Mike Fitzgerald had a great column yesterday lamenting the fact that Stockton has turned its back on its waterfront land. I couldn’t agree more. Our geographic location on the Delta provides a tremendous opportunity to truly distinguish Stockton from other Central Valley cities. But there was one portion of the column in particular that grabbed my attention. In the article, Fitzgerald quotes a developer who explains that building on the water is risky. And he is right: developing waterfront property is tricky-if you are only building one thing. Opening restaurants is tough if no one lives in the area, and selling/renting residential property on the waterfront is a hard sell with few amenities within walking distance. It’s why the condos atop the Waterfront Hotel couldn’t sell and why retail space around the events center sits vacant. Luckily, there is a solution to this vexing conundrum hamstringing the development of our waterfront: build a mixed-use community where residential, commercial and retail uses reinforce each other and strengthen the surrounding neighborhoods.
In almost every other city in the country, waterfront property is coveted by developers who know people will pay more to live and work near the water. In Stockton, we are fortunate to be on the Delta, with access to waterways other landlocked cities can only dream of. But for some reason, we neglect our most visible asset and instead expand our footprint away from the water and into prime farmland. Fitzgerald quoted local developer Fritz Grupe saying that developing on the water is “tricky as hell to finance” because banks are nervous about a customer base. This position confounds me, because in every other city, the opportunity to develop waterfront property is heavily pursued, but for some reason, building on Stockton’s waterfront is viewed as a burden or obligation.
But then again, I am not too surprised that traditional “greenfield” developers such as Grupe shy away from infill projects as their trade has been informed by years of assuming that the separation of uses is the key to success. In the column, Grupe muses about a lack of customers for retail as presumably during winter months or unpleasant days, people will not flock to the waterfront. Fitzgerald also blogged some reader responses noting that boating is becoming increasingly expensive and cannot be counted on to funnel in customers to waterfront bars and restaurants, leaving these businesses empty when boating is not in season.
So the obvious answer (at least to me) is, why not build both retail and residential on the water instead of relying solely on boaters or event goers to support new business? Grupe goes on to say that waterfront spots are successful near marinas where people use boats as their second homes. Well, if waterfront retail success hinges on people occasionally visiting their floating second mortgage, just imagine how business would boom if you gave people the option of making the waterfront their first home!
It makes perfect sense to build residential, commercial and retail together as these different uses mutually reinforce one another. Not only will new business benefit from visitors to the events center and marina, but there would also be local residents and workers patronizing shops and stores when the Ports aren’t in season or the Thunder are on an extended road trip. We aren’t talking luxury condos, either. Mixed use development, when done right, incorporates residential and retail space for a range of incomes. No fancy steakhouses or $500,000 townhomes catering to mega yacht owners. The waterfront should be a place for everyone.
Traditionally, when differing land uses were routinely separated, no one would dare combine retail with residential as zoning codes forbade mixed use. It made a lot of sense to worry about who would shop at a retail center or eat a restaurant without sufficient parking for people to comfortably drive in from residential areas. But today, this kind of segmented approach is out of date and Stockton won’t ever break the mold of mediocre development until developers wise up to national trends and zoning codes are changed to allow for more innovative land uses.
Now, I am sure someone will read this article and inevitably argue that “the area around the waterfront is dangerous,” and, yes, as it currently stands, the surrounding neighborhoods are not the safest. However, this argument on its own does not justify abandoning the waterfront altogether. Some of the most desirable neighborhoods in other cities used to be the most dangerous. The right kind of development could actually be the catalyst for the revitalization of these once-desirable neighborhoods which still feature architecturally pleasant though long neglected homes (side note: I know someone will also say “the ballpark and arena didn’t help the surrounding neighborhoods,” and they are right. But no one should be surprised because despite what ULI and city leaders told us, plenty of research shows that sports stadiums largely do not help to revitalize surrounding areas).
I wrote about the folly of investing in single-use developments on our waterfront before when I explained why Grupe’s luxury condo plan for the south shore was fatally flawed. I used the example of DC Yards, a development on the Anacostia River in Washington, DC, to illustrate the proper way to plan and create a whole, self sustaining waterfront community. I think the ideas expressed in my past article are applicable here as well, but it should be noted that there are hundreds of examples of smart, innovative, and successful infill and revitalization projects that can serve as an inspiration for what could be built downtown (Blue Back square in Hartford, Harbor East and Harbor Pointe in Baltimore, Glenwood Park in Atlanta and the Central Platte Valley District in Denver). I’m not saying that these examples should be viewed as exact blueprints for our own waterfront, as I believe Stockton should strive to create something unique instead of emulating another place, but these case studies should provide a new perspective for Stocktonians to reconsider what desirable and successful development means and to imagine the potential that infill sites like the waterfront have for reinventing the way citizens and outsiders alike see the city.
If we solely build luxury waterfront condos with gated access, they will not sell well. If we build restaurants on the water with no customers besides event center and marina patrons, they will struggle. Developing a comprehensive, mixed use community– not a subdivision or shopping center– is the only way to create a complete neighborhood with places to live, eat, shop, walk and play.