Driving down highway 99 on a recent trip through the Central Valley, Joe Minicozzi saw a highway sign for downtown Stockton and decided to take a short detour into the city. On his way downtown by way surface streets, Minicozzi witnessed what many Stockton residents deal with on a daily basis: prostitution, homelessness, run-down buildings. Minicozzi sees these kinds of conditions in many of the communities he visits. But instead of judging Stockton based on what he observed on the ground, Minicozzi saw the city’s real potential when he looked up, where tall, historic buildings hide a potential economic boon. It’s these structures, and a return to valuing downtown development, that offer Stockton a path forward.
“Stockton has a tremendous opportunity with its stock of downtown buildings,” says Minicozzi. “You can see in the architecture that the city was very prosperous. The city’s heritage is evident in the historical character of its buildings.”
Minicozzi is the principal of Urban3, LLC and formerly the New Projects Director for Public Interest Projects, Inc. In this capacity, Minicozzi specializes in analyzing the economic potentials of downtown development versus sprawling subdivisions and shopping centers located on the edges of cities. I have written about his work before, explaining how his research provides ironclad data proving that infill projects and historic renovations have a much more efficient economic impact than sprawl. Minicozzi took some time to chat with me about his work and how it relates to our situation here in Stockton.
During his latest analysis, Minicozzi passed through Stockton on his way to Modesto, Turlock and Merced to deliver the findings of his latest research on the huge economic impacts downtowns have in those communities. What he found in the Central Valley echoed the results he has seen around the country: On a per acre basis, downtown buildings simply provide a more efficient means of revenue for local governments. Even in smaller cities such as Merced and Turlock, modest downtown structures provided a greater per acre benefit to the city than strip malls and big box stores.
“Turlock has just a handful of buildings downtown that are two stories, maybe one three story,” Minicozzi explained. “But even in these modest buildings, we saw a huge economic benefit far outweighing what the city’s mall was providing.”
In Turlock, Minicozzi revealed that the city’s average downtown building brought in 48.6% more tax revenue per acre than the local Wal-Mart. Moreover, the city’s Main Street properties are valued at about $1.6 million per acre, more than the per acre value of the much larger Monte Vista Crossings shopping center ($1.2 million per acre). In Merced, Minicozzi found that downtown buildings net 40.5% more in property tax revenue than the city’s mall.
While these numbers paint a fairly clear picture of the stark differences between sprawl and infill, Minicozzi likes to describe this dichotomy in even simpler terms.
“Think of it as a farmer,” Minicozzi explained. “A farmer needs to maximize his profits, so if he can grow weeds or tomatoes, which one is he going to pick? He’s going to pick the crop that brings in more money. It’s the same with cars. We don’t value cars based on the size of the gas tank, we judge them based on the miles per gallon. Why don’t we value land the same way?”
While he has not formally analyzed Stockton, what he has seen from our city leads him to believe that the lessons learned from his analysis of three other Central Valley downtowns could easily be applied to Stockton, especially since our downtown has taller buildings, more space and is built around the water, offering greater opportunities.
“I can almost guarantee that just one of the larger buildings I saw downtown is providing a much greater value to the city than what Wal-Mart brings in,” Minicozzi says.
In Stockton, many of our historical buildings have been lost, and with them, their tremendous economic potential. However, what remains downtown most likely still outweighs what we are building on the outskirts, according to Minicozzi’s work. Once leaders understand the wealth that revitalizing older buildings and promoting infill development can bring to the city, the choice should be clear, but getting people to change their perceptions is not easy.
“We know that this sprawl stuff doesn’t work,” Minicozzi says. “There’s tons of data and research out there showing how wrong cities were about sprawl, but most people don’t understand the data. What I try to do is present the facts in a clear, irrefutable way.”
While Minicozzi has traveled the country, opening the eyes of city leaders and citizens alike, all he can do is provide information. It’s up to the decision makers in the cities he visits to realize that the conventional wisdom of sprawling their way to prosperity is critically flawed. The data is clear and straightforward: building up is simply a better investment than building out. While this concept challenges the norm for many, Minicozzi believes that trying times will force Stockton leaders and citizens to rethink their beliefs. Now that we have suffered the consequences of unencumbered suburban development, we can no longer ignore the information provided by individuals like Minicozzi. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. If Stockton hopes to pull itself out of its current situation and build a stronger economic foundation for the future, we cannot continue growing outwardly and expect different results.