take time this summer to explore Rockford by bike and discover the freedom that two wheels can offer! 

**Want to get to know other bike enthusiasts, learn about upcoming events, or help advocate for bike initiatives in our city? Follow I Bike Rockford on Facebook or email ibikerockford@gmail.com to learn more.