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.
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.
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?
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 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.