Alderman questions riverwalk bridge design, colleagues say it’s too late to turn back

By Stuart R. Wahlin
Staff Writer

After resistance by one alderman objecting to a bridge design, members of the Rockford City Council voted 11-2 March 1 to proceed with plans for the second phase of the city’s riverwalk project, which will connect with the expanding Riverfront Museum Campus along North Main Street.

Prior to approving $332,715.24 from the general fund to pay McClure Engineering Associates for design and construction engineering, Ald. Pat Curran (R-2) moved to refer the matter back to committee for another look at the portion of the project involving a 200-foot pedestrian bridge along the west side of the Rock River.

The proposed cable-stayed bridge, featuring a 10-foot-wide concrete deck, lighted cables and 80-foot tall masts at the center, has been called a “wow factor” by city officials and stakeholders, but Curran argued the bridge looks out of place, particularly with regard to arch-supported bridges connecting it back to the west bank near the museum campus.

“Why do we have the suspension bridge there?” Curran wondered. “I don’t see the thread of continuity in the architectural elements. What I see is arches; there’s a beautiful thread here…and all of a sudden, there’s these big, triangular, 80-foot high poles. …It just bothers me.”

Curran argued the project is far too important to do haphazardly.

“This is probably the biggest thing that’s gonna hit that river since I’ve been here, and I’ll be long gone, and it’ll still be the biggest thing to hit the river,” he argued. “I want it to be good.

“I’m not trying to be obstructive with this thing at all,” Curran added. “I don’t care if it’s six months, if they change the design. It’s that important. It’s going to be there in a hundred years. And someone’s gonna look at the thing and say, ‘What were they thinking?’”

Curran said he’d like to see an alternate design before moving forward, but other council members noted the stakeholders have already given their approval.

“This thing has been going on for two years,” Ald. Doug Mark (R-3) noted. “Part of the initial reason that we looked at this specific area was kind of our participation, along with the great investment that has been made by the Burpee and by Discovery museum to make the first initial impact, and to make it good. And I believe that the stakeholders, through meetings…were still fully in support of moving forward.”

Mark argued the museum stakeholders have made clear the need for the riverwalk project to coincide with the completion of the campus’ $10 million expansion. Mark said any delay “would definitely, definitely create problems” for the museum campus, because “it leaves it out there.”

Arguing the design has been supported throughout the process, Mark added, “It is not really a good thing to dismantle and to redo this at this point.”

Mark and Ald. Carl Wasco (D-4) also noted the additional costs associated with construction delays, redesign and review by the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT).

According to Public Works Director Tim Hanson, the cost to redesign the bridge could be as high as $150,000, but Wasco said that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

“It’s the cost of the delay that could run it into another year,” he argued. “It isn’t a simple, ‘Hey, redesign this in a few weeks and send it back.’”

Wasco said the project also stands to lose state funding if the city drags its feet, because state dollars are devoted to projects that are ready to be implemented.

Responding to Curran’s comment that he doesn’t care if the project is delayed by six months, Ald. Venita Hervey (D-5) asserted, “Six months is a year’s worth of time when we’re talking about these kinds of projects that involve water, that get in the way of the projects that are currently undertaken.

“These projects, especially when IDOT is involved, go through a great deal of public vetting,” she added, noting alternate designs had been discussed. “The stakeholders and public had a sufficient chance to have their input and come to some kind of consensus in the design elements, and I just think it would be a slap in the face for city council to somehow reverse those judgments and input, and insert our own.”

Ald. Ann Thompson-Kelly (D-7), who has been opposed to the more than $5 million project from its beginning, also felt delays would be too costly.

“I still think it’s a waste of our money coming out of our general fund, but because we did receive some funds to help the project go,” she said, referring to $3.4 million in state grants, “I think it would not be a wise decision to throw logs on the fire now because it’s not burning the way we want it to burn. When you’re dealing with a project such as this, everyone’s not gonna be happy with what happens, so I would not want to see this moved back any further, even though I don’t like the project at all.”

Some members of the public, however, spoke out against the project altogether.

Nancy Gdowski, a frequent critic of the administration, referred to recent unflattering press about the City of Rockford in Forbes, which listed Rockford as the 14th most miserable city in which to live.

“The Forbes magazine article should serve as a wakeup call to all of you on this council as to the real priorities and needs of this community. The city has very deep-rooted problems, but this administration keeps avoiding them and tries to solve them with the superficial, feel-good, expensive cosmetic fixes,” she said.

“We still wake up to ‘Pothole City,’ no good-paying jobs, high poverty, high taxes and high crime. And then you wonder why people are miserable,” Gdowski added. “But we are planning around quality-of-life issues, such as a convention center with a hotel, spiffing up the MetroCentre to the tune of $29 million, putting in a second riverwalk from diverted funds, and removing two blocks of the Main Street mall at a cost of $1 million per block.”

Gwen Lashock, a 32-year resident of the Signal Hill neighborhood, argued tax dollars are being misused for the project.

“I remember several years ago when the 1-percent sales tax referendum was being discussed,” she began. “Originally, the riverwalk was in that proposal, and the public outcry was so great that it was removed. Also during that time, [Legal Director] Patrick Hayes came to our Signal Hill Neighborhood Association meeting, and he assured us that with this funding source for infrastructure, the city would have more funds available for the basics of government—public works, police and fire. Many promises were made that night that have not come to pass.

“For the past three years, this administration has set aside funds that were meant to be used for our ever-crumbling roads and bridges, but have been allocated for the riverwalk,” she noted, referring to the Motor Fuel Tax (MFT). “This is merely a bait-and-switch tactic. After a quick perusal of the Illinois State Motor Fuel Tax statutes, there is an allowance for sidewalks and pedestrian paths within the right-of-way of any street or toll bridge to cross a river. However, I fail to see how this project meets these standards.”

The motion to send the matter back to committee failed, with only Curran, Karen Elyea (D-11) and Linda McNeely (D-13) casting “yes” votes.

The original motion to approve the engineering agreement prevailed. Curran and McNeely cast the only “no” votes.

Committee reports

→ Approving a $532,975 engineering agreement with O.R. Colan Associates, based in Charlotte, N.C., for relocation services related to land acquisition for the West State Street project. IDOT is providing $454,375 of the cost, and the remaining $78,600 will come from MFT funds.

→ Approving the sale of property at 612 and 616 Eighth St. to the SwedishAmerican Foundation for $2,900.

Public comments

For the third week in a row, Jim Buckingham complained about alleged code violations in a downtown apartment building.

Buckingham argued the landlord receives $10,000 per month in rent payments, but allegedly refuses to correct problems in the building.

Buckingham argued he’s done all he can do by pointing inspectors to the alleged code violations, but that the city doesn’t appear to be taking action.

Ald. Lenny Jacobson (D-6), however, noted inspectors from different agencies have followed up on the complaints.

“There really isn’t any reason for this,” Jacobson reported, suggesting that public comments be limited to issues pertinent to agenda items.

“Sometimes, it becomes almost a witch hunt,” Jacobson said. “I trust my city inspectors. I trust the health inspectors, and I have a full report in front of me, and that building is sound and is OK.”

Daniel Wright, a rehabilitated felon soon to graduate from Rockford Career College with a degree in business administration, said he’s worried about his ability to get a job, despite his degree.

Wright apologized for his criminal past, but said, “I would hope that the community embrace us that’s really trying, and help us keep life moving right along on a positive note.”

Community activist John Weaver thanked those who’ve helped him to make Rockford a safer community. Those thanked included the mayor’s office, aldermen, police and other city staff, as well as church leaders and members of the community.

“Now is the time to continue moving forward, for if we, all of us, didn’t help to re-weave our part of the fabric of this city that was ripping apart, we would have been remiss, because after all, we are all citizens of Rockford,” Weaver said.


Ald. Joe Sosnowski (R-1) was absent.

 From the Mar. 3-9, 2010 issue

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