Abandon the white picket fence

An interview with architect Joseph Zimmer

Last summer, after wandering aimlessly for some time in the Main Street walk-in mall corridor, my then-pregnant girlfriend, Mellissa Isham, and I decided to take a drive back to the east side. We were eager to get a peek at the inside of 317 Market, another place of interest on the ArtScene circuit. I had passed it many times before while on my weekly walk or jog around the neighborhood where we lived. It intrigued me that Rockford actually had people living and working in a loft-style renovated space. It was while admiring the character and concept of the building that I had my first encounter with architect Joseph Zimmer.

Zimmer and his wife, Deborah Newton, reside on 317’s renovated, 3,600-square-foot third floor. I had the opportunity to speak to Mr. Zimmer last Tuesday over the phone about how 317 Market was brought to life, some of the considerations in tackling a like-minded project, some of the obstacles and cultural conditions (or lack thereof) that have stifled the proliferation of renovated living in Rockford’s downtown.

TRRT: I think we should begin by talking about the building itself. Who set out to renovate the space and make it into the different live/work units for artists and those with professions of artistic inclination such as an architect? What was the original plan for the building?

Zimmer: My wife, Deborah Newton, purchased the building in 1985 from a member of the family that had owned and operated their business at 317 Market St. for the past four generations. The owner lived out of town and had lost interest in the building, so he was willing to sell at a reasonable price.

The building was constructed in 1908 and was home to the Rockford Illustrating Company, which was quite prolific in this area around that time. But as graphic design and printing became separate disciplines over the years, and as the technology changed, the business faded out of existence. Deborah only came into the position of buying the building through some very circumstantial life events.

She had always dreamed of someday living in a loft-style space where she could also work on her art. And she also wanted to be centrally located in downtown. She had originally sought out a space large enough for just her, but the economy and lending rates allowed for her to move on the option to make the third floor her own while creating six other “shell” units on the second and first floors. This shell is an option that a lot of development firms in places like Chicago or San Francisco will give their tenants. They’ll lay out a plan for the space, and then the tenant can come in later and build out the space to how they want it. The units at 317 Market are all marketed to tenants that will either use the space as both their living and working quarters, or just for their work.

TRRT: How large are the units, and how much do they cost?

Zimmer: The sizes range from the smallest—500 to 600 square feet—and the largest are anywhere between 800 and 1,000 square feet. The prices are from the mid-$500s to the low $800s per month.

TRRT: So what was the first step that Deborah took toward getting the building into livable shape?

Zimmer: One of the earliest challenges she encountered was in securing the financing to purchase and renovate the building. She received two private loans, one of which was secured with the help of a business owner and advocate of the project, Beverly Kingsley. Beverly made the second loan possible by talking the city into guaranteeing it. That loan paid for the renovation of the first and second floors.

TRRT: Is the financing an obstacle to more renovation of downtown structures into livable space?

Zimmer: Yes, for a few reasons. One is that the nature of this type of loan is different—it’s a commercial loan, not a home equity loan due to the fact that any building downtown is classified as a commercial property. And in calculating the repayment of this loan, it’s not as simple of a formula as that for buying a house. Because the “live/work in a renovated building” lifestyle is so rare to downtown and this area, banks are not so comfortable with saying yes to a loan to be used for this purpose. On the other hand, it is very effective because there is a conscious and definite choice made by the owner to commit to this mode of living. You have to be willing to give up the dog, the yard, and the white picket fence. It’s a lifestyle choice that must be made. And when the commitment is made to focus your interests and make the commercial loan repayment your mortgage, then it can be manageable and financially feasible. But the lifestyle commitment is the most important factor to these kinds of projects taking place.

TRRT: How much did the project cost, and how long did it take before it was completed?

Zimmer: Well, it hasn’t actually ended (laughs). There’s always things. But it was ready for the first tenants after nine months of work. Deborah worked with the architect and created parameters for each tenant’s space, but the tenants chose how to build the space within the shell. Deborah paid for the materials, and the tenants picked up the rest of the cost. She also did a lot of the work herself—things like painting, carpentry, etc. This is how you save money. In the end, the cost ended up being about $120 per square foot.

TRRT: You mentioned that Deborah worked with an architect to create parameters for each space. What is the architect’s contribution to these kinds of renovation projects?

Zimmer: From a creative standpoint, it’s what the architect can envision. He or she can walk into a raw space and give the developer ideas and suggestions as to how they may want to build it out. And from a safety and accessibility standpoint, they can suggest what needs to be done to pass city, state and federal codes. This is the architect’s duty. To be familiar with the obligations and to know how to balance these responsibilities with the wants and needs of the client. Not all architects are cut out for this kind of work, either. If you were looking to renovate a space for yourself, you would want to find an architect firm that is small, maybe one or two people. And you want to make sure that the architect has experience and interest in this kind of project.

TRRT: Is this a type of project you would enjoy taking on?

Zimmer: This is the sort of stuff I would love to do.

TRRT: Now we’ve looked at how the projects at 317 Market evolved and were made possible. And from discussing the things that went into that project, I can’t help but wonder why more renovation of existing structures to living space has not happened and is not happening.

Zimmer: The biggest obstacle to these projects becoming more commonplace throughout the downtown community lies in lack of people who are willing to the lifestyle commitment to live and work in a renovated, urban property rather than the traditional separated house and office. Again, you have to be willing to give up the yard and the white picket fence. The kinds of people who are willing to make that sacrifice are younger people and empty nesters. I think that Rockford tends to be a family town. People with families don’t want this lifestyle.

A second obstacle has to do with the lack of financial backing from our government for smaller projects. Our local politicians are more concerned with financing the big, flashy and splashy kinds of projects. I’d rather see financial backing from our city for 22-unit projects rather than one 40-unit project. Smaller projects will engage the community because they make the tenant a stakeholder. They’re not just paying rent; they have an actual mortgage. It gives them more responsibility to their property and the community around them. These kinds of loans would be low or no interest, but because they’re smaller projects, the loan pool would be continually replenished, allowing the city to simultaneously finance more projects rather than throw a large amount sum into one project that would not be replenished. And last is the willingness or lack of current

downtown property owners to sell at a fair and market-consistent price. It seems they’d rather hold onto a vacant building than do anything with it. It would be nice if we could raise taxes on people who sit on these vacant properties. But that’s not happening.

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