By Jim Hagerty
CITY HALL — Although the discussion was somewhat prickly in the gallery, Rockford aldermen had no problem approving a new Kelley Williamson Mobil station on Jefferson Street.
The contention before the vote was between Urban Equity Properties CEO Justin Fern and downtown advocate Michael Smith, who questioned whether the project deviates from urban street criteria for a C-4 zoned property.
“I sensed it was getting a little heated,” Smith said of the conversation. “And that he was getting a little upset. That’s really all I want to say about it.”
Fern said he wasn’t angry, but did defend the project and his company’s $50 million in downtown development over the last 10 years.
“I am not just reading about how to do this stuff in books,” he said Tuesday. “I am out there doing it.”
Urban Equity owns the vacant lot at the corner of Jefferson and 2nd. Two other owners are also involved in the deal with Kelley Williamson.
Smith took his position to council before alderman voted 11-1 in favor of the project. A graduate student pursing a degree in urban planning, Smith echoed a number of voices against the grand nature of the station’s plan.
Those against Monday’s measure did not oppose gas pumps or a convenience store at the location. Only one occupying the more than 2-acre parcel because it disrupts the uptick of historic preservation and a growing urban residential community.
“This (project) was recommended by staff, Code and Regs and ZBA without a single requirement that the gas station, convenience store or car wash conform to urban standards,” Smith said during public comment. “The only condition set forth in the proposal that ostensibly would require conformity to the design standards is a future building (on Market Street).”
Fern maintains that if a more viable development was better suited for the site, it would have been undertaken long ago. But that doesn’t mean he is settling just to put something on a vacant lot.
“This is going to be so great, that I guarantee people who were opposing it will be filling up their cars there,” he said. “There is going to be a great gas station on the fringe of downtown.”
Plans presented to the city’s Zoning Board were approved last month. KW’s proposal calls for a 14-pump full-service gas station and convenience store, one that Third Ward Alderman Chad Tuneberg decided to support after hearing a number of positions, including those who said the city should reject it altogether because two existing gas stations already serve the downtown footprint.
“Private development is coming to downtown Rockford,” Tuneberg said. “And Kelley Williamson has a history of success. They are coming with millions of dollars, and they are not asking the city for one dollar. This deserved a serious look, and if we didn’t pass this, I am afraid it would have sent the wrong message.”
Bill Rose, D-9, called the project an enhancement, although it is just outside the city’s core. Rose said despite opposing views and Kelley Williamson’s steadfastness about the facility’s design, the company did acquiesce in the city’s demands for the project to fit within what is happening downtown.
“The two biggest issues were the size of the station and the roof,” Rose said. “(The city) wanted a flat style roof. But they leak. And we’ve seen that in the latest group of storms. And when (CEO John Griffin) said a flat roof would not be good for the structural integrity of the building, I agreed. We had to allow some variations to occur.”
And that is what happened before Monday’s vote, the alderman said. Kelley Williamson went back to the drawing board and added things to accommodate the surroundings and protect the integrity of the area. One of the accommodations includes a landscaping buffer between the station and two residential properties on Market Street owned by Bjorn Hulleberg.
Rose said the commercial development by an established local company will make the project that much more viable.
“When you haven’t had buildings being built in a downtown core for decades, you need variation,” Rose said. “You need some buildings to bring in a new feel and complement the older buildings, but you can’t have all old buildings. That’s not how development works.”
Mayor Tom McNamara agreed.
“It’s exciting to see a local business with a strong reputation want to move a station to the downtown area. Four-and-a-half-million dollars is an incredible investment.”
Ald. Jonathan Logemann, D-2, cast the lone “no” vote. The first-term councilman said his dissent was not indicative of a lack of fervor for the city, though. He chose to err on the side of caution.
“I think it’s important that we grow responsibly,” Logemann said. “I see downtown growing, and I am not against a gas station. But I am against this specific measure at this specific time.”
Logemann said it would serve the city better if the station was approved after streets were re-routed, namely one-ways, to better accommodate other projects like the Amerock hotel and a rumored grocery store. Both 2nd and 3rd streets are expected to be returned to two-way traffic as part of the Whitman Street interchange overhaul.
“I think it’s a little too soon,” he said. “At this time, I simply feel uneasy voting for this measure.”
Tenth Ward Alderman Frank Beach (R), and Tim Durkee, R-1, were absent Monday.
In addition to a car wash, gas pumps and convenience store, the project leaves space for a nearly 3,000-square-foot building. Ground on the gas station is expected to break as soon as Kelley Williamson obtains permits from the city.
KW’s John Griffin was not available for comment. R.