The Rebirth of Downtown Rockford
For the first time in decades, from the Rock River east to the Midway Theatre, nearly every storefront will be full to near-full with businesses, and almost all of the multi-story buildings have renovated and occupied lofts or office space on their upper floors!
The west side of downtown is a much bigger geographical area than the east and it has taller buildings, so it's more difficult to make such an impressive claim; but it too is experiencing substantial growth and renovation not seen in decades.
"Downtown hasn't seen this kind of building boom since at least the 1920s," Gary Anderson of Gary Anderson Architects said at a Purpose Built meeting.
And he's not making this stuff up! The downtown non-profit, Friends of Ziock, launched a housing study of downtown. They traced the market rate development trend from 1997 onward, and the results may surprise you. By next year, 278,184 sq ft of market rate housing will be completed or underway, almost a 700% change increase from the 1997 numbers. Their data is below:
(Credit to Friends of Ziock)
I'm fortunate enough to know multiple people, 20-somethings to 60-somethings, who now live right downtown in these lofts. Not only do they love it, they are community-active. They take pride in living downtown and attend meetings to make sure their voices are heard. I hope to move to downtown Rockford myself in the near future; not only because I recognize the importance of a thriving downtown for any community, but because downtown Rockford is honestly becoming a really cool place to be.
There's always something happening there now (especially in the summer). City Market, which only started six years ago, brings thousands of people downtown every Friday during the summer and has jump-started several area businesses. Stroll on State kicks off every winter season now and brings tens of thousands of people downtown. Shop the Blocks, various historic biking/walking tours, parades, Dinner on the Dock, Rockford Day, and other events make downtown exciting! And we have to remember that (besides the parades) none of these festivities existed a mere ten years ago. That alone is an extraordinary accomplishment.
And we know the community investment that these events (along with tax incentives, infrastructure improvements, downtown activism, and building renovations) have spurred have made downtown stronger, safer, and more fun. Downtown itself has recently seen a decrease in crime, and the Rockford Police Department attributes this to the renewed interest of our community into our urban core.
I made a couple of maps with the help of the River District Association (particularly Gary Anderson, a local architect and urban-design advocate) and downtown business owners showing the transformation of downtown from 2009 to 2016. (If you have questions or additions for these maps, please contact me at email@example.com)
Here is the key:
And here is what the east side of downtown looked like in 2009:
Now in 2016:
And in GIF form just for fun:
Look at all the fully occupied buildings (in yellow)!
Now, here is what the west side of downtown looked like in 2009:
And now look at it in 2016:
And again in GIF form:
As you can see, both sides of downtown have seen an extensive increase in occupied space, and more is on the way!
Now, the coloring above depicts the occupancy numbers of many buildings downtown, but it doesn't tell us anything about the state of the buildings themselves (i.e. a building could have a business in it, but still look rundown. Or, it could be newly renovated and not yet have a business in it.). So, here is a cross-river map showcasing the new developments since 2009, which includes buildings that have recently been renovated:
And here are the projects currently under construction or soon to be under construction:
And here are the projects proposed for the next few years:
All together now!
(All aerial, animated pictures from Google Maps)
As you can see, a lot of downtown's buildings have been renovated and are occupied!
But who cares about all these maps and this data! Let's see some pretty pictures.
So much has changed in downtown Rockford, I know I missed a few projects but below is a list of major projects that have taken place in downtown Rockford in the last few years (predominately the last five years):
Walking Mall Demolition
The controversial walking mall built in the 1970’s, which was credited with being a major driver of business out of downtown, was fully removed five years ago. Now, it’s a picture-perfect partnership of walkability and traffic flow that has reengaged those two blocks for our community. StrongTowns should and would be proud of this coupling.
Stanley J. Roszkowski United States Courthouse
The Stanley J. Roszkowski United States Courthouse opened in October of 2011, and is the newest federal courthouse in the Great Lakes Region. It received the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) Gold certification, and the Art in Architecture award for the park in front of the courthouse. The park features 104 crab apple trees planted on an orchard-like grid, visually aligned to complement the architecture of the courthouse, according to the U.S. General Services Administration’s website. They are fairly young still, but in twenty years the courthouse will look like it’s in the middle of a forest in the Forest City.
Prairie Street Brewhouse
(Both photos provided by Gary Anderson Architects)
In just a few short years, the Rockford Brewing Co. Building went from vacant to Rockford’s hottest downtown venue. Now known as Prairie Street Brewhouse, the old brewery is once again home to its original craft as well as a restaurant, 10 loft-style apartments, a weekly event called Dinner on the Dock, occupied office space, and a marina. The brewhouse offers awesome views of downtown and hosts catchy local musicians. And to top it all off, last year the renovations scored the Rehabilitation Award from Landmarks Illinois.
UW Health Sports Factory
The UW Health Sports Factory is one of the most important and creatively-used assets recently added to downtown’s growing list of amenities. What once was a rusting, empty factory is now the newest sports complex in the region—opened in June 2016. Boasting 8 basketball courts, 16 volleyball courts, riverfront views, and one of the longest continuous hardwood floors in the Midwest; the UW Health Sports Factory is a beacon of government partnership and community asset-building. The state-of-the-art $24.4 million complex brings thousands of families to downtown Rockford a weekend, and is the primary driver for new hotel-building in our revitalizing core. Three hotels that are currently planned for downtown should open in the next two years.
Rock Valley College Downtown
Part of Rock Valley College’s $55 million upgrades includes their new downtown campus, aptly named “Rock Valley College Downtown,” on the second floor of the Register Star News Tower. It opened for its first classes in the new facility just a couple months ago—welcoming dozens of college kids to our revitalizing downtown.
Forest City Beautiful
Two years ago, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, in partnership with other government entities as well as private businesses and philanthropists, launched the Forest City Beautiful initiative. Tasked with beautifying our city, Forest City Beautiful in tandem with the City have done an incredible job downtown with new shrubbery, planters, light poles, and sidewalks; and the same is true for 7th Street and part of Broadway. I am a strong supporter for our continued investments in beautifying where we live, work, and play not only for the aesthetic benefits to our community, but for our visitors’ perceptions of us as well.
(Photo from Google Maps)
The Music Academy of Rockford moved to downtown (Haight Village to be specific, a block south of downtown) in 2012. Now, budding musicians come here to learn.
Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center
The Mendelssohn Center bought the church adjacent to their property in 2012. They now use the space for large performances and group rehearsals. Kantorei, the singing boys of Rockford, uses this space as their home base.
(Pictures provided by Gary Anderson Architects)
The Richardson Building survived the mid-20th century, but not without its battle scars. As an attempt to "modernize" the building, the second and third floor front facades were completely covered with an odd block-like gray casing that in no way complimented the 140+ year-old structure. That was, until the mid 2000's (a little more than five years ago, I'll admit it) when three local downtown advocates pooled their resources and restored it to its former glory. Now, it boasts three of the fanciest, most upscale apartments you'll find in the entire region; complete with a really neat rooftop deck. I was lucky enough to tour this beauty this summer and can personally attest to its jaw-dropping qualities.
Metro Lofts 300 block
(Both pictures provided by Gary Anderson Architects)
The Metro Lofts 300 block was mostly empty until it was renovated a couple years ago. It now has eight lofts and a fully occupied first floor retail space.
Metropolitan Lofts 400 block
(All pictures provided by Gary Anderson Architects)
Definitely the most astounding transformation out of all the renovated buildings downtown, in my opinion, is the Metropolitan Lofts 400 Block. Just look at these pictures! Built in 1856, the Metropolitan Lofts 400 Block is one of the oldest surviving buildings in the city. It used to be a concert hall which hosted famous 19th century thinkers like Fredrick Douglass and Moby Dick author, Herman Melville. The building was in deplorable conditions, being a major source of blight and negative perception of downtown for decades. Fortunately, the entire building was rehabbed in 2015 and is now home to eight lofts and a fully occupied ground floor commercial space.
BMO Harris Bank Center (MetroCentre) Renovation
The former MetroCentre received a major facelift in the late 2000’s and with it, a corporate sponsor. Now renamed the BMO Harris Bank Center, the Chicago Blackhawks’ primary farm team, the Rockford IceHogs, call this facility home. The number of tickets sold for IceHogs games goes up every year, and the team is definitely a major draw to our downtown and a source of pride for our community.
Rockford City Market Pavilion
The pavilion at Rockford City Market was completed early last year and has been met with extreme success. Over 100,000 people went to City Market last year, and this year just missed that number (primarily due to inclement weather this summer). Rockford City Market is a weekly farmer’s market in downtown Rockford that has spurred multiple businesses to move from stand to storefront.
The former New American Theatre was donated to the Rockford Public Library in 2012 and is now known as the Nordloff Center. It once again boasts a three quarter thrust stage and a black box theatre. Both are used often for community meetings and theatre productions.
Rail Bridge Conversion
An old rail bridge south of Davis Park on the west and the Sports Factory on the east was just converted into a multi-use path bridge. The uniqueness this bridge adds to Rockford’s downtown should not go unrecognized. Its renovation rather than demolition speaks to the new era downtown Rockford is in. It just opened in late September of this year.
The Shell R. Smith Building, now called Lofts 321, was fully renovated in 2009. The 80 year old building now has six lofts on the upper floor. The first floor has an art gallery, a photography studio, and other creative offerings.
Here is a list of major developments under construction right now:
Soldier Statue at Veteran's Memorial Hall
The 116 year old Civil War soldier monument (or Old Blue Boy) that stood watch over Greenwood Cemetery on the corner of Auburn and Main for 30 years has been refurbished and will find a new home in front of Veterans Memorial Hall and Museum. The statue has a storied past of moves starting in front of the Old Courthouse in 1900 and then moved to the then-new County Courthouse in the late 1960's. Its most recent home was just outside Greenwood Cemetery starting in the 1980's, but a couple of years ago it was taken down to be refurbished. With that work complete, Old Blue Boy is now again his original bronze coloring (Old Bronze Boy?) and will be easily viewed at Memorial Hall. Work should be completed by Veterans Day (Nov. 11th) of this year.
Conseco Insurance Building
The old Conseco Insurance Building, 304 N. Main St., had its namesake tenant leave in 2002. Now, fourteen years later, the engineering company Transatlantic Connection Inc. as well as other office tenants will move in by the end of this year/early next! This beautiful building boasts large arched windows, an eye-catching split staircase, and soon will boast geothermal heating and cooling for the entire building and a rooftop area for parties.
The 11-story Rockford Trust Building at the corner of W State and S Main, designed by the famed architect Daniel Burnham, is currently being renovated into 62 luxury apartments. It boasts a panoramic view of downtown and the riverfront (it's actually tall enough that you can see all of Rockford from the rooftop deck). There will also be an exercise center, meeting spaces, and even potentially a grocery store in the first floor commercial space. The transformational effects of a grocery store in any community is well documented, and its addition to downtown would be an even stronger sign of downtown's vitality. The Trust Building should open by the end of this year or early next. It was the second-tallest vacant building in Rockford (behind the Amerock building) for years. It’ll soon come off that list.
Millennium Center Boutique Hotel
The Millennium Center at the corner of Walnut and Madison is the third (and smallest) hotel planned for downtown and will most likely be the first one finished. The former YWCA and community building will be converted into a 50+ room boutique hotel complete with an indoor pool.
Ingersoll Centennial Park
(Photo from Google Maps)
Just south of the soon-to-be Millennium Center Hotel and east of the Sports Factory is a lovely green space called Ingersoll Centennial Park. It used to be a parking lot before it was converted into a park in the 1980's, and now that park needs some rehabbing. Rockford Area Realtors is using their annual Rock the Block event to beautify this park for the neighborhood of Haight Village and visitors to the Sports Factory. Work should wrap up this month.
Here is a list of major upcoming developments:
The 13-story former Amerock Building has been vacant for decades, but is planned to be redeveloped into an Embassy Suites Hotel and Convention Center. The purchase of the building closed last year, and the project is finalizing its funding and is expected to begin construction later this year.
Trek Boutique Hotel
(Photo from Google Maps)
The Trek Building at the corner of N Main and Mulberry is expecting an additional four stories put on top of it as it transforms into a boutique hotel. That project is in the funding stage.
327 West Jefferson Street
327 West Jefferson Street is on the list to be renovated soon, and will have its own basement parking and a rooftop deck.
The five-story, prime-location Hanley building has been vacant for years but has recently been purchased by Urban Equity Properties. After they finish work on the Trust Building, the Valencia Apartments, and their 7th Street projects; I don’t think it’ll be too much longer before they start renovating this old girl.
Main Street Two-way Conversion
(Picture from Google Maps)
With the removal of the downtown mall, Main Street is once again open to road traffic. However, the roads around Main Street still reflect the existence of that mall. That’s changed recently, however. The odd curve on South Main to Wyman Street has been removed and that part of Main Street is once again a two-way. Now, North Main is slated to undergo a similar conversion so that it’s possible to drive Main Street in either direction for its entirety.
Rockford Public Library Demolition/Temporary Library
Rockford Public Library’s main campus on the west bank of the Rock River, built in 1903 but radically and unrecognizably altered in the 1960’s, was built on a 19th century industrial site. Well, over a hundred years later, the ground pollution must finally be addressed. Fortunately, ComEd inherited the company that was formerly on the site, so they have to pay for the demolition, cleanup, and rebuilding of the library themselves with minimal costs to the library (No extra cost to taxpayers Woo!). In the meantime, the library will vacate the space and renovate an old satellite justice center three blocks directly west on N Church for a temporary library. The benefit of this renovation is that once the library moves back to its former campus (on a much smaller footprint to maximize riverfront space), virtually brand new office space will be available for prospective buyers and the off-putting first floor facade of the justice center will be gone (temporary library site pictured below).
And here is a list of major developments proposed for downtown:
Whitewater Rafting Park
(Photo from Google Maps)
A plan that’s been in the works for over a decade has gotten renewed life along with renewed setbacks. On the east bank of the Rock River just south of Fordham Dam, you’ll see a large swath of unused land. There used to be a massive (and dirty) power plant here, but that was demolished decades ago. The extensive environmental contamination made the site virtually unusable until (like the library) ComEd came out and cleaned up the site of their inherited property—finishing last year. The next challenge: who’s going to own Fordham Dam? ComEd wants the City to take up ownership, but the City would need to find funding for the transfer. So, we wait.
Public Safety Building Demolition
One of the ugliest buildings ever built may soon meet its demise. The Public Safety Building, straddling and blocking Court Street, is now mostly vacant and a hefty burden on local tax dollars. Built in 1976, the City of Rockford and Winnebago County built the Public Safety Building to place County and City police in one building. 30 years later, the County moved out to the new County Sheriff’s Office and now ten years after that the City is building three geo-policing locations across the city—rendering the structure unnecessary. To top it off, you cannot drive under the building anymore for safety concerns. The building needs to go. The question is, when?
Davis Park Revamp
Along with the Amerock Hotel, plans have been made to renovate Davis Park. The riverfront park has not fielded any major updates since its creation 25+ years ago, and with the absence of On the Waterfront, has lost its major event. However, a new family-oriented event called Friday Night Flix brings a couple hundred people there in the summer to watch a children's movie, and a master renovation plan for the park has been made. Once the Amerock Hotel construction gets moving, we could see some pretty cool additions to that space including a climbing wall, a splash pad, a multi-use path, and much more.
Riverview Ice House Expansion
(Picture from Google Maps)
With the outstanding success of the Sports Factory, the Park District is currently looking at expanding the Riverview Ice House so that Rockford will be able to host hockey tournaments as well. One setback, though, is that a parking garage may need to be built to accommodate the growing interest of Madison Street—an expensive endeavor that could hurt this project’s prospects. This is not at all set in stone yet but I am a vehement supporter for this expansion. Not only would it be another major downtown asset for our community—bringing more demand for hotel space and nightlife downtown—it (along with the Sports Factory) could help change perceptions of our entire region. We’re not just a pit-stop off I-90; we are an invested community with a growing downtown.
Downtown's renaissance is being felt in other parts of the city as well, especially the Midtown District and the Coronado Haskell neighborhood where other older buildings that have been vacant for years are now seeing renewed life and vigor.
Now, I wrote this article to showcase the extraordinary renaissance downtown Rockford has seen recently, but I will not pretend that everything is happy-go-lucky in the Forest City as a whole or in downtown itself. We still have real and severe challenges, and cannot stop advocating for and actively supporting the betterment of our community. Downtown itself still needs a grocery store (and, as a personal wish, a movie theater) and other amenities to truly support an active and vibrant urban community. We are on a good track. Let's not take our foot off the pedal right when it's starting to look up!
We as a community have started to rediscover Rockford's character. We're embracing our past for a brighter future, and are investing in the uniqueness of our city. I, for one, am proud of these efforts and, of course, of Rockford, Illinois.
The sun is shining on our city.
If you have any questions, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If I missed a project or two, I apologize! Please, let me know so I can add it to this article.
Thank you to Friends of Ziock, Gary Anderson, the River District Association, and the downtown business owners for their help with developing this project. Aerial images from Google Earth. Color additions are Rockford Proud originals with River District Association/Gary Anderson data.