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TLC: An Approach to Activate Downtown Rockford

Rockfod, IL


Farr Associates



Rockford has no shortage of plans. The City has undertaken numerous plans over the last decade that generally agree on the following goals:


1.Direct mixed-use development towards the downtown area

2. Connect the existing pieces of water front parks and trails

3. Add residential dwellings to downtown area

4. Enhance mobility in and around downtown through alternative modes of transportation such as bikes, trolley, and water taxis.


Recognizing that long-term planning processes often result in recommendations that are costly, resource-intensive, and have a time line of 15-20 years, the Strategic Action Plan takes these previously conceived recommendations, refines them, and focuses on implementation through the ‘TLC’ approach.


A T[actical], L[ean], C[limax] approach proposes shorter-term implementation tactics that ultimately lead to high-investment climax conditions. This approach allows for testing through prototypes, and more immediate results that lead to incremental, but impactful development. The implementation strategies are subdivided into TLC strategies that take a larger goal and show how to bring it to fruition through short, mid, and long-term steps. The TLC framework has become a popular phrase in Rockford, with the approach being used by the City, local organizations, and citizens in other projects and programs to describe how longterm projects can be successful in increments.






The “tactical” part of the TLC approach focuses on tactical interventions to accomplish a larger purpose. Tactical Urbanism, as it is often coined, asks the question “what can we do right away?. The implementation strategies outline low-risk, temporary solutions to help test the market for future, long-term, permanent improvements.


These interventions are an opportunity to solicit public excitement or disapproval for a certain idea. They are also strategy to empower residents to take challenges into their own hands and find solutions that can be implemented quickly and with limited resources. 



Lean strategies are the middle-ground between Tactical Urbanism and Climax development, with an aim to work around the “red tape” that often hinders development and increases costs. Lean strategies are intended to be flexible and adaptable, with a higher level of permanency than tactical interventions. Lean strategies require more resources than tactical ones, however, are still less costly and resource-intensive than climax developments. An example of a lean strategy would be a 1-story retail building or a shallow, retail space made of shipping containers instead of the 4-5 story fully-constructed mixed use development. 



Climax development is the end goal. In the case of Rockford and many other cities, it is what previous planning efforts called for from the beginning. Climax development, for example, is a four-story mixed-use building, a new apartment building, or the permanent adjustment of street sections. This type of development takes a great amount of time, planning, and secure financing.



The Implementation Strategies are organized into four sections:


​1. Mobility

2. Large Development

3. Economic Development

4. Urban Design


A list of “end goals” are provided for each section and each goal has associated TLC recommended strategies.  Partners, recommended time lines, and funding sources are also provided as they relate to each strategy. These strategies should be viewed as a menu of options that organizations and the City can consider and implement based on resources available.



Even before the planning process ended, energized organizations, citizens, and an eager City implemented some of the tactics proposed by Strategic Action Plan. The tactics implemented to date are:


  • Temporary bike/pedestrian shared-use space was installed with planters and bollards on the State Street Bridge and tested from May to August in 2015. This project was brought back for Summer 2016.

  • To increase street vibrancy through outdoor dining and sidewalk sales, the City temporarily waived permit fees and City applications.

  • A new event series, Shop the Blocks, was added by the City of Rockford and held 3 times over the summer of 2015. Elements included temporary parklets in parking spaces, parklets in parking lots, pop-up shops, and outdoor dining and retail sales.


  • The City started landscape and beautification of public parking lots.

  • Rockford Community Partners staged outdoor seating and food trucks on State Street bridge on “Rockford Day” in August 2016.

  • 7 Businesses opened; 3 more opening in Fall 2016.




The Strategic Action Plan utilizes Charter principles as a means of improving the whole of Downtown Rockford. This new TLC strategy that prioritizes tangible, quick results has energized the City, local organizations, and residents, with several strategies already implemented.


While the Project is an exemplar of large parts of the Charter and Canons, this is best exemplified by these key passages:


Neighborhoods should be compact, pedestrian friendly, and mixed-use. Districts generally emphasize a special single use, and should follow the principles of neighborhood design when possible. Corridors are regional connectors of neighborhoods and districts; they range from boulevards and rail lines to rivers and parkways.


Downtown Rockford has many assets on which to build. It is a regional urban center and historic downtown with great urban bones. This includes connected street grid, historic buildings with storefronts built to the street, and the scenic Rock River traveling through it. Over the years, however, history has intervened, in less than ideal ways. This includes mid-century urban renewal projects whose architecture ignored pedestrians, designating one-way street couplets, and surplus amounts of parking (approximately 1,885 surplus parking spaces in 2008). These interventions made it clear that cars were the highest priority in Downtown.

Many of the Strategic Action Plan’s strategies involve reversing these actions with the aim of returning the idea of shared space for people to downtown.



As an urban design approach to redevelopment, the design team worked with the City to create a street hierarchy that created “A Streets” and “Minor Streets.” It was agreed that an A Street is designed or characterized by features that promote safety, comfort, and convenience of pedestrians. These are often popular shopping and entertainment streets. Going forward, design considerations will limit curb cuts, surface parking lots on these streets– pushing these types of uses to Minor Streets.



The Plan recommended a temporary bike/pedestrian shared-use space be installed with planters and bollards on the State Street Bridge by removing a lane of traffic. This tactical strategy was implemented, tested from May to August in 2015 and repeated in 2016.



Bike share systems such as Divvy and B-Cycle, now commonly found in large cities may be too costly of an endeavor for a smaller city like Rockford. The Plan recommends a small-scale bike rental system run by a local organization as a good alternative and serve as a starting point for encouraging ridership. Coupling the rental program with existing programs like Critical Mass will also increase interest and provide a foundation for a more robust system in the future.


Preservation and renewal of historic buildings, districts, and landscapes affirm the continuity and evolution of urban society.


Downtown Rockford has many historic resources and buildings within downtown. A Strategic Action Plan Chapter dedicated to “Large Redevelopment” identifies TLC strategies for effectively retaining and reusing historic buildings in redevelopment projects, innovating and improving Downtown’s historic Davis Park, and developing a vision for new development that integrates with the existing historic fabric.


Streets and squares should be safe, comfortable, and interesting to the pedestrian. Properly configured, they encourage walking and enable neighbors to know each other and protect their communities.


The City was particularly interested in ideas about getting neighbors together Downtown and saw an opportunity to get existing community booster organizations involved in the tactical strategies proposed in the Strategic Action Plan.  


Rockford’s own River District Association developed a new event series called Shop the Blocks that promoted using every inch of public street and sidewalk in downtown– including occupying some parking spaces for event activities.


Retailers and restaurants brought their businesses outside to offer sidewalk sales and dining areas. Additionally, select parking spaces on 1st Street were turned into temporary interactive open-air parklets. The parklets offered visitors a space to kick back and relax, connect with friends and family, and even do something unique like play a game of bags, putt-putt golf, chess, or checkers.


Shop the Blocks was held successfully three times over the summer of 2015. 




The Project incorporates two lessons learned that ensure the creation of good urbanism. These ideas are highly replicable, as the issues tackled by the Strategic Action Plan are likely similar to those of other communities with historic downtowns.



For fifteen years, Rockford had been diligently turning out plans to address downtown issues. This included plans focused on everything: the Rock River, downtown trails, downtown parking, Museum Campus, the South Main Street Corridor, the Prairie Street Corridor, and downtown redevelopment in general. City leadership was getting frustrated, however, because all this planning was leading to very few tangible results.


The Strategic Action Plan team got involved to develop a Downtown Plan in 2014, and immediately recognized that Rockford needed a different approach. The team mined all prior plans for downtown, brought forward the relevant recommendations, and realized why people were dissatisfied. Almost all the recommendations from these plans called for high-investment, long term strategies. Coupled with the effects of the Great Recession, many of these ideas never stood a chance.


Out of this disconnect, the TLC approach was born. By breaking down how to realize a goal through short, mid, and long-term steps that are based on realistic ground conditions, people are more empowered to keep the momentum going. They don’t feel thwarted when they come up against the inevitable barriers to large redevelopment when their small-scale victories are fresh.  


Perhaps most inspiring is that ‘TLC’ has become a popular phrase in Rockford. The approach is being used by the City, local organizations, and citizens in other projects and programs to describe how long-term projects can be successful in increments.



Many of the ideas introduced in the Strategic Action Plan are new ideas for Rockford. They require those charged with implementation to step out of their comfort zone to try something new.


There were instances where the planning team came up against people who felt more comfortable continuing to do it the way “it’s always been done.” When this happened, City leadership stepped up and got it done.


Part of what makes the TLC approach so powerful is its ability to promote “pilot” projects and other temporary ideas. When substantial changes like a road diet to provide bike lanes are understood from the beginning to be temporary, those people with reservations can be made more comfortable with the idea. Often times, after seeing a tactical project’s success, they then become enthusiastic supporters who then lead it through lean and climax implementation

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