Have you tried to find a parking space in downtown Rockford lately? It’s a bustling scene filled with people who not only work there but also eat, sleep and play in the city’s center. Tour the latest developments and see what’s next.
Like many mid-sized American cities, Rockford’s center has suffered from urban decay for several decades, and periodic attempts to revitalize the downtown area have often failed to turn things around. Within the past decade, however, major changes have occurred, signaling a trend that seems destined to bring back life to the inner city – on both sides of the river.
“The secret of success to cities that have been revitalized is to create a combination of opportunities for residents to live, work and play there,” says local architect and historic preservationist Gary Anderson. “I think that’s the ‘new urbanism.’ In the past, we never offered that as a downtown market choice.”
According to Anderson’s research, [see graph] residential space in the downtown during the past 10 years has more than tripled, primarily through the “adaptive re-use of existing buildings of historic and architectural significance.”
This isn’t like the gentrification of urban communities in the 1960s and ’70s, which displaced inner-city poor folks from their low-rent apartments to make room for up-and-coming yuppies. Most of these vintage buildings have stood vacant for years, including their sidewalk-level storefronts. What has turned things around for Rockford is a combination of available public funding; private investors and entrepreneurs with a renewed faith in downtown Rockford; and changes in perception by the public at large.
“Because of the disinvestment that occurred in Rockford over time and the fall of real estate values and subsequent rents, it has taken a little bit of subsidy to entice private investment,” says Mark Williams, economic development manager for the City of Rockford. “We now have many cost-reduction tools in place to help stimulate redevelopment in these areas.”
Such tools include tax increment financing districts, a River Edge Redevelopment Zone and state and federal rehabilitation programs.
“Old Guard” investors like Mike Leifheit, owner of The Irish Rose, and Doc Slavkosky and Jerry Kortman, owners of the J.R. Kortman Center for Design, weathered economic ups and downs of the inner city for years, providing a foundation and inspiration for others who followed.
Several catalyst investments in recent years contributed to the increasing momentum for change. A partial list would include B&B Properties’ redevelopment of the Richardson building in 2006; the Koch family’s redevelopment of the Prairie Street Brewhouse in 2010; and the opening of the City Market by Rock River Redevelopment Partnership that same year.
The city’s Downtown Strategic Action Plan, last updated in December 2015, includes strategies to align the city’s resources to improve infrastructure and make other capital improvements to support those efforts.
“For example, all the main corridors leading into downtown have been improved, or are under improvement,” says Williams. “South Main, West State, Kishwaukee and now North Main, are all part of our corridor improvement plans.”
Numerous public events, such as ArtScene, Dinner on the Dock, Shop the Blocks, Friday Night Flicks and Stroll on State, have drawn people to the area, reintroducing them to a vibrant, varied and safe part of the city.
“People are choosing where they work and live, and as technology changes, it allows them to live just about anywhere,” says Williams. “Past traditional economic development efforts focused primarily on attracting new companies to ‘green-field sites.’ Although this is still important, we now include an emphasis on attracting talent. It forces us to look at redeveloping places and spaces within our core into places where people will want to live, work and play. And we’re not the only urban areas doing this.”
“Rochelle says that only about 10 percent of the people holding jobs they created actually live in Rochelle,” says Anderson. “We don’t want to be a community like that. We want people to spend their paychecks here, live the experience of being here.
“It’s about marketing and selling ourselves. I have certainly been one of those cheerleaders, but what’s so refreshing is that there are now a lot more people who believe in the future of the downtown. Developers who would not have been the norm [and some who were], have stepped up to the plate. They believe in a vision that Rockford can be a better place.”
Here are some of those firms and investors who are trying to transform Rockford’s downtown, one building at a time:
Urban Equity Properties
Perhaps the biggest investor in downtown redevelopment is Justin Fern, president of Urban Equity Properties (UEP). In just the past 10 years, Fern has acquired nearly 750,000 square feet of existing buildings and renovated most of them into mixed-use residential, retail and office space. His holdings include such landmarks as the Talcott Building, Chase Bank Center, 317 Market and Metropolitan Hall Lofts.
The latter project includes 408-414 E. State, which was the original Metropolitan Hall, “one of the earliest pre-Civil War commercial buildings still standing in Rockford,” says Fern. “It was the BMO Harris Bank Center of its time – very historic.”
Fern’s latest downtown project is converting the 11-story Trust Building, 202 W. State, from offices into 62 high-end loft apartments. It’s now called Burnham Lofts, after the building’s original architect, Daniel Burnham, who famously helped to design much of Chicago and Washington, D.C. The residential units range in size from 700 to 1,300 square feet and are priced from $1,050 to $1,595 per month. They include stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, hickory floors and well-designed floor plans. Most have a spectacular view of downtown Rockford and the Rock River. Shared amenities include a fitness center, business center and multiple tenant lounges, complete with a pool table and other games.
“Eventually we plan to construct a rooftop deck with an outdoor kitchen, where tenants can hang out and wind down,” says Fern. “The ground floor has space for several retail businesses.”
Future UEP projects downtown include the Hanley Building at the corner of Chestnut and South Main, and 327 W. Jefferson, the former home of the Adriatic Lounge.
“We’re geared to renovate and restore vintage buildings and bring back life to downtown Rockford,” says Fern. “Downtown is its own neighborhood now, a place to live, work and play.
“Our preferred model is upper-floor, market-rate apartments with ground-floor retail. When you’re renovating vintage buildings rather than doing new construction, it’s a completely different model. It really takes know-how on a lot of fronts.”
In addition to complex financial arrangements, which can include limitations on changes to historic buildings, UEP also deals with long-term challenges like leasing, managing and maintaining its properties into the future.
“We truly believe in adding [residential] units in the hundreds, not just in the tens and twenties,” says Fern. “We intend to complete 500 units over a five-year period. That’s going to be the key to triggering some national retail tenants to focus on downtown Rockford. Once we start running out of vacant commercial buildings, then we’ll start focusing on new construction. That day will come eventually.”
Husband and wife Kevin Holdmann and Lenae Weichel are into their third year of renovating an historic building in downtown Rockford at 304 N. Main. Located next to the Coronado Performing Arts Center, the structure was originally built in four phases – 1904, 1914, 1924 and 1951 – all the while the home of the Western Division of the American Insurance Company.
“In 2012, we started looking for a building to relocate my business, TAC Rockford,” says Holdmann. “We’d outgrown our space at 109 N. Main, where we’d been for almost 12 years. Ours is an engineering company in the machine tool industry. Ideally, we were looking for a smaller space just for us, but this building was available.”
American Insurance left the building in the mid-1960s and a succession of other businesses occupied it, including United Way, Pioneer Life and Conseco, which left in 2005.
“It stood vacant for 10 years, until we bought it in December 2014,” says Weichel. “It’s such a beautiful structure, it deserves to be restored.”
Their plan is to convert the 50,000 square-foot facility into modern offices, while preserving original architectural features such as the sweeping staircase between the first and second floor, a stained glass fixture by Frank Houtcamp and plaster crown moldings. The rentable space is a bit over 35,000 square feet and will include a reservable conference room, a rooftop garden with a sun deck and a four-season gathering space. TAC Rockford now occupies part of the main and lower floors, having moved in early February.
As part of their financial package, Holdmann and Weichel receive Historic Preservation Tax Credits from both Illinois and the federal government.
“The majority of the project is being privately funded, but the work wouldn’t be possible without the credits,” says Weichel. “Our plan is to complete as much work as possible by the end of the year.”
The renovations are utilizing a green energy design that includes a geothermal HVAC system and high-efficiency lighting. A new accessible entrance has been created on Jefferson Street, but the 1950s entrance on Main Street is being preserved with that era in mind. A nearby interior doorway utilizes a leaded glass archway from 1907, which was rescued from the Hill House on North Main by Bill Howard and his salvage crew, Sky’s the Limit.
“This project has become a personal as well as a professional investment for all of us working here,” says Weichel. “Our goal is to contribute in a positive way to the whole community.”
Peter Provenzano, president and CEO of SupplyCore, a family-owned supply chain integrator for the Department of Defense, made a commitment several years ago to help revitalize the downtown. About 10 years ago, his company purchased the old Gas & Electric building at 303 N. Main St., across from the Coronado Performing Arts Center, and spent $15 million renovating it for modern office use. His business now occupies the seventh and eighth floors, while tenants occupy about 90 percent of the rest of the space.
In 2007, Joseph James Partners (JJP), the property development arm of SupplyCore, acquired the former YWCA building at 220 S. Madison Street, across from the new UW Health Sports Factory. According to Bryan Davis, vice-president of government affairs and community engagement at SupplyCore, they intend to convert the facility into a 47-room boutique hotel.
“We are envisioning a very cool, customized experience, authentic to the Rockford area, by utilizing many of the YWCA attributes, such as the indoor swimming pool, basketball court, and fitness center,” says Davis. “The outside pavilion will be used for basketball in the summer, and ice skating and hockey in the winter.”
A recently installed roof will support 400 solar panels that should provide 20 to 25 percent of the electricity needs for the building. A full-service restaurant and bar will also be included.
Full construction is expected to begin in late June or early July, with a projected completion date in late 2017 or early 2018. Anticipated costs are between $7 to $8 million.
“Peter’s vision is seeing the hotel as the community living room for residents and visitors alike,” says Davis. “We expect it will cater to the millennial business traveler, as well as families with children who may be attending tournaments at the Sports Factory.”
Another impending downtown project supported by SupplyCore is the creation of an inside venue for the very popular City Market, which has been operating on summer Friday evenings since 2010. The building at 114-116 Madison St. lies just across the railroad tracks from the Market’s current outdoor pavilion, and just north of The Standard on State.
“The renovation will include a shared-use commercial kitchen for entrepreneurs and other market vendors in the community,” says Davis. “It’s intended to create a year-round City Market type program. We really want to help incubate those new businesses that want to get started. It will be run by the Rock River Development Partnership, the same folks who run the Rockford City Market now. Even though the Indoor City Market is going to be a public space, JJP will be contributing staff, expertise and resources to get it going.”
Davis expects to start reconstruction this summer, with a projected opening in late 2017. He estimates it will draw about 2,700 visitors per week; the cost of renovation will be $8 million.
First Midwest Group
Sunil Puri, owner of First Midwest Group, has been involved in downtown revitalization efforts since the 1980s. In 1986, he was part of a study called Operation Bullseye to find ways to produce activity in the central city on a 24/7 basis. In 1987, his company proposed converting the East Side Inn and its connecting block into a Radisson Hotel.
Instead, the City Council preferred a Madison developer, whose less-ambitious plans converted only the Inn into an office building.
During the 1990s, First Midwest Group initiated or supported other downtown projects, including construction of the Hinshaw-Culbertson Building at 100 Park Ave. (1995); the renovation of the Illinois Bank Building into Brown Lofts (1996); and construction of the Social Security Administration building on East Jefferson (1999), “the first federal building constructed in Winnebago county since 1888,” says Puri.
He also supported the Prairie Street Brewhouse renovation in 2013 and the Metropolitan Lofts redevelopment in 2013 by purchasing state and federal tax credits, which reduced construction costs.
“If you add it all up, we have invested over $25 million in downtown Rockford,” says Puri.
First Midwest’s latest downtown investment is the redevelopment of the Canfield Clinic building at 326 W. Jefferson into a modern, upscale residential facility now called Jefferson Lofts. The building was constructed in 1930, and is part of the West Rockford Downtown Historic District. The conversion includes nine residential units upstairs, from 770 to 975 square feet in area, with rents beginning at $995 per month. There are up to seven downstairs office units, the largest being 5,000 square feet. Off-street parking is a secure, gated area near North Main Street, which includes 32 well-lit spaces. It’s about a $2 million project.
“My focus right now is trying to create some really inventive work spaces,” says Puri. “We need to bring employment to the downtown. While it’s cool and wonderful for young people to live around there, we also need to make sure they can work there. It’s like the three legs of a stool: housing, recreation and employment – you need all three of them.”
The Rockford City Council and the Rockford Public Library Board recently approved agreements with Commonwealth Edison to move the downtown library on Wyman Street to temporary quarters at 214 N. Church, just across from Jefferson Lofts, while the old site is cleaned up and a new library is constructed. Renovations at the temporary site were expected to start in May, and the library staff hopes to move in by late 2017 or early 2018. The current library gets about 300,000 visitors a year and such activity will boost commerce around that area.
“Downtown is like the heart of a body, and if the heart goes bad, so does the body,” says Puri. “No matter how much money cities like Rosemont and Schaumburg spend on shopping malls and casinos, they don’t have a downtown. They almost have to create a fake one. We have a real, historic downtown. It just needs some work. We’re thrilled by all the activity and momentum now taking place, and thrilled to have been a part of it since 1986.”
Taco Betty’s & The Standard on State
Paul Sletten has been part of the urban landscape in downtown Rockford since 2005, when his catering business outgrew his Rolling Green home. That year he opened Abreo, his restaurant at 515 E. State, in the former home of Baccus. In 2010, he created Social Urban Bar & Restaurant at 509 E. State, just two doors west.
That same year, while trying to obtain a bank loan to re-do the roof at Abreo, the bank expressed reluctance to finance it, fearing that one restaurant would cannibalize customers from the other.
“A year later, after the numbers were in, I got that loan,” recalls Sletten. “Instead of splitting sales, we doubled our sales in both locations. Each restaurant has its own environment, vibe and crowds.”
Sletten is currently a partner in and president of Taco Betty’s, 212 E. State, one of Rockford’s newest downtown eateries, and is exclusive caterer to its neighbor, The Standard, 214 E. State, a reception venue for weddings, banquets and private parties. Brent Hughes and co-investor John Bross came up with the concept for Taco Betty’s in 2014. Along with several other investors, they purchased both buildings that same year.
“I became interested in the ‘bones’ of old buildings while I was living in a downtown loft on East State Street,” says Hughes. “I always really liked that corner building. It has, in my opinion, the best view of downtown Rockford, the Rock River and looking west. Everybody wanted to turn that building into a restaurant, and now we have.”
Although the businesses occupy adjoining buildings, the venues and businesses are completely separate. The Standard’s entrance is on the west side of the building, facing the alley next to the City Market pavilion. The ground floor facing State Street contains three retail establishments, London Avenue Design, Tique Furnishings, and Arch Cosmetics, the latter owned by Hughes’ wife, Betsy Branca. A complete catering kitchen occupies part of the second floor, with dining/dancing areas available on the same floor and on the roof, which is partially enclosed by glass. Each floor contains about 6,500 square feet.
The entrance to Taco Betty’s faces onto State Street, and the first floor features an open design where the kitchen and bar are all exposed.
“Chefs and bartenders work next to each other, and as you sit at the bar, you can watch all the magic happen,” says Hughes.
Patrons can also dine on the second floor, and eventually in Rockford’s first rooftop bar. The Standard and Taco Betty’s opened at the end of April.
“I’ve seen people walking across State Street bridge on Friday evenings, after City Market closes, to visit a restaurant on the west side of the river,” says Williams. “When you see that, you know there’s a transformational change going on, the bridging of communities.”
“People want this lifestyle, whether it’s the young millennial or the empty-nester,” says Anderson.
“It’s so refreshing to see the mix already. I think what’s happening is, this is the go-to place!”