Building a foundation: Downtown AGAIN! takes first steps towards preserving Stockton’s historic buildings

Christina Frankel has an aversion to horror movies, which is ironic, because the shuttered Commercial Building in downtown Stockton comes across as an ideal setting for a slasher film. Rusty bathroom fixtures, plaster and pigeon feathers line the floor– where there still is a floor. There is even the occasional empty Cheetos bag, a reminder that you may not be alone. It’s easy to see why the city at one time wanted to demolish this building to make way for a parking lot. The glory days of this once grand structure, home to a bustling hotel in the middle of a vibrant city center, are far in the past. Despite its current state, Frankel sees through the ruin, and envisions a return to the glory days for the downtown structure.

Frankel, an architect with Derivi Construction & Architecture who has worked on everything from subdivision housing to infill development, is the founder of Downtown AGAIN!, a group dedicated to the preservation and restoration of Stockton’s historic buildings. The group has been long in the making, working with community stakeholders to build support for their cause. Recently with the Commercial Building, Frankel got a chance to show what they could do.

“The Downtown Stockton Alliance came to us and wanted to take away the blight,” Frankel said.  “So that is what we are trying to do, to make the outside presentable, remove the blight to show people that this building is still worth saving.”

The outside of the Commercial Building before rehabilitation (Courtesy Christina Frankel)

Originally, the Commercial Building was part of city plan to demolish and pave over several downtown hotels back in the early 2000s. At the time, the city wanted to get rid of blight, and by that time, Stockton’s once grand structures were relegated to run down, single occupancy motels that many in the community deemed a hazard. However, several lamented the city’s plan as foolish.

“You can’t decimate your past just because it’s not convenient,” Frankel says.

Several hotels got a reprieve as local residents mobilized to ensure that the city did its due diligence to attempt to restore the buildings before deciding to tear them down. A group called Save Our Stockton intervened with a lawsuit, and the city agreed to spare several of the structures in hopes of finding someone to redevelop the buildings instead. However, progress has been slow coming as developers have passed over the opportunity to fix up these buildings, citing high costs and uncertain demand. Twelve years after this settlement, the Commercial Building is just the first structure to undergo real changes.

Staircase leading to the top floor of the Commercial Building

While the inside is still a wreck, the outside of the building has been refreshed. The city secured  Community Development Block Grant- Redevelopment funds– grant money from the federal government– and needed to find a project to spend the money on before September of 2012 as the original grant recipient’s plan fell through. The city and the Downtown Stockton Alliance commissioned Frankel and Derivi Construction & Architecture to stabilize and patch up the roof, clean up mold, test for hazardous materials and secure the building.* Moreover, the most visible improvements were to the front of the building where facade improvements have turned a once blighted streetscape into something much easier on the eyes. Collaboration with local artists also played a large part, with original artwork and historic pictures providing for a more pleasant environment. Soon, the building will be adorned with new awnings and planters.  Frankel received positive feedback from the community during last week’s downtown block party, with the mayor paying her compliments as well.

While the work itself took just two weeks, the hard part was the consensus building that took place beforehand, which amounted to around four months, according to Frankel. From city officials to community organizations to neighborhood businesses, Frankel notes that there are many stakeholders interested in removing blight, yet no real action had been taken to do anything about it.

“The hard part is trying to please everybody, because everyone has a stake in this,” said Frankel. “For so long, the discussion has been about the things that someone else needs to do, until one day I just decided, no one else is going to do this, so we need to do it.”

Local artists provided artwork as part of the effort to remove blight (courtesy Christina Frankel)

Where developers see high costs, Frankel sees an opportunity to channel state and federal funds to finance rehabilitation. The goal of Downtown AGAIN! is more of an intermediary, stabilizing the buildings to make them more attractive to developers. Frankel notes that the building itself may be eligible for many credits and grants– such as historic tax credits, Transit Oriented Development funds, and federal brownfield money– that help make restoration feasible. But while Downtown AGAIN! has made progress, hard work remains. Shattered glass still litters the first floor. The basement is filled with relics from an old thrift store. The building would also require a seismic retrofit.

Up to this point, Frankel has provided her time and expertise entirely for free. Part of the work done by Derivi Construction & Architecture was done pro bono as well, working with the Downtown Stockton Alliance and the city to coordinate the effort.*

“It is incredibly gratifying to do this kind of work,” Frankel says, noting that the satisfaction of helping to restore a piece of history is more than enough compensation. “We do this completely out of the goodness of our hearts, because it is the right thing to do.”

Eventually, Frankel believes the Commercial Building can serve as a mixed-use development, housing ground floor retail and market rate apartments above. While most developers have been hesitant to invest in housing for downtown Stockton, Frankel thinks the scale of buildings like the Commercial Building should actually make a mixed use project more attractive, given the large number of people who commute to the area.

“Thousands of people come into downtown for work everyday, it is hard to imagine that just a tiny fraction of those people would not want to live right near their work,” Frankel says. “The buildings here are not huge, so finding the demand to fit units is less of an issue. As a developer, it is much easier to think about a project like this needing to fill just 100 to 200 units.”

Part of the effort to spruce up the Commercial Building included a new paint job (courtesy Christina Frankel)

While the vision is there, Frankel admits that the expertise and experience in infill development and rehabilitation is not present in Stockton. Because this kind of work– rebuilding a historic but completely abandoned building– has not happened in Stockton, Downtown AGAIN! has had to figure out the process all on its own. However, Frankel also notes that cities such as Fresno and Sacramento are moving forward with similar projects, reusing historic buildings and working to rebuild existing neighborhoods.

“This is not groundbreaking stuff we are doing,” Frankel says. “This kind of stuff goes on everywhere else, just not here.”

Even though places like the Commercial Building have been long shuttered, people in Stockton still remember their significance. Before entering the building, a pedestrian noted that these buildings used to be clothing stores and shoe shops.

“I thought they were going to tear these down?” asked the pedestrian.

“They were, but that is what we are trying to prevent,” Frankel responded.

“We would appreciate that, very much.”

If Frankel has her way, these old buildings won’t just be saved from the wrecking ball, but will be turned into anchors for the community, a much more fitting tribute to Stockton’s historic past than a parking lot.

*The original article did not specify that the CDBG-R funds were awarded from the city to DSA and DCA. Also, the original article gave the impression that all DCA work is being done pro bono. These two sections have been adjusted for clarity.

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Categories: Development News, SCL Exclusives

Author:David A. Garcia

David A. Garcia founded SCL in March of 2012. He holds degrees from UCLA as well as Johns Hopkins University and currently works as the Chief Operating Officer at Ten Space in Downtown Stockton, and previously worked as a researcher/analyst for a congressional agency in Washington DC. The views expressed here are solely of the author.

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