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Rockford, Ill.: Modernizing a Century–Old Community Landmark

Former manufactured gas plant leaves behind unresolved environmental issues
By Joel Zirkle

As a cornerstone of the Rockford, Ill,, community, the main branch of the Rockford Public Library will soon embark on a$33 million redevelopment project. Along the Rock River in the downtown district, the original Andrew Carnegie building sits on the former site of Rockford Gas, Light and Coke, a manufactured gas plant that operated from 1856 to 1898.

At the turn of the 20th century, the gas plant was demolished and the Carnegie library was built, opening to the public in 1903. In the 1960s, the library was remodeled into the 88,000–square–foot building it is today.

Acquiring Environmental Issues

During the 1960s, Commonwealth Edison acquired Rockford Gas, Light and Coke. The utility was proactive in 2010 when it decided to conduct an environmental study at the library, where its predecessor once operated. ComEd, in cooperation with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) as part of the Site Remediation Program (SRP), identified manufactured gas plant residues in the soil and groundwater under the library building. They also found two of the gas holders from the original plant.

After considerable negotiation, ComEd and the library crafted an access agreement, allowing the utility to remediate the site. The library will be demolished and MGP residues will be excavated. A library will be built on the site once the cleanup is completed. The library will operate out of a temporary location during demolition, cleanup and construction. ComEd has agreed to pay up to $33 million on the new library and up to $4 million on renovating the temporary location two blocks away.

In April, the Rockford Public Library Board and the Rockford City Council approved agreements with ComEd to move the project forward.

A Guiding Light

Prior to negotiations with ComEd, library officials wanted a partner to work on their behalf to help determine next steps to best serve the organization and community. The library board hired Fehr Graham, an environmental and engineering firm in Rockford, to consult and represent them throughout the project.

Consultants play a key role and serve as a guiding light for property owners to help ensure projects are given the best possible outcome. In this case:

– Fehr Graham helped library staff and board members understand the environmental complexities with the property.

– Library officials relied on their consultant to review and explain environmental reports and process–oriented paperwork prepared by ComEd’s consultant that reported findings to the library board.

– Library staff and board members became knowledgeable about the IEPA voluntary SRP, process and timeline.

– RPL had a sounding board and team of experts who reviewed and made recommendations to the environmental portions of the agreement with ComEd.

– The firm was present at the negotiations, leading up to the approved agreement in April.

Moving Forward

The library is now renovating its temporary location. Once complete, it will move and remain in the location until the new library opens. The new, modern, state–of–the–art library is expected to open in four to five years.

Significant work is still ahead and the library will continue to work with Fehr Graham to:

– Provide periodic observation of all environmental work conducted by ComEd’s consultant to ensure the environmental cleanup activities do not become an obstacle to the project timeline.

– Review all SRP reports to identify any potential setbacks and to ensure all work is progressing.

This project has many moving parts and includes many public and private partners. It was essential for the property owners to identify trusted partners who would work in their best interest to ensure the project has the best outcomes.

Joel Zirkle is principal with Fehr Graham, engineering and environmental firm, Rockford, Illinois

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