The economic and social argument for strengthening downtown's urban form

On Tuesday, I posted an article about the proposed Kelley-Williamson gas station in downtown Rockford. In it, I criticized the proposal for its lack of character, waste of space, and overall suburban design for our historic downtown. I offered that Rockford aldermen should ask Kelley-Williamson to come back to the table with a design proposal that fits our urban form, but I failed to fully flesh out why it is important both economically and socially to build in an urban form (including gas stations).

Seven years ago, Jacksonville, Florida had a similar proposal brought forth for a gas station in its downtown that would occupy a then-vacant surface lot. The proposal was incredibly suburban and detracted from the city’s downtown simply by its top-down design, which did not consider its urban surroundings.

Fortunately for Jacksonvillians, their version of the Zoning Board of Appeals rejected the proposal and asked the developer to work with the City to come up with a better proposal, which the developer did. The results were much better:

(Both images can be found here at metrojacksonville.com)

Now, why exactly this proposal is much better is a good question. It still looks like a gas station, it still functions as a gas station, so why go through the hassle of moving the retail up against the sidewalk and maybe redoing the façade?

Safety, economics, and a sense of place.

#1 Safety

Urban form design encourages slower, safer traffic. Both the lower speeds already found on urban streets as well as the level of activity found in an urban area make drivers more aware of their surroundings, studies have shown. This, in turn, makes the neighborhood safer for both the driver and the pedestrian. It also makes walking more comfortable, which then makes the area more vibrant and encourages further growth. Lower speeds also give drivers more time to safely glance at advertisements and branding.

Given that downtown Rockford has suffered through multiple demolitions, we are not used to seeing the positive impacts an urban form can have on safety. Downtown is already one of the safest parts of the community due to the many eyes on the street that encourage self-policing through design. And by building it back up, even with projects like a downtown gas station, we can expand that feeling of safety.

Also, by pushing the retail section against the sidewalk, pedestrians would not need to cross over what would otherwise be a “cars first” environment in order to get to the Kelley’s Market, which is currently proposed to be in the middle of the block. Just by shifting around the development, it can make itself and the neighborhood safer.

#2 Economics

A) From Kelley-Williamson’s perspective, they need to maximize their profits—as any good business would. For their typical suburban model, they have to consider variables such as how many cars would reasonably be filling up at this location, and how do you best accommodate drivers so that their experience is as pleasant and painless as possible to get them to come back?

This car-oriented design is what makes suburban developments so sprawling but efficient for cars, and of course this is fine for a suburban area where there’s little to no other mode of transportation to have to accommodate. But in an urban area, people have multiple transportation options (one of the main benefits of urban development), and I question if K/Ws model seriously takes into account these different transportation options.

One reason I question their model is that Code & Regulation committee members had to ask that bike racks be added to their design plan, which K/W agreed to. This makes me curious as to why they didn’t think to accommodate cyclists already, given the location of this development. And if they hadn’t taken into consideration cyclists, then they may have overlooked pedestrians as well.

The current design favors drivers and their passengers—a population that typically does not live within walking distance to the business they are using their car to shop at (hence, the use of the car). However, given the minimum grocery options available in our downtown, it is likely that the local population around the development would be frequent customers, and facilitating their ease of transaction would be good business. By considering the needs of pedestrians and cyclists while still providing a service to drivers, K/W can capture a bigger corner of the market.

B) On the government side, the City of Rockford needs to take a page out of K/W’s playbook and maximize their own “profits” i.e. taxes. The land this development would occupy is upwards of 80% of the entire city block, and the business itself would give roughly $15,000 more in annual real estate taxes than the vacant land currently brings in. That’s not a bad chunk of change, but it’s also not enough to bend-over-backwards and give the developer whatever they want. That block can become more valuable and provide more tax money to the city if the gas station followed downtown’s urban form simply by changing how much space it takes up.

The same amount of space that this one business would occupy is the same amount of space of the 400 block of E. State Street, which houses roughly 10 local businesses, multiple apartments, and still room for parking. Not only do the multiple buildings on the 400 block most likely provide more in direct taxes to the City than this development ever could alone, the people that live there give even more through their shopping, dining, and entertainment habits. Now, this isn’t to say that this gas station must also come with a mixed-use, multi-story development. But it is saying that it could inhibit one from ever being constructed on that block just by the way it’s currently designed.

That last sentence usually gets a lot of Rockford naysayers riled up because they can’t believe that anyone would ever invest in downtown Rockford, but I think it’s safe to say the last seven years have proven them wrong. With the success of downtown E. State Street, the Sports Factory, Prairie Street Brewhouse, and now a proposed Riverview Ice House expansion, we should be preparing for more downtown growth.

C) The last economic reason for the urban form gas station looks way beyond the current developer, and into the economic sustainability of the project: reusability. Reusability looks at the project at hand and tries to envision how this development will age and how it will stay useful. When, not if, this development is no longer a gas station (nothing is forever), can it be redeveloped to fit the latest trend? Though no one knows the future, urban forms from around the world have proven their resiliency to the greatest challenges, and show that the same building can have dozens of different uses if it’s designed well.

The current proposal is not a lasting, reusable development given its lack of character (more on that below) as well as how it’s laid out. The only part of the development that is relatively reusable is the Kelley’s Market, but if it’s in the middle of the block then it might as well be abandoned in the future too. Given how tricky former gas station sites are to redevelop (due to the perceived and real environmental contamination concerns), few developers would even risk taking on the project.

However, if the retail is placed along the sidewalk, and the gas station canopy is behind it, then there is hope that it alone could be salvaged. Unless another gas station developer came along and made it a gas station again, it’s unlikely that the canopy area would ever have an economical second life without taxpayer-funded cleanup. By constructing with reuse in mind, we add value to the project and make our historic downtown more resilient.

Just by redesigning the space, both K/W and the City of Rockford can benefit economically.

#3 Sense of Place

A) The urban form promotes a "sense of place." This is kind of a kitschy term if you don't have an interest in urban design, but it means that the urban form is an unconscious recognition that this place is unique and not just for cars but for people (i.e. what a downtown is supposed to be), which also encourages people to get out of their cars and into local shops.

Our city codes have been set up in such a way that promote a sense of place within our neighborhoods and our urban core. By not taking into account its surrounding, the current development proposal damages the identity of downtown as a livable, walkable part of our community.

Granted, it can easily be argued that the vacant land that is currently on the site damages the livability and walkability of downtown, and I would agree with that assumption. However, what K/W is proposing is not better.

The emptiness currently felt walking that block will not go away with this proposal simply because of how it’s designed. By designing for “cars first,” the proposal does not activate any of its nearby sidewalks because there’s no reason to walk on them. No business is located on them, and with such a wide space it even encourages people who live downtown to drive instead of walk. But if it were designed to fit downtown’s urban form, possibly at one of the corners of the property, it could re-stich a connection between downtown and its nearby northern neighborhood, and promote the unique walkable nature of its location.

B) On a separate note, the current design of the retail section of the development does not fit within its surroundings. K/W argued that their retail design cannot be changed to fit city codes because a gabled roof fits their brand image. This was a convincing argument to me when I wrote my first article on the subject, but then I talked with Alicia Neubauer—a local architect and ZBA board member who is against this proposal.

Neubauer has designed local gas stations in the past, and she reminded me of a few K/W locations that do not conform to their own brand-oriented architecture.

This one is located in Loves Park at the corner of Riverside and Bell School Road.

Note the flat roof.

This one, also in Loves Park at the corner of Riverside and Applewood, Neubauer actually designed, but for a different gas station developer. K/W bought the property, and has since ‘made due’ with this much more architecturally-pleasing retail area.

I still understand K/W’s desire to have a similar brand-oriented design for all of their locations. But if not all of their locations universally conform to this design and yet they still manage to stay in business (and they even bought that second location knowing it would be incredibly expensive to make it conform to their typical look), then they should reconsider forcing this one to conform to a non-existent conformity.

Following the urban form contributes to the historic design pattern of its neighbors, and strengthens the “sense of place.” This promotes a unique identity for the neighborhood, which people then want to be a part of.

Conclusion

There are multiple good reasons why we should continue building in our urban form, and many of these reasons also benefit the developer. I repeat my call to City Council to reject the current proposal, and then work with K/W to build a gas station that works for our downtown.

(Extra, unimportant thoughts)

If we were lucky enough to have any community input on the design of this structure, I’d recommend the Kelley’s Market portion of the gas station be built at the corner of 2nd and Jefferson, but still allow for traffic to enter and exit on all three sides of the development.

With the current plans to revamp the Whitman Street Interchange, 2nd street would be converted into two-way traffic, but change back into a normal neighborhood street while most vehicular traffic would end up on 3rd street (which would also be converted into two-way traffic).

By placing Kelley’s Market at the corner of 2nd and Jefferson, this allows for the more car-oriented part of the gas station (the gas station canopy) to be near the most vehicular traffic (along Jefferson and closer to 3rd), while the more pedestrian-oriented part of the gas station would be near the neighborhood street. With the success of Prairie Street Brewhouse, downtown E State, and now talks of expanding the Riverview Ice House, the area will get even more pedestrian activity and surely benefit from the easy access to Kelley’s Market.


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