Old City Hall vs. Amerock

Many are concerned about what will become of downtown Rockford if the old Amerock building were made into the proposed income-restricted housing. Although on a much smaller scale, the city underwent a similar project not too long ago at the Old City Hall building, 126 S. 1st St.

While the Old City Hall project didn’t receive the outpouring of negative feedback that Amerock is getting, the two share common traits. Both buildings were used and abandoned and both were proposed income-restricted housing. The last plan for the Amerock building, which was withdrawn on the state level, provided for 88 percent of the proposed apartments to be set aside for low- to moderate-income tenants. According to information published in the local daily, the maximum amount a family of three could earn to live in the apartments was $32,280. Amerock is also being considered for tax credits much in the same way Old City Hall was, but the new proposal by Milwaukee developer Tim Dixon remains unknown.

Old City Hall history

Eight years ago, the vacant Old City Hall building was renovated and converted into tax-credit, income-restricted apartments by developer Hank Zuba.

The building, which will celebrate its 100th year next year, has a long, rich history in Rockford’s downtown. Built in 1904, the three-story, copper structure with clock tower was, as its name conveys, Rockford’s City Hall. But as Rockford expanded, the need for a more spacious City Hall was apparent. Therefore, in 1937, the present-day City Hall, which is right across the parking lot from the old building, was dedicated.

During the 1950s, the Rockford Police Department moved into Old City Hall. According to Rockford Public Library archives, the building housed two jails, various police offices, and other administrative organizations such as the sanitation department, the city and county planning commission and the civil service commission. In 1976, however, the police department moved to the new Public Safety Building and Old City Hall remained vacant for almost 20 years.

The transformation

Until it was renovated, Old City Hall was being used for city storage and a haunted house every fall, until Zuba discovered the building. At the time of its proposed new use, many residents wanted to see the Old City Hall building contain more high-end, market-rate housing, similar to what many people want for the Amerock building.

Like Dixon, Zuba, a self-proclaimed aficionado of historic buildings, had a vision of making it into a thriving, profitable asset for the downtown area. Zuba had renovated buildings in Dixon and Elgin, and found Rockford’s Old City Hall during a building hunt. He purchased and renovated the building as tax-credit, income-restricted housing in accordance with the State Historic Preservation Office.

“It took a fair amount of design because we had two jails in there,” Zuba said. “The process was extensive, and we had to make sure we fell in compliance with Historic Preservation standards.”

For the building to qualify for tax credits, Zuba had to abide by the following provisions: after renovation, the building had to be used for an income-producing purpose; the building had to be rehabilitated in accordance with the Secretary of the Interior’s “Standards for Rehabilitation and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings”; he had to spend an amount greater than the building’s adjusted basis; the work had to be completed in a timely manner; and he had to pay a fee to the National Park Service (NPS) to get on the national register.

With everything in line and $3 million later, Zuba transformed the empty building into 31 studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments geared toward moderate-income tenants with an income level between $20,000 and $40,000. Zuba’s reasoning for setting the apartments at an income-restricted basis was because he thought the rent was affordable, and at the time, a limited number of people were interested in downtown Rockford.

Trouble in Paradise

Jason Williams, now the chef at Octane InterLounge and a former tenant of Old City Hall, was as excited as everyone else about the apartments. He wanted nothing more than to live downtown and thought the beautiful, financially affordable, $425 per month apartments were a perfect fit. He signed a one-year lease and moved in the first year the apartments became available.

Everything was fine, during the day, that is. But at night, Williams asserts, the building was not the safe, beautiful, too-good-to-be-true apartments he moved into; they became more like a nightmare. According to Williams, the building became infested with wasted drug-addicts, prostitutes and homeless people, and the hallways would reek of marijuana.

“I was always out there doing my best to clear them out” Williams said. “It was sad because the apartments were so nice, and it was disappointing because I wanted to live downtown.”

Williams wanted to move out because he didn’t think the building was a safe place for his 3-year-old son. Unfortunately, Williams didn’t want to break his lease because he would lose his $850. So he spent many nights combing through the hallways removing, sometimes physically, people who didn’t belong there. By doing so, Williams spent a lot of time worrying about his property and the safety of himself and his son.

“I had people banging on my door all the time, so I bought a zapper, which is totally illegal,” Williams said.

When asked about problems at the building, Zuba said other than the typical issues, there were and are no problems.

Williams said that even though the building was a security entry building, that didn’t stop the trouble. The tenants of the apartments themselves were bringing in undesirable guests. He also said the apartment lacked an authority figure in the building at night, which didn’t help matters, and the police were often at the building because of various problems.

Zuba said a 31-unit building doesn’t need a resident manager. If it had one, that person would be difficult to keep because of the possibility of tenants disturbing the manager at all hours of the night for things they shouldn’t. He said not all managers want to live where they work

Ginny Gregory of the Rockford Planning Division is familiar with the apartments. Gregory said she has heard of trouble at the building but said management of the building has done a better job of screening the residents. However, the size of the building and the location of owner Zuba, whose office is not in Rockford, has made it impossible for the apartment complex to support an on-site manager.

“Old City Hall is the only building Zuba has. He’s out of town, and it’s just not big enough to have a resident manager,” Gregory said.

The current apartment manager, Vickie Zamora, whose office is also out of town, has been manager there for two years. She visits the apartments one day a week. She said the complex and the people are nice, and there are no problems at the building. Zamora works for IMC, a property management group employed by Zuba to oversee the management of the building.

According to police records, police calls to the building in the last eight years have been quite frequent, especially in 1998 and 2001. The report states there have been six total arrests made involving battery, possession of drugs, and assault. Numerous other calls have been made regarding burglaries, theft, property vandalism, domestic disputes, a suicide, suspicious persons and general public complaints. There have also been countless visits by police to check on well-being.

In 1998, police made 69 visits; four arrests were made and 22 public complaints were reported. 1999 (36 police calls) and 2000 (28 police calls) were relatively quiet in comparison, but not for long. In 2001, police were called 65 times. One arrest was made regarding domestic battery; two reported situations involved hand guns, one involving armed robbery and one that involved unlawful use of a weapon. In that year, 20 instances of public complaints were filed and six suspicious persons were rep

orted. In 2002, 26 police calls were made to Old City Hall. In 2003, only four public complaints were reported, the last of which occurred in May.

Opposition for the future

After a tumultuous year residing at the Old City Hall income-restricted housing complex, Williams is not a fan of the Amerock proposal. In fact, he is just one of many residents who are against the plan.

“I’m one of those opposed to Amerock because of what I experienced at Old City Hall,” Williams said. “I don’t want any more of that in downtown Rockford.”

Others maybe haven’t experienced Williams’ troubles firsthand, but don’t want any more income-restricted housing anywhere near downtown. Many are afraid the downtown area will never reach its full potential if more income-restricted housing is established.

Larry Morrissey, a downtown property owner and attorney, said in a guest editorial he wrote for The Rock River Times: “Large-scale, market-rate housing developers will not continue to develop their plans for the District if they feel that the area is trending back to income-restricted housing.”

John Smith, a young property owner and new owner of the Phenix Building, 303-313 Mulberry, has not been in town long, but has been here long enough to know that the proposed Amerce project is not what downtown Rockford needs.

“I don’t want to see 80 more units drawing low-income tenants because they don’t have disposable income,” Smith said. “Paragon, Octane and Bacchus should be packed. We need folks with disposable income to support these wonderful establishments. My first job, I made $14,300, and I certainly didn’t go to places where martinis went for $4 a pop.”

Smith has worked hard polishing up and readying the Phenix Building’s four second-floor apartments. Smith did his research and decided to price the two-bedroom, 1,500 sq. foot units at $850 a month, which he said is a little less than market-rate. Smith is also looking at two other downtown buildings to rent out as apartments at market-rate as well.

However, if the Amerock project went through as planned, Smith would reconsider his plans for purchasing and renovating more downtown property.

“I’m going with it right now,” Smith said. “If something like that went through, I’d put it [development plans] on hold and possibly consider selling.”

Time’s voice will be clear, as it is with the Old City Hall, on the difficulties of the Amerock proposal. As to the effect of any Amerock proposal on property owners and future property owners, Smith, like so many others, is keeping a very watchful eye on the situation.

“I have no idea how others will react, but I’m basing my decision on making money,” Smith said.

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