Outward growth of Rockford, and the downtown revival

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118841438621286.jpg’, ‘Photo by Drake Baer’, ‘Midway Theatre faces the Faust Building, both on State Street in downtown Rockford.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118841449412490.jpg’, ‘Photo by Drake Baer’, ‘Bottle of Justus performs at Kryptonite Friday, Aug. 3.‘);

Since the mighty Rock River was forded, Rockford’s growth has been driven by transit and what it can bring, said Dan Bartlett, curator of exhibits at Midway Village.

Development in response to the interstate along State Street, Riverside Boulevard, and now Route 173 continues that trend. Some worry this expansion has been sprawl. To others, it is outward development. Regardless, it’s certainly happening, and city limits are moving farther away from downtown, the cradle of the city.

However, downtown Rockford has seen a revival in recent years. In 2006, 22 new businesses opened in the downtown River District (with boundaries of Longwood Avenue to the east, Kilburn Avenue to the west, Whitman Street (west) and Y Boulevard (east) to the north, and Union Pacific Railroad to the south). The River District also now has more than 1,000 new residents. This growth is indicative of the trend of re-population of urban centers across the country, partly the result of the rising costs of driving and the cultural attractiveness of city centers.

Kim Wheeler, executive director of the River District, said: “Urban sprawl has a chance of alienating a community, but it doesn’t have to. As long as you have a group of people that care about what’s happening downtown, you’re going to be able to preserve downtown and preserve its image.”

Bartlett said he believes the State and Main portion of downtown has prominence because it still has those same old fixtures of city life—city Hall, the county offices and the public library.

“By the turn of the 20th century and down through the 1960s, State and Main was ground zero,” Bartlett said.

However, there are notable absences from what was, he added.

“Back in the day, you could add to that list the biggest shopping retailers, such as Stewart’s and Porter’s, as well as the big hotels, such as Nelson and Faust, and the movie palace,” Bartlett explained.

The commercial decline of downtown was not an escape or a flight of business; rather, Bartlett pointed to two key factors to the waning of downtown Rockford: the rise of car culture and the decline of cities throughout the Midwest.

In 1958, the tollway was purposely built to avoid downtown—the beginning of the end. A major highway running to the east of the city opened up new commercial opportunities away from downtown, and the smaller satellite commercial districts like Seventh Street, too. The increased use of cars moved people away from densely-settled old neighborhoods. Instead of using public transit, it became much easier and faster to drive from the sprawling new suburbs away from the old city center to new, outlying, car-friendly commercial areas—away from a downtown never designed with automobiles in mind, Bartlett said.

Interstate 90 was the key change to the transportation system, said Wayne Dust, planning administrator for the City of Rockford. Prior to the 1950s, the city grew equally in all directions, setting out in concentric circles like the rings in an old oak tree’s trunk. With the tollway, growth grew to be a little eccentric.

An exit to the tollway on State Street quickly became the main connection for Rockfordians with Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and the rest of the country. This connection naturally drew businesses.

Dust explained, “With the tollway initially there at East State, that focused traffic on East State, and the interest in retail development was focused on East State, initially closer in near Fairview Avenue, because that was where the city was in the 1950s.”

Dust noted that since Rockford lacks the population density to support commuter rail within the city, and trucking is the primary method of freight in and out of the city, the automobile has greatly impacted the development of retail industry in Rockford.

Bartlett said: “Add in the economic decline of the Midwestern industrial cities—including Rockford—that began in the 1960s, and you have a classic case of a declining downtown. Rockford’s story is not unlike many, many others.”

The biggest retailers in the area are now far from downtown, because of the advent of the mall at State and Main streets.

Wheeler explained, “The early ’70s is when Rockford’s downtown lost a lot of retail to North Towne Mall, Colonial Village Mall and CherryVale Mall.”

State Street itself functions as a kind of historical record, as one ventures out from the river, and from Main street. The farther east one goes, the more recent the development, from Fairview Avenue, to Alpine Road, to Mulford Road, to Perryville Road, with a fairly strong demarcation between “Old Rockford” and “New Rockford,” terms Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) used in his platform paper for urban development. Along the State Street continuum are places that are now fixtures in Rockford—the big box stores and the national chains—ending, perhaps symbolically, with Wal-Mart.

Mark Burger, president of the Illinois Solar Energy Association, said: “I’m not an ideologue against box stores and chains. They fulfill the needs of the population, and do it much more effectively than others could.”

However, not everyone agrees. Al Norman is an anti-sprawl expert who has made a career of opposition, founding Sprawl Busters in 1993.

What started as a newsletter, and later a Web site, has now turned into a consulting firm for towns and cities wishing to resist sprawl, in more than 40 states and a handful of countries across the globe. The growth of Norman’s group may speak to a desire for such advocacy.

To Norman, sprawl is different from other issues in its immediacy. “It affects people where they live; global warming and the rain forest are abstract,” he said. “They see the big store going up 3 miles from the other Wal-Mart.”

Norman argued that the benefits a big-box store brings to a community are fleeting, at best. “They don’t make anything, they sell things,” he said. These stores are economic trading down, he added. Mom and pop stores cannot compete with the prices, and so they are swallowed up. Instead of money circulating within a local economy, funds are relocated to fewer hands, often off-site, he said.

“There’s no individual nature of community,” he said.

Sunil Puri, president of First Rockford Group, holds wide swaths of development on East State and Perryville, both individually and through First Rockford Group. The developer said development happens in response to the market, and consequentially growth.

Puri said he believes Rockford is large enough to have two distinct shopping markets: the East State Street corridor and the recent expansion along Route 173. Downtown, he said, is a niche market. It’s what makes the town unique, he said, drawing a contrast between Rockford and Schaumburg, and other northern Illinois cities. Continued growth can have harmful excesses, though.

In the long run, sprawl patterns are bad for a community’s economy, said Burger. Sprawl leads to an increase in energy usage, increased pollution and the swallowing up of farmland, making it a green issue as well.

However, when a farmer is being offered more than triple of what he earns tending an acre for the land, he’s going to be eager to sell, Puri said.

With sprawl, products are forced to travel a longer distance to reach the buyer, and as cities spread out more and more, the consumer must travel farther to access goods. “More and more of our food sources have to travel longer distances,” Burger said.

As these costs continue to creep up, the effects will eventually reach the consumer. More and more of a household’s income is heading toward energy, especially with rising gas prices, Burger said. With more money going toward energy, families will have less disposable income.

“People stop going to restaurants, going to the movies, or put off buying the kids shoes, or they start running up credit card debt,” Burger said.

Mike Leifheit, owner of the Irish Rose Saloon at 519 E. State St. in the downtown River District, said, “I think (downtown) is finally really showing a great deal of success.”

Leifheit said that when
he started downtown in 1982, only a handful of stores were in business between Third Street and the river. Many of the storefronts had plywood on the windows. Today, that same area is 90 percent rented out, more than any mall in the area, he said.

“All the buildings are starting to be taken up, and now it’s hard to get property (from the amount of demand),” Leifheit said.

“You’re always in competition with everybody,” Leifheit added. He said he prices his dishes to be the same as the chains. Leifheit said he doesn’t want to allow a potential customer an excuse to not sample the Irish Rose. “I give better quality at the same price, or cheaper, and that’s not that hard to do,” he said.

Another element of the resurgence of downtown is what to do with the Main Street pedestrian mall. The mall is responsible for rerouting many of the streets downtown, and makes travel difficult and confusing for the visitor, according to Tom Giamalva, whose family has owned Palace Shoe Service at 204 N. Main St. since 1926—before the pedestrian mall was constructed.

“I’ve maintained all along that I’ve liked to see it become an open street again with some café sidewalks to make it attractive for young people, plus not put a choke-hold on the middle of the city,” Giamalva said.

If the mall were to remain, it needs to be updated, and some trees trimmed, Giamalva said. Better visibility would help out everyone downtown, including the city’s direct interests, in the form of the Coronado Theatre, the MetroCentre, the Discovery Center, plus the traffic flow to the Burpee Museum of Natural History with our dinosaurs Jane and Homer.

“I also understand it’s [removing the Main Street mall] a sensitive issue with people in and out of it, but done right, it can be great for everyone downtown,” Giamalva said. “I’m excited if it happens, and I know that it’s a money issue, but it could be really good for downtown.”

Mayor Larry Morrissey has many times likened streets to arteries, saying when an artery is damaged or shuts down, that part of the body or city suffers. Others have noted downtown started to take off when the West State Street section of the mall was opened up. Some West State Street businesses are fearful of the rerouting of the main flow traffic with the road designs accompanying the new county jail.

Despite the Main Street mall controversy, downtown is seeing a continual resurgence, especially in regard to dining. Brio, Zambuca, Chocolat by Daniel, Paragon, the Irish Rose Saloon, Kuma’s Asian Bistro, Carlyle Brewing Company, Octane InterLounge, King’s Table, the Adriatic, Paragon, Chestnut Street Bar and Restaurant, Swilligan’s, Happy Wok, Subway, Dave’s Hot Dog Stand, Sammy’s Family Restaurant, Serrano’s Mexican Kitchen and Kryptonite provide plenty of options for the gourmet, young professionals, downsizing retirees and devotees of the central cultural corridor.

Anne O’Keefe, executive director of the Rockford Area Arts Council, said downtown establishments provide a total experience. Instead of wacky (sometimes mass-produced) antiques on the walls, you may find the work of local artists, like at Octane InterLounge, as well as regular live entertainment.

Cross-pollination occurs on both sides of the river. Daniel’s chocolate experiences can be found in the Five Forks Market, a tapas restaurant off State Street, a restaurant with a very downtown feel.

Josh Binning, bar manager at Old Chicago at 6280 E. State St., a national chain out of Colorado, said that when he hears guests going to a hockey game downtown, he tells them to check out the Carlyle Brewing Company, a favor he said goes both ways. He has a Christmas party every year at Kryptonite for his staff, and that tradition goes both ways as well.

from the Aug. 29-Sept. 4, 2007, issue

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