For the past 20 years, growth on the city’s northern border has been generally defined by one company: AG Spanos. With its low-density approach, incorporating winding streets with gated communities and no retail– except, of course, for the mega mall that is Park West Place– Spanos’ developments in North Stockton serve as the antithesis to smart, sustainable growth. In the thousands of acres developed north of Bear Creek, there is not one laundromat or grocery store within the sea of single family housing, and there are maybe three restaurants, all located at Park West Place, that are not chains or fast food spots. In Spanos’ neighborhoods, the car has always been the undisputed king of the landscape.
But has Spanos started to change its ways?
A lot of their planned developments indicate, to some extent, that they have. Instead of the usual low-density, single-use design that has become synonymous with Spanos projects, the company appears to be shifting towards more mixed uses and smarter site plans that align with smart growth principles.
For example, Spanos originally planned to build out Atlas Tract, an area just below Bear Creek and the sprawling Spanos Park West, in typical, single-family fashion. The development called for around 1,500 units, with the vast majority being of the low density variety that has become commonplace in most Stockton development. However, after the housing bubble burst, Spanos had a change of heart. The project, dubbed Delta Cove, now boasts a more mixed-use site plan, with a more balanced mix of low, medium and high density housing with commercial space that is more intertwined with the neighborhood. The plan also calls for a substantial amount of green space, with 44 percent of the 360 acre project slated for parks, recreation areas or waterways. The project was such a departure from previous Spanos projects that Campaign for Common Ground, the local group that advocates for more smart growth development in Stockton, endorsed the project in 2010, noting that the development represented “a vast improvement over the plan that was approved for Atlas Tract in 2008.” The city council agreed and approved the project in 2010, though construction may still be years away.
While the Delta Cove project represents a step in the right direction, Spanos is really hanging their sustainability hat on a much grander project: The Preserve— a massive 1,800 acre, $2 billion project north of Eight Mile. The design features an impressive mixture of commercial, retail and housing of all types of densities with a substantial portion of the land dedicated to wetlands, parks and even a farm. The site plan includes a more grid-like street pattern, which is like catnip to smart growth people like me as this type of traffic design encourages walking and biking while creating a more inclusive community feel., eliminating the crushing dependence on cars. The project is even slated to use recycled rainwater for 100% of its non potable water usage. By all accounts, the Preserve is a major departure from the business-as-usual developments Spanos has become known for.
Well, except for one, small detail.
Despite Spanos’ progress, The Preserve would still expand the city’s footprint, which is a big no-no for sustainable developments. The United States Green Building Council (USGBC), the organization that certifies buildings as green, has a similar rating system for neighborhoods, known as LEED-ND—Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design- Neighborhood Development. Developers and cities can plan communities to meet these standards in order to be dubbed a LEED certified neighborhood, which is both a major honor and a big selling point for buyers. But to even be considered for a LEED-ND rating, a development must either use existing infrastructure or be adjacent and connected to existing communities. Seeing as how the Preserve is planned on empty farmland, the project cannot be certified as a LEED-ND development. Even though the Preserve will abut the rest of the Spanos kingdom, creating the LEED-ND mandated pedestrian entry points every 600 feet to the other side of Eight Mile will prove difficult, if not impossible (Sidenote: LEED-ND is great, but it does have some big flaws as well)
If Spanos really has made an about face to building better communities, the company should balance out its portfolio of sprawl with some developments that take advantage of the city’s existing infrastructure. By solely building out, Spanos is spreading the city’s resources thin. Stockton has a severe shortage of police officers, how can the city expect to provide the resources to patrol thousands of extra acres to support these developments? On top of that, the extra street maintenance, park maintenance, bus routes– all of that is paid by the city and county government, and they are not necessarily flush with cash, nor will they be in the foreseeable future. Advocates for new developments often make the argument that increased tax revenues and development fees offset the increased need in public service. This is simply not true as any influx of new revenue is heavily outweighed over the long term by infrastructure needs and externalities of sprawl (I recommend the site “Strong Towns” which explains how sprawl drains city finances).
Once Stockton is fully built out, then it makes sense to expand, but right now, there is plenty of space to build within the city. The San Joaquin Council of Governments (SJCOG) has identified a whopping 141 sites in Stockton that could be used for infill development, so when Spanos says there is no space within Stockton big enough to accommodate the city’s projected growth, maybe they should look a little harder. As I wrote about before, many big development companies in other cities are catching on to the idea that there is money to be made building within city limits. I do believe, as a Stockton-based company, the Spanos wants the city to succeed. Spanos has been very generous to the city, donating money to refurbish the Fox Theater, among many other things. But to really help the city thrive, it is time for the Spanos family to bring some of these strong ideas exhibited in The Preserve back into the city, not inching out closer to Lodi.