I came across a story today in the Record that caught my attention. A Sacramento architect, David Mogavero, gave a talk to members of the city’s Climate Action Plan Advisory Committee in which he pretty much said everything I have ever said in this blog, reaffirming the smart-growth sentiments I continue to espouse. You can read the story here to see what he had to say. Mogavero’s words to city leaders come at a unique time for both Stockton and the country as a whole: for the first time nationally, people are moving back into cities faster than suburbs are gaining residents. Developers are starting to realize this and are shifting their plans accordingly. In Stockton, development is still stagnant, but while we wait for the economy to recover, are area developers taking notice of national trends?
In an earlier post, I discussed the changing demographics of the country. For the first time in a long time, cities are seeing a greater share of the country’s population growth as suburban areas have seen their populations stagnate. The recession has dampened demand for traditional sprawling houses on farmland and many residents are now more interested in homes in walkable neighborhoods closer to amenities. To meet this new demand, corporations that were best known for sprawling, car-centered subdivisions are beginning to see the benefits of building complete communities within the city. The housing market is still dormant in Stockton, but once it wakes up, developers that once gobbled up farmland and pushed the city’s boundaries can either catch on to this national trend, or fall back on their traditional, sprawl-based business model that got us into this mess in the first place.
Around the country, areas that were renowned for McMansions and cul de sacs are seeing a shift in consumer preferences, and developers are taking notice. An article in USA Today examines how developers have made this transition, noting that cities that once were the epitome of sprawl are now seeing new construction sprout up in older areas that have been ignored by developers for decades. In Anaheim, there is building near the historic center of the city. Tampa, Florida and Arlington, Texas, poster children for low-density growth have seen demand for housing in walkable areas increase. These new projects aren’t being constructed my small firms, either, notes the article, as many major development companies now employ an “urban division” that focuses exclusively on infill projects, even ones that require environmental clean up. Even KB Homes, which has built a home or two in Stockton, is getting in on the act, recently constructing a large-scale infill project near Marina Del Rey on an old airfield site. The article goes on to quote several housing experts who claim that this return to the city is not a fad, explaining the return is fueled by young adults and baby boomers that are uninterested in large lots and long car rides.
In Stockton, it is unclear how area housing giants are approaching this emerging change in consumer preferences. Historically, Stockton developers have tried as hard as they could to squirm out of any building within the city. In 2008, Spanos convinced the city council to relieve the company of its obligations to construct about 600 multifamily units in Spanos Park West (because they wanted to build a Walmart there, instead). In return, Spanos was said to have been considering constructing units downtown. Obviously, that never materialized. Grupe had plans as well to construct downtown housing (the design of which, I noted a few days, ago, left much to be desired), though that project also has not gotten past the drawing board. Clearly, these commitments to downtown were tepid. Despite the thousands of single family, car-dependent homes that developers rushed to build in the 2000s, there have been few significant investments in housing in the center of the city (Though there has been some investment. Most notably, Grupe has taken the lead on redeveloping the area north of Downtown around the CSU Stanislaus campus, which calls for 180 residential units). The blame can’t be put entirely on developers; they were following the consumer trends and the city council did almost nothing to stop them. But now, the trends are clearly going in the other direction.
Today, the market has changed, and it is quite possible that Spanos, Grupe and other major developers would be willing to shift a larger portion of their efforts back into the city instead of continuously expanding it outward. Clearly, developers have overproduced single family housing, and it would be foolish to return to the building patterns of the past which started helped start the housing bubble in the first place. As demonstrated by the demand for infill projects in other cities, there is definitely a way for developers to turn a profit by investing in older neighborhoods. Once the city’s developers get on board, maybe Mogavero could be their architect.