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Downtown gas station proposal needs to be fixed, prioritize the community

On Monday, Rockford City Council’s Code & Regulation committee pushed forward a plan to put a Kelly-Williamson gas station and car wash along Jefferson Street between 2nd and 3rd Streets on what is currently a mostly-vacant city block.

It’s a good location for a gas station—in between north/south arteries as well as a westerly artery (Not to mention, if/when the Whitman Street Interchange is revamped, it will allow for two-way traffic on both 2nd and 3rd providing even more consistent visibility)—but it’s also in a fragile location for the community. An area that must be treated with the utmost care.

After decades of abandonment, our downtown is seeing a revival. It’s because of that revival and foreseeable growth that K/W has taken an interest in expanding their business inward instead of contributing to unsustainable suburban sprawl out east in some random cornfield. However, the current proposal is so top-down that it looks as if it should be built out east in a cornfield—disregarding everything and everyone in its surroundings.

Looking at the plan below, it’s clear that the neighbors of the station don’t matter. Actually, they don’t even show up. It doesn’t matter that it’s kiddy-corner to a neighborhood park or across the street from a large daycare. It really doesn’t matter that it’s in our urban core—the only part of the city that even relatively takes into account people. It ignores that the fact our urban core is reviving is because it is easily walkable and unique—something this proposal is not.

(The plan as seen in the City Council agenda packet)

Whether K/W threatened to axe the project if they couldn’t build the gas station in their typical suburban form, or if the Zoning Board of Appeals really only takes our city codes as suggestion, I don’t know. What I do know is that this plan needs to be modified if we are serious about continuing downtown’s revival into a livable, walkable part of our community.

The station doesn’t need to do anything fancy to promote urbanism, and as counterintuitive as it sounds, it can indeed promote urbanism even with its car-oriented function if it’s designed well. If K/W wants to keep the style of the gas station as is to fit their brand, so be it. But let’s think about where this project is, our urban core, and place the retail center along the sidewalk instead of directly in the middle of the block (which wastes an extraordinary amount of space)—expanding upon our urban footprint rather than detracting from it.

I also understand that this gas station will provide a taxable use to a currently empty lot. It won’t be much tax money nor is it that much more than what the empty lot currently provides, but most proponents would give in and sing praises for a single penny of additional tax money to our community. It’s because of this desire for any tax money that I believe the ZBA may have caved or that K/W knew they could successfully leverage a threat of pulling the project in order to avoid any modifications to their plan. However, that’s beside the point.

So, fine. We’ll have a gas station. But why can't we do this right? Why can't we follow the city codes we've already established and let this development actually contribute to our downtown while still serving its intended car-oriented purpose? Or are we going to give everyone a special use permit if they promise to give a penny of actual tax money? It's very much a race to the bottom if we continue down this path.

We as a community deserve a little foresight and care. The current proposal stunts the long-term economic possibilities of the entire block. If for some reason the station is unsuccessful, the possibilities of another life are incredibly limited. It’s more likely that the site would require full demolition as well as environmental remediation—something Rockford taxpayers have had to pay for in the past—not only because of the nature of gas stations, but because of the design of this proposal. That’s specifically because it doesn’t take into account its surroundings, and (again) is extraordinarily top-down.

However, just by shifting the "Kelly's Market" part of the station against the sidewalk allows for that part of the proposal to have a new life, post-gas station, because 1) it won’t be bogged down by a massive station canopy in front of it, 2) it would fit the urban form, and 3) it promotes walkability—allowing this station to service pedestrians more equally to drivers.

Of course, K/W is not thinking post-gas station because why would they? It’s not their job to consider what happens to the site if it fails—that’s up to the Zoning Board of Appeals and City Council.

So that’s why I plead with City Council: Have foresight. Demand that this proposal be changed to follow the city codes that are already in place. There is precedent in other communities (check here for an article with urban gas station pictures). We are not reinventing the wheel with this. This would be one of the few gas stations in the region you could actually get to without a car. Let’s think about what impact that could have.

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