Downtown waterfront deserves better than Grupe condo plan

Back in 2006 when the housing industry was humming, there was a proposal in place to finally develop real housing downtown. Grupe Co., long known for building communities on the northern boundaries of Stockton, had plans to construct condos on the southwest shore of the waterfront. When these plans first came to fruition, I, like many others, was excited at the prospect of new residences springing up along the water. Looking back, that enthusiasm I believe is still warranted: The city needs to work with developers to bring residents downtown. However, when I consider the concept Grupe had for the nearly eight acre plot of  waterfront property, I am actually glad these homes were never built. I have no idea if these condos are still in the works, waiting for the market to recover, but I do believe Grupe should revisit this concept because the current design is an inefficient use of what should be a premier development opportunity. Stockton needs housing downtown, but the city should require a smarter design than what Grupe has presented.

The site of the proposed Southpointe community by Grupe

First, some background. The plot of land discussed here is currently an empty lot situated along the new marina promenade and steps away from the Waterfront Warehouse. Grupe’s original proposal called for roughly 152 condos to be constructed, with the cheapest selling for between $300,000 and $350,000. The community, dubbed Southpointe, would include some 300 parking spaces and a pool. Here is the site plan, as shown in the Record:

The city’s Greater Downtown Housing Strategy developed by RACESTUDIO in 2007 as well as an updated presentation in 2009 by the same firm appears to include the same Grupe design for Southpointe.

Why Grupe’s plan is a poor use of prime space
The Grupe plan does a lot of things wrong, both for the company itself and the waterfront as a whole. If the city allows this design to eventually go through, it will be disappointing, to say the least, to see such a pristine piece of real estate go to waste on a project that ignores the site’s best assets and caters to the rich.

Site plan of Grupe’s Southpointe project as shown in the Greater Downtown Housing Strategy. The plan calls for 152 condos on roughly eight acres of land.

First and foremost, Grupe’s proposal does not fully utilize the best, most obvious aspect of the site: the water. The most attractive aspects of building on the water downtown are the sweeping views of the marina, boats, the ballpark, etc. When you look at the site plan, only 152 units are planned, most of which do not face the water. It looks as if at least two thirds of the planned units have no sightlines to the waterfront. There is plenty of real estate data that shows people are willing to pay more for a view, especially of the water, but for some reason, Grupe does not want to maximize the location’s best asset.

The plan is also not very dense in terms of downtown housing. With about eight acres, Grupe should be able to fit hundreds of residents. Instead, the plan calls for just 152 units. In most cities, eight acres of prime development space would not be squandered on just 152 units. Grupe could easily fit the same number of residences on a third of the land, which would allow the company to use the rest of the space for more residences or, even better, other uses, which brings me to my next point.

Another major issue with the Grupe proposal is the plan’s focus on residential units with no incorporated commercial or retail space. Other cities are embracing more mixed-use developments to create complete communities where people can live, work and play. Grupe’s design closes off the potential for any waterfront dining or community amenities that would be attractive to buyers/renters and people visiting the waterfront (See my example below for what a real waterfront development should look like).

Furthermore, the development, as described back in 2006 and 2007, is billed as luxurious. To me, this is code for exclusive, and I believe the city should encourage more inclusive development. By this, I mean the development of the waterfront should be enjoyed by all. By constructing a private, lower density development on the waterfront, the city is essentially closing off that section of downtown to anyone who can’t shell out big bucks to buy a condo. Stockton has plenty of gate-controlled communities, do we need another downtown?

The Ritz Carlton Residences in Baltimore sit mostly vacant

These types of developments have not been successful in other cities. Take, for example, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where the city gave the green light to a similar type of development in the mid 2000s featuring luxurious harbor-view condos. Absent from the site plan, however, were any real commercial or retail spaces. Today, the condos sit mostly vacant while other, less “luxurious” developments that included more mixed uses have filled up despite the recession because they cater to middle-income residents (Such as the Fitzgerald apartment complex which does not even benefit from waterfront views). The Baltimore Ritz-Carlton project is just one example, and obviously, the housing bubble played a huge role. Though, even with that in mind, the parallels between this luxury complex in Baltimore to the one proposed in Stockton should not be ignored.

What should Grupe build?
Instead of an exclusive, closed off residential community, Grupe should consider building a mixture of apartment towers (we’re talking four to six stories, nothing unreasonable) with ground floor retail and office space that integrate into the marina and promenade to create a real sense of place. As explored in an earlier post, building densely is more economically efficient for the city. For Grupe, maximizing space on the waterfront means being able to charge rent and/or sell more condos to more consumers while the city gets to collect more in taxes.

In Washington, DC, the city is currently overseeing the development of its long-neglected southeastern waterfront. The project, DC Yards, includes a wide array of uses including condos, apartments, lofts, office and retail space as well as extensive public spaces. Take a look:

The DC Yards development in Washington, DC, includes a mixture of rental housing, retail and office space a long with open public spaces a long the water. Grupe should emulate this kind of design.

The area in the image shown here is probably close to eight acres. In these eight acres, the DC Yards development creates a diverse array of housing and retail options while also incorporating inclusive public spaces. Obviously, Stockton is not Washington DC, but Stockton can learn from DC and other cities about the importance of maximising the utility of prime development space to create a bustling group of city blocks that contribute to the overall fabric of the community, not just a bunch of condos.

The city should encourage mixed-use development along the water as much as possible as this kind of development not only brings residents to the area, but also can support restaurants, shops and other amenities that make residents want to live downtown and get visitors to stay a while and spend a few dollars.

As it stands, Grupe’s design caters to a particular crowd, and does not even do so in an efficient way. With a mixed use design, Grupe can maximize profit potential and the city will benefit from a continuous, active waterfront community.

I am not against downtown townhome housing in all forms. If you look at the Greater Downtown Housing Strategy, the plan calls for townhome style housing in several instances, and I think this makes a lot of sense, just not on the most valuable real estate, right on the water. I am also not necessarily against “luxury” housing, either. I think all types of housing should be constructed in one form or another in the area. However, it appears that the initial housing plans the city embraced for downtown were all geared towards big spenders. I don’t need to remind readers that our city is not really a fat cat kind of town. Instead, the city should encourage all types of housing options, not just luxury condos. To start, market-rate rental apartments would be far more attractive to the younger crowds who may not have the money to take a risk on purchasing a condo in an unproven downtown neighborhood, but may be open to signing a year lease instead.

So, Grupe big wigs and Stockton city leaders, if you are reading this (and you should be!), think about expanding your horizons. I know most area developers’ specialties are steeped in single family housing developments, but Stockton’s downtown deserves something more thought out than a run-of-the-mill gated residence. We will only get to build on the waterfront once, let’s make sure we do it right.

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Categories: Development News, Smart Growth

Author:David A. Garcia

David A. Garcia created SCL in March of 2012. Garcia is a Stockton native with a background in urban policy and planning, holding a Bachelor's Degree from UCLA as well as a Master's Degree in Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. He currently serves as the Policy Director at the UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation. David was also COO at Ten Space, a real estate development firm focused exclusively on Downtown Stockton, and continues to advise on their projects. Prior to that, he worked three years as a researcher/analyst for a Congressional research agency in Washington, DC. The views expressed on this site are entirely of the author's

9 Comments on “Downtown waterfront deserves better than Grupe condo plan”

  1. Stockton Res
    May 15, 2012 at 11:24 am #

    You seem to have forgotten about the major blight on the north shore. The development would not view the ballpark, but two major toxic sites (Stockton Iron works , Colberg Boat works). A non gated project would quickly be overrun with vagrants and thieves.

    • Stocktonian
      May 15, 2012 at 11:57 am #

      Thanks for the comment, Stockton Res,

      A couple points. You are correct about the sight lines as they stand now. If the condos were constructed today, many of them would include a view of the older structures on the North shore you mention. However, the city’s housing strategies eventually call for those areas to be developed, at which point, the views across the channel will be much more favorable. The North and South shores will both be developed at some point, but probably not at the same time. Whichever one happens first will have to settle for a less-than-ideal sight across the water for a time, but that should by no means inhibit development on either side of the channel.

      As for the crime aspect, you are right. A low-density development like the one proposed currently would need security gates to assuage the fears of home buyers. On the other hand, entry into buildings in a mixed use development for commercial and residential tenets would be controlled by security officers in the lobbies of buildings, eliminating the need for gated control of the entire area. For public spaces, the project’s developers as well as community groups such as the Downtown Stockton Alliance could coordinate to provide a visible security presence for patrons.

      There is no doubt about the level of blight in the area making development an issue. However, issues of crime and safety can be mitigated through smart planning and should not be the be-all end-all of whether or not something gets built. I encourage everyone to read about the transformation in DC’s Navy Yard neighborhood for an example of how smart development can turn a blighted neighborhood into a destination.

      http://www.washingtonpost.com/realestate/navy-yard-neighborhood-starts-to-come-alive-with-shops-restaurants-and-residents/2012/04/12/gIQAhkH3ET_story.html

      and a shorter summary here

      http://www.theatlanticcities.com/neighborhoods/2012/05/dc-baseball-oriented-development-seems-last-be-working/1995/

    • open your mind
      May 15, 2012 at 12:33 pm #

      Your comments are very short-sighted. Overlooking that you don’t address the poor (read suburban) design of the Grupe proposal, I’ve noticed that many Stocktonians, such as yourself, are in denial that downtown Stockton’s waterfront will one day be the hot place to live in the city (think Midtown Sacramento, but with awesome waterfront views). It might not happen for several years, but long term plans for the downtown waterfront area, if administered properly by the city’s planning department (who have their own lack of urban vision), show a blue print for this area based on proven urban planning concepts that have worked in numerous other places, and will work in Stockton. Well designed mixed-use projects deter crime by putting “eyes on the street” by creating activity on the ground floors and residences on the upper floors. The collapse of the real estate market has shown us that ill-designed suburban sprawl does not work.

      People who live in gated communities are living with a false sense of security. It’s a marketing gimmick used by housing developers preying on buyer’s fears. Data indicates that the long-term crime rates of gated communities is at best only marginally altered from those outside the gates. In addition to neighborhood watch groups, where residents keep an eye out for each other, design of the built environment has been shown to be more successful in preventing crime. Don’t believe me? Talk to PD about which parks in Stockton have the most muggings. As I recall, it’s in Brookside, not downtown.

      As for the Iron works and Colberg Boat works sites, wouldn’t it be great if they redeveloped those sites into urban mixed-use projects? It’s been done in other historical industrial locations around the country, and turned out to create destination places for those communities.

  2. majake01
    May 15, 2012 at 11:57 am #

    Yeah, that’s a great idea. Those condos on top of the Sheraton/Lexington Hotel sold out fast. There are no services in the area.

    • Stocktonian
      May 15, 2012 at 12:23 pm #

      Mike,

      Your sarcasm is warranted. I mentioned in the article the city’s propensity in 2006 and 2007 to plan for only “luxury” residences, and the Sheraton condos were the other project I had in mind when writing that. Especially since the housing market is still down, developers should consider mixed-use projects that include market rate apartments instead. The rental market has not suffered and to focus on luxury housing caters to a very small percentage of the city’s residents.

    • open your mind
      May 15, 2012 at 12:43 pm #

      I considered buying one of those condos in the hotel. Had it not been for the inflated prices at the tip of the real estate bubble bursting, I likely would have looked into it more seriously. Services are like a chicken and egg problem for people living in areas being redeveloped. Some people, like me, can deal with limited services during the ramp up phase. I’d also venture to guess that most people in Stockton don’t walk to services in the first place – they drive, as that’s how the newer parts of our city were designed. I’d also guess that downtown likely offers more restaurants and places to go (like the movie theater) in walking distance than most other neighborhoods here, save the Miracle Mile, or a few other places.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  3. The right way to develop Stockton’s waterfront « Stockton City Limits - November 15, 2012

    […] 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 […]

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