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Rockford Landmarks - reclaiming history - March 2023

Rockford landmarks –reclaiming history

By Andrew Wright, Rockford Chamber of Commerce

Landmarks tell the story of a city. The skyscrapers along the lakefront in Chicago, the industrial core of Milwaukee, the capitol building on the isthmus in Madison—these landmarks represent the identity of their cities and are a great source of pride for the people who live and work in them.

The Rockford Chamber of Commerce has the privilege to work in downtown Rockford in a building named Stewart Square, on the corner of State Street and Main Street. Now the home of professional services offices, DLaJe’ Beauty flower shop, Ripe Life Juice Company, a tasty taco restaurant and a welcoming barber shop, Stewart Square once housed retail stores like D. J. Stewart Dry Goods and JCPenney®.

Built in 1890, Stewart Square was converted in 1988 to offer a public atrium space with a food court and three stories of office space above it. It’s one of the buildings that native Rockfordians know by name, without needing to put the address in GPS.

Bob Goldbeck, commercial property manager for Fridh Corporation, takes pride in developing and leasing professional spaces in local landmarks like Stewart Square: “Rockford has a lot to offer. And that’s easy for people to overlook from day to day.”

Goldbeck took me on a tour of another generational building near the bustling corner of Alpine and State.

“A homestead first built for Ezra and Ruth Hamilton in 1842, soon served as a stagecoach stop on the Old Lead Road from Chicago to Galena, now known as State Street,” Goldbeck said. “After undergoing several renovations through the 1930s, the Ecklund family moved their café from Broadway and Seventh Street to the building at 4615 E. State St.”

While the building was also known at one time as the home for the Sweden House Restaurant, of late it’s mostly been the home of local bank branches and other professional offices after undergoing an expansion in the 1980s by Fridh Corporation patriarch, Roy Fridh.

Today, the legacy of 4615 E. State St. is proudly displayed in the halls on the main floor, just outside the First Community Credit Union lobby, complete with artifacts, articles and documents showing the progress of adapting this historic building to the modern needs of the tenants.

Adaptive reuse

In a city full of legacies like Rockford, many of the 75 and 100 plus yearold factory buildings don’t meet the needs of modern, technology-based manufacturing companies.

Robert Wilhelmi, brownfields redevelopment specialist with the City of Rockford explained some of the other hurdles of reclaiming aging factories for manufacturing: “Industry is coming back to Rockford, just not in our urban core, not surrounded by residential properties. Factories are looking for interstate access. Not many want rail access, most want trucking resources.”

The way that Rockford developed entire neighborhoods around manufacturing plants served by rail lines gave local workers walking access to the plants they worked at for decades. Neighbors were frequently coworkers because employees were given assistance to purchase houses in the blocks near the factories through government-backed employee loans. The clock tower at the National Lock building was a proud reminder to the neighborhood when the shifts were changing and the workers were heading home for the day.

Today, workers are changing jobs multiple times throughout their careers, and housing isn’t restricted to walking distance, as subdivisions attracted workers looking to own larger and newer homes. Infrastructure designed around roads focused on passenger cars, followed by access to high-speed internet, is what connects workers to their jobs, rather than a punch clock in the neighborhood factory.

That means many of these neighborhood factories need to be adapted to a new purpose. And to do that, sites need to be cleaned up and made safe from pollution and outdated building materials, funded through EPA grants.

“A brownfield is any property with limited reuse as a result of known or perceived contamination issues,” Wilhelmi said. “Rockford takes an aggressive approach to remove these environmental issues, preparing sites for new use.”

Brownfield remediation allows for properties to be properly prepared for adaptive reuse. By tapping into federal and state funding to remove contaminants and clear the site for use, significant Rockford landmarks have been converted from blighted property to valuable asset.

“When we see developments like the Embassy Suites and the UW Sports Factory, we are watching properties that were once eyesores becoming community assets,” Wilhelmi said.

Remediation of these properties has saved developers from having to wait for a supply chain that’s making the development of new open land, aka greenfields, take far longer than expected. And a reinvestment in these building sites near the city’s core helps reduce urban sprawl.

Brownfields versus greenfields

Therese Thill, president of the Rockford Area Economic Development Council, moved to Rockford a year ago from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Thill believes that Rockford needs to get the word out on the availability of some of these urban industrial properties.

“The greenfield properties often don’t have full infrastructure, and the timeline to get that infrastructure has increased. Years, in many cases, due to supply shortages and COVID,” she said. “When we look at some of the larger old industrial sites, they at least are served by electric, water, sewer, gas and broadband.”

Thill sees these existing industrial sites in two categories of opportunity: “There are sites that can be reused for an industrial purpose. Something of a larger size, like 100,000 square feet, with good transportation access. And redeveloping historic buildings for other purposes, like the Embassy Suites hotel or residential lofts. In Grand Rapids, we saw quite a lot of similar activities, including an older downtown building developed into a beautiful hotel. When we’re able to rehabilitate those buildings, it adds to the community character. It gives a lot of local flavor to our downtown.”

Modern developers have seen these successes and have begun to take notice over the past decade.

Developing for modern use while preserving history

“We erase history when we doze buildings,” said Ron Clewer, Illinois Market president for Gorman & Company, developers behind the Embassy Suites, built at the site of the old Ziock building that once housed a knitting factory, a hardware manufacturer and office space.

In 2011, the Ziock building was recognized by the National Park Service with a listing on the National Register of Historic Places and was purchased by Gorman & Company in 2015 to begin development into what is now the 12-story Embassy Suites.

Projects like the Embassy Suites are made possible through grants and tax credits, like Illinois’ River’s Edge Historic Preservation Tax Credit Program.

“By preserving history through these programs, we have a chance to get the costs of redevelopment back. It may be more expensive, but the differences in quality are also significant. To rebuild the Embassy Suites building would be impossible with today’s costs, but the building’s quality is such that it will withstand another 100 years.” Clewer said. “We are often too quick to move to demolition at the risk of preserving the fabric of our community. Because new is somehow better in many people’s minds, we take away valuable resource that make for the betterment of our community because of the allure of what’s new.”

Living in the city center

Justin Fern, founder and CEO of Urban Equity Properties, sees properties at the heart of the city as opportunities for a better way to live.

Urban Equity Properties has had a major impact on bringing new residential apartments to the downtown area, replacing office spaces with apartments in historic buildings like the Burnham Lofts, once known as the Rockford Trust Building, and the Talcott building, now known as the Residences at Talcott. The Talcott building was constructed in 1927 by founder of the Manny Reaper Company and incorporator of Rockford College and Beloit College, Wait Talcott.

Today, the Residences at Talcott house the newsroom of the Rockford Register Star and other offices on the lower floors, as well as upscale loft apartments with remarkable views of the Rock River Valley.

“The Talcott was always a very luxurious building. For a while, it’s been the home of a lot of medical offices and law firms. But when it was first built, it was one of the tallest buildings in Rockford. It had an upscale Block and Kuhl department store, and it was elegant,” said

Fern. “We kept that elegance throughout the apartments. In those units we did high end finishes with Calcutta gold marble countertops. We wanted the elegance to extend throughout the building.”

Landmarks with decorative facades and inviting lobbies create a modern sense of city living for the residents that call the spaces home.

“The buildings we choose are typically the best of the best. They could be in really bad shape, but it doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be restored back to their former glory. Certain buildings built 100 years ago were built simply for function, while others were built not just for function, but also for beauty,” Fern said.

He also credits the River’s Edge tax credit program with helping restore these century-old properties into modern spaces for urban professionals: “That helps us offset the costs of the construction in these buildings, because the costs to restore and repurpose these buildings are extremely high. Today they’re higher than they’ve ever been, and tomorrow they’ll be more expensive.”

To protect their investment, Urban Equity has to identify these desirable buildings through a complex and comprehensive assessment program, considering location, potential floor plans, window sizes and views, rent and lease rates, parking and infrastructure, as any developer would.

“At the same time, we have to make sure that the building fits the beauty that we’re looking for,” Fern said. “Every one of our buildings are different. Different architecture, different feel, different amenities, and that’s on purpose. On each project, we have a lot of different architecture going on. That keeps it interesting. If you build the same thing over and over again, you end up with a subdivision. We’re not going for that. We want the best existing buildings to convert them into the best residential buildings.”

The suite spot

Vinnie Bucci has been in the hospitality business for more than 40 years. Last May, Bucci looked at the opportunity to join the Embassy Suites as their General Manager and decided to check out what was happening at the former Ziock building: “I was like, ‘Wow, this is incredible what they did here,’ and I thought that I had to come and be a part of it.”

The Tower Kitchen and Bar, overlooks the ongoing renovations at Davis Park. Inside the restaurant is a section of steam pipe boiler from the original building, one of many artifacts archived on site, designed to be a part of a permanent interactive exhibit, a scavenger hunt for guests.

Videos play in the lobby, telling the story of the manufacturers that called the building home, while hotel guests or conference goers pass through the twostory lobby with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the river.

A feature wall with an ornamental map displays downtown, featuring Rockford-made products representing Rockford’s past.

“This building is the best of old and new. The best of what was already here, and we made it newer,” Bucci said.

Bucci’s proud of the reputation that his hotel has earned, winning a 2022 Conrad Achievement Award from the Hilton corporation, top marks for their rooms and service from TripAdvisor, and a restaurant that ranks among the top five local restaurants.

On the fifth floor, the photos of women working on the paint line are accompanied by a section of the conveyor system, still intact, that remind visitors of the unique history of the space.

“It’s important that this building has a history,” Bucci said. “It gives people questions to ask, and it gives you an experience to sell.”