Judson architectural students set up shop in Rockford

Jeff Kolkey, Rockford Register Star

ROCKFORD — Judson University architectural graduate students arrived downtown Monday afternoon and in short order turned an empty storefront into their headquarters for a design blitz.

Folding tables and chairs were set up and shifted around to create workstations. Extension cords and power strips were deployed to power laptops. Large maps detailing the development of downtown Rockford since the 1890s were taped to walls.

Sandwiched between Runner’s Image and the Rockford Wellness & Diagnostic Center, the storefront at 222 E. State St. will be a hive of activity this week. A handful of Judson students — most of them received their master’s degrees Saturday — will create designs and visualizations of the potential for a revitalized downtown.

“We are excited about the potential, we see the beautiful buildings, we see the river and the streetscape, and your mind leaps at how great it would be if that were taken a few steps further,” professor Nathaniel Brooks said. “You can imagine sidewalk cafes, you can imagine a really vibrant riverfront where night and day there are a variety of activities in downtown Rockford, and you can imagine it as a vibrant place that draws kids, families and people of all demographic groups.”

Sharing a passion for urban design and an approach known as new urbanism that shuns sprawl, the Judson students were recruited by Rock River Development Partnership consultant Live Work Learn Play to provide design services for free. The workshop could become a continuing part of the Judson architectural curriculum next semester.

Live Work Learn Play is working to create a master plan for revitalizing downtown Rockford on behalf of civic and business leaders with the Development Partnership.

Among the consultant’s recommendations are creating new rituals that bring families downtown and recruiting the region’s best mom-and-pop restaurants and specialty stores to open downtown.

Ben Scarbro, 24 of Annapolis, Md., used his laptop to quickly piece together satellite images that the group plans to use to develop place- and context-sensitive drawings and designs.

“This is a great opportunity to share what we’ve learned,” he said.

For Sam Lima, 24 of Milton, Wis., participation in the design project is an opportunity to gain valuable experience and contacts. “I have a really strong desire to use the skills I have to better places, to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of existing and potential developments in cities,” he said.

Drawings and visualizations the students and architects devise could have an effect on downtown revitalization, Brooks said.

“Images are extremely powerful,” he said. “Sometimes we get locked into what we see every day. Sometimes it can take someone from outside the neighborhood to see things just a little bit differently and imagine what a difference a relatively few small steps could make.”

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The Rock River Development Partnership (RRDP) was established in 2009 as a 501c3 organization. The RRDP brings businesses and people together to create place. We are entrepreneurial and experiential market makers. Our strategies are to create connections between local entrepreneurs and customers to drive economic development to Rockford’s urban core and historic commercial districts, and to foster vibrancy through the activation of storefronts, placemaking and tourism.

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