The right way to develop Stockton’s waterfront

Mike Fitzgerald had a great column yesterday lamenting the fact that Stockton has turned its back on its waterfront land. I couldn’t agree more. Our geographic location on the Delta provides a tremendous opportunity to truly distinguish Stockton from other Central Valley cities. But there was one portion of the column in particular that grabbed my attention. In the article, Fitzgerald quotes a developer who explains that building on the water is risky. And he is right: developing waterfront property is tricky-if you are only building one thing. Opening restaurants is tough if no one lives in the area, and selling/renting residential property on the waterfront is a hard sell with few amenities within walking distance. It’s why the condos atop the Waterfront Hotel couldn’t sell and why retail space around the events center sits vacant. Luckily, there is a solution to this vexing conundrum hamstringing the development of our waterfront: build a mixed-use community where residential, commercial and retail uses reinforce each other and strengthen the surrounding neighborhoods.

Stockton’s downtown waterfront. How will it be developed?

In almost every other city in the country, waterfront property is coveted by developers who know people will pay more to live and work near the water. In Stockton, we are fortunate to be on the Delta, with access to waterways other landlocked cities can only dream of. But for some reason, we neglect our most visible asset and instead expand our footprint away from the water and into prime farmland. Fitzgerald quoted local developer Fritz Grupe saying that developing on the water is “tricky as hell to finance” because banks are nervous about a customer base. This position confounds me, because in every other city, the opportunity to develop waterfront property is heavily pursued, but for some reason, building on Stockton’s waterfront is viewed as a burden or obligation.

But then again, I am not too surprised that traditional “greenfield” developers such as Grupe shy away from infill projects as their trade has been informed by years of assuming that the separation of uses is the key to success. In the column, Grupe muses about a lack of customers for retail as presumably during winter months or unpleasant days, people will not flock to the waterfront. Fitzgerald also blogged some reader responses noting that boating is becoming increasingly expensive and cannot be counted on to funnel in customers to waterfront bars and restaurants, leaving these businesses empty when boating is not in season.

So the obvious answer (at least to me) is, why not build both retail and residential on the water instead of relying solely on boaters or event goers to support new business? Grupe goes on to say that waterfront spots are successful near marinas where people use boats as their second homes. Well, if waterfront retail success hinges on people occasionally visiting their floating second mortgage, just imagine how business would boom if you gave people the option of making the waterfront their first home!

It makes perfect sense to build residential, commercial and retail together as these different uses mutually reinforce one another. Not only will new business benefit from visitors to the events center and marina, but there would also be local residents and workers patronizing shops and stores when the Ports aren’t in season or the Thunder are on an extended road trip. We aren’t talking luxury condos, either. Mixed use development, when done right, incorporates residential and retail space for a range of incomes. No fancy steakhouses or $500,000 townhomes catering to mega yacht owners. The waterfront should be a place for everyone.

Glenwood Park in Atlanta was the location of a brownfield site before being developing into a vibrant, successful mixed-use neighborhood

Traditionally, when differing land uses were routinely separated, no one would dare combine retail with residential as zoning codes forbade mixed use. It made a lot of sense to worry about who would shop at a retail center or eat a restaurant without sufficient parking for people to comfortably drive in from residential areas. But today, this kind of segmented approach is out of date and Stockton won’t ever break the mold of mediocre development until developers wise up to national trends and zoning codes are changed to allow for more innovative land uses.

Now, I am sure someone will read this article and inevitably argue that “the area around the waterfront is dangerous,” and, yes, as it currently stands, the surrounding neighborhoods are not the safest. However, this argument on its own does not justify abandoning the waterfront altogether. Some of the most desirable neighborhoods in other cities used to be the most dangerous. The right kind of development could actually be the catalyst for the revitalization of these once-desirable neighborhoods which still feature architecturally pleasant though long neglected homes (side note: I know someone will also say “the ballpark and arena didn’t help the surrounding neighborhoods,” and they are right. But no one should be surprised because despite what ULI and city leaders told us, plenty of research shows that sports stadiums largely do not help to revitalize surrounding areas).

I wrote about the folly of investing in single-use developments on our waterfront before when I explained why Grupe’s luxury condo plan for the south shore was fatally flawed. I used the example of DC Yards, a development on the Anacostia River in Washington, DC, to illustrate the proper way to plan and create a whole, self sustaining waterfront community. I think the ideas expressed in my past article are applicable here as well, but it should be noted that there are hundreds of examples of smart, innovative, and successful infill and revitalization projects that can serve as an inspiration for what could be built downtown (Blue Back square in Hartford, Harbor East and Harbor Pointe in Baltimore, Glenwood Park in Atlanta and the Central Platte Valley District in Denver). I’m not saying that these examples should be viewed as exact blueprints for our own waterfront, as I believe Stockton should strive to create something unique instead of emulating another place, but these case studies should provide a new perspective for Stocktonians to reconsider what desirable and successful development means and to imagine the potential that infill sites like the waterfront have for reinventing the way citizens and outsiders alike see the city.

If we solely build luxury waterfront condos with gated access, they will not sell well. If we build restaurants on the water with no customers besides event center and marina patrons, they will struggle. Developing a comprehensive, mixed use community– not a subdivision or shopping center– is the only way to create a complete neighborhood with places to live, eat, shop, walk and play.

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Categories: Development News

Author:David A. Garcia

David A. Garcia created SCL in March of 2012. Garcia is a Stockton native with a background in urban policy and planning, holding a Bachelor's Degree from UCLA as well as a Master's Degree in Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. He currently serves as the Policy Director at the UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation. David was also COO at Ten Space, a real estate development firm focused exclusively on Downtown Stockton, and continues to advise on their projects. Prior to that, he worked three years as a researcher/analyst for a Congressional research agency in Washington, DC. The views expressed on this site are entirely of the author's

21 Comments on “The right way to develop Stockton’s waterfront”

  1. November 15, 2012 at 11:08 am #

    Let’s start with an example.

    Why don’t you point at the largest piece you can find on the waterfront and then we will try to go through the motions of creating a mixed-use environment.

    The only way to demonstrate to you and Mike F. the fallacy of using OPM is to go through a real example.

  2. Stacey Robles Bagnasco
    November 15, 2012 at 11:24 am #

    When is The Record going to use you as a guest columnist again??? They need to hire you. I love reading your articles 🙂

  3. Stockton City Limits
    November 15, 2012 at 12:14 pm #

    Thanks, Stacey. I have actually written an article that appeared in the Record before regarding the Forbes miserable city rankings:

    Dean, let’s try something more constructive, since I have a feeling you will take issue with the developments I prefer. Instead, I am more interested in what do you think should happen to the waterfront. How would you develop it, if at all?

  4. Stockton City Limits
    November 15, 2012 at 12:55 pm #

    Also, I won’t pretend that I am the first one to suggest mixed-use housing on the waterfront. In fact, Racestudio put together a comprehensive plan for the waterfront and surrounding areas that depicts what the area could look like if built the right way. I generally agree with their approach. (FYI link is to a PDF)

  5. November 16, 2012 at 12:38 pm #

    Thank you for the link. That plan is beautiful! Stockton could look like The Riverwalk in San Antonio. What a gold mine we’re sitting on.

  6. November 16, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

    The problem with our waterfront is that it is downtown in a city that virtually allowed it’s downtown to die. There is no infrastructure, no supermarket, no access to services. With the debacle that was the Sheraton and the attached luxury condos, along with the Paragary’s sham who would invest downtown? Add to that the 64 murders so far this year and the financial mess. I have lived in Stockton all my life and have never been afraid to go anywhere. But now, there is no way I go down there at night with my family. As for developing the Colberg property and surrounding area, good luck with that. They have been trying to do that for the last 20 years and haven’t found a way to make it work. No one familiar with this city is going to invest and live in that neighborhood with out armed security guards and gates, which would defeat the whole purpose of developing the area.

  7. Stockton City Limits
    November 16, 2012 at 1:35 pm #

    -Jake, let me go over some of the points you made:

    “There is no infrastructure, no supermarket, no access to services”

    Well that certainly does not seem to stop people from living in North Stockton, with no super market for miles, no retail, no commercial. A mixed use development on the water would include all of those things, not to mention close access to SJRTD Bus Rapid Transit, which ends at Hammer Lane to the north.

    “With the debacle that was the Sheraton and the attached luxury condos, along with the Paragary’s sham who would invest downtown?”

    Someone who wants to redevelop downtown the right way. The examples you speak of were not the right way to go about rebuilding the area. A more comprehensive strategy is what is needed that incentivizes private developers to do the work, not the city.

    “I have lived in Stockton all my life and have never been afraid to go anywhere. But now, there is no way I go down there at night with my family”

    It’s unfortunate what has been happening in Stockton, and I take it personally whenever I hear about another violent crime or murder in my hometown. However, despite the crime rate, I think people want to go downtown. You see it every week, with thousands going to Thunder games and families attending Ports games. People regularly go to the movie theater and the Fox Theater. Stocktonians have shown that they will support downtown under the right circumstances.

    “No one familiar with this city is going to invest and live in that neighborhood with out armed security guards and gates, which would defeat the whole purpose of developing the area.”

    If your reasoning were true, then every poor, crime ridden neighborhood in every city would still be that way, yes? Actually, some of the nicest, most desirable places to live in cities across the country have been borne out of some of their worst neighborhoods. Stockton has terrible crime problems, but I have a hard time believing that our crime is somehow unique and worse than every other city. Cities have fought hard to reclaim and revitalize some of their most down trodden communities. Stockton should be able to do the same and I think we are better equipped to do so because Stocktonians are tough, and unlike other places, we have great geographical assets to our advantage. Can the city retake these areas overnight? in one year? two? probably not entirely. It is a slow process, but I have seen it happen in other communities and I refuse to believe that Stockton cannot do the same. Call me naive, foolish, stupid, whatever. But I know Stockton can’t and won’t be this unfortunate forever.

    • November 16, 2012 at 4:08 pm #

      SCL- Im not sure when the last time you were in Stockton but there are supermarkets all over north Stockton. Marina Market, Podestos, S-Mart (several), Raleys, Target, Walmart, Food for Less, Dollar General etc.

      You think people want to go downtown? Nobody I know does. The only time people go downtown is for the Asparagus festival once a year and for jury duty. Yes, they do go for Thunder and Ports games but nobody ventures away from the venues. It’s just too dangerous. They are surrounded by slum apartments and houses, drug deals in the streets, prostitutes, and gang bangers. I work downtown and I see it every day. Two months ago my tires got slashed and a few weeks ago there were bullet holes in my office window. Like I said I’ve been here all my life and I still live here. Do you?

      Have you been to the bus station? It is panhandler central with urine and feces all over. They have to steam clean the sidewalks regularly . I walk past it to the bank every week. The last time I walked past some kid exhaled marijuana smoke in my face and laughed. Who wants to deal with that?

      I grew up working downtown in my family’s business. My father was president of the Downtown Business Association. Believe me, lots of people have tried to revive downtown but it hasn’t worked. There have been committees, blue-ribbon panels, consultants and on and on. Restaurants open then close shortly thereafter. If the Bob Hope Theater had to pay it’s own bills it would be gone also. It is truly heartbreaking because I have ties to downtown but most people in Stockton do not and couldn’t care less.

      Do you really have trouble believing crime is worse than other cities? We have had 64 Murders so far this year. A new record, after the record setting year last year. The Police Chief and the Mayor have called in the California Highway Patrol to supplement the Police Department it is so bad. People are literally afraid to go out after dark. People are getting rolled in the streets for their jewelry and cell phones. The police have issued bulletins telling people not to wear jewelry in public.

      We don’t need pie-in-sky, rose colored glasses cheerleaders promoting waterfront developments that people have been talking about for years that have never happened. We need leadership. We need people to get knee deep in the muck with us and help us dig ourselves out. We need to get the crime under control. Get rid of the slum hotels filled with parolees and criminals. We need the gangs off our streets. Until we get that, all the development plans in the world are just wishful thinking.

      My family arrived in Stockton in 1879 and we have been here ever since. We have had businesses downtown since the beginning but no more. We have finally given up. I have seen and heard first hand about the good times and the bad and this is the worst.

      Seriously, when was the last time you were here?

      • Stockton City Limits
        November 16, 2012 at 5:11 pm #


        I’m talking the Spanos area, where there’s no grocery store for miles.

        As for my credibility as a Stocktonian, I will be brief. I grew up on Kelly Drive, getting into fights just walking down the street. I have had my car broken into on numerous occasions. My family still owns a business downtown that has had the front entrance smashed into with a car and the cash register stolen. Twice.

        And of those 64 murders this year, one was a family member of mine. So I strongly resent your implying that I don’t know how bad it is. I’m not naive. The only difference is that I left Stockton for an education and a career, but instead of turning my back to the city like many others, I try to take what I have learned and use it to bring to light issues and topics most people in town have never considered. I live in Washington DC, and I visit my family in Stockton regularly.

        Why do you think we have a crime problem? I can tell you a big reason is because of the way we planned the city. We planned to ghettoize low-income housing and disincentivize our older neighborhoods. We planned to grow further and further away from our core, without realizing the toll it would take on resources like police and fire. We are bankrupt because we exacerbated a housing bubble and created an economy based on building houses. These things aren’t “pie in the sky” as you suggest, because if we continue the business as usual approach to growth and development, the city will never be more than it is today.

        I am every bit a Stocktonian as you.

  8. November 16, 2012 at 2:33 pm #

    Lets not forget that Grupe had the rights (I believe they expired) to develop the area around the waterfront, So when he states that its difficult and hard he is just playing the business game, his views should be void as such. We can look to places like Suisun a city on the waterways directly west of us. They did an infill project a couple of years ago that was medium/high density attached and detatched Condo only with these condos there was space 500-1000 square feet of retail space, basically a live/work space. I cant find the article currently but as I remember there were Real Estate agents, a lady using the space as a wedding cake decorator, a espresso shop, a couple of bait shops, a seamstress and so on in this community. With these small businesses at the peoples home people are able to park or boat to the location to shop. Stockton needs to develop more micro businesses like these to get our economy back. Small business is the real backbone that makes this city work.

    • Stockton City Limits
      November 16, 2012 at 5:14 pm #


      Couldn’t agree with you more about small businesses. They keep local money in the local economy and create real communities. Mixed use is the perfect way to create and support small business, because you are creating a community, not a shopping center dependent on automobile traffic. Suisun City is a good example of reinvestment in a city core. Here is some info on what they did:

    • November 22, 2012 at 6:46 am #

      Grupe and any other local developer have nothing in their resume to indicate an experience in new urbanism, redevelopment or revitalizing downtowns. The involvement of local developers into downtown is a forced “tribute” they have to pay in promoting their projects elsewhere. To paraphrase an old joke “local developers pretend to care about downtown Stockton, and we pretend to believe them”.

      Here is a piece of advice if you care about downtown Stockton and maximizing the value of its waterfront. Don’t get lost in details and look at the big picture without the burden of precedence.

  9. November 22, 2012 at 6:32 am #

    This is a good presentation and most recommendations (such as turning downtown into a pedestrian friendly enviroment – aka converting all streets from single to 2-directional patterns) are easy to implement. In any event there many good ideas in the video by a consultant who truly enjoys his craft:

  10. November 22, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

    And here is how real pros do waterfront development; obviously not in the same league – (this is in a far superior class), but it’s the approach that matters. Notice the charrettes and the imagineering involved (…”we asked a few talented professionals to come and dream with us”…. ):

  11. November 23, 2012 at 9:13 pm #

    And here are some ideas on Agrarian Urbanism to spice things up:

  12. November 26, 2012 at 11:40 am #

    And here more ideas about sustainable urbanism:

    • Stockton City Limits
      November 26, 2012 at 12:47 pm #


      thanks for the examples (and sorry for taking so long to reply, I’ve been in Istanbul). I must say this is a departure from previous conversations where you exhibited skepticism that anything happening in another city could be replicated in Stockton. That being said, you have presented some very good examples that show the value of strong planning and the potential in mixed use development (though the example in DC, hill east, has yet to take off

      With the waterfront, Stockton has an opportunity to rebrand and reinvent itself, and should not settle for mediocre design.

      • November 28, 2012 at 12:37 pm #

        Cool. What’s in Istanbul? Are you thinking Stockton at the Bosporus? 🙂

        My skepticism is based on the 25000+ paper lots already approved/existing and available for future development in Stockton, almost exclusively at the city’s edge. (this translates to a 25 year inventory at an annual 1000 units absorption rate).

        To seriously concentrate on downtown you need to find a way of either putting downtown ahead of such projects (meaning that city-edge projects can not be built unless downtown sees a critical mass) or find a way of revoking entitlements to such projects due to time lapsed(allowing their permits to naturally expire without renewal. You may not prevent all of such projects but given the present state of the economy you could easily arrest about 60% – 80% of them).

        You can’t have both. And the reason is simple. All developments at the city’s edges are automobile dependent and downtown should be walkable with an inverse relationship to the automobile.(The more urban the more walkable, less auto dependent, more mass transit dependent). These are two different philosophies of development and cities who attempt both at the same time fail in one or the other or both.

        My view is that downtown is doable but all available effort and resources should be directed towards its success for a while before you allow the easy type of development to rule the city’s edges. At least put some double density on the edge developments so that it takes longer for them to achieve full built out. Suburban development is as easy as building a Ford. Serious downtown development is more of a Cadillac type (remember, I like high rises and more complex structures). 🙂

      • Stockton City Limits
        November 28, 2012 at 2:00 pm #

        Just a short vacation. Also, a lot of stray cats.

        I agree with every point you make. A city cannot both build outwardly and expect success on development at the city’s core, because sprawl is what led to the demise of these older areas in the first place! As far as limiting new growth, these “paper lots” are of real concern. The good news is that the housing downturn has put an abrupt halt to these plans, and hopefully this crisis will allow leaders to reconsider allowing this growth to continue once the market picks up. All edge development should cease until a real plan is put in to place to revitalize neighborhoods and encourage development within existing city limits.

      • November 28, 2012 at 8:25 pm #

        I thought Mark Twain talked about the stray dogs of Istanbul. 🙂

        Re: reconciling previous statements. I am not in favor of edge developments but if you are going to do them, do them right by maximizing commercial potential along I-5. The compromise of promoting lesser dense developments on the edge as a tribute to downtown’s needs is a false argument. It turns out to be the the worst of both worlds. Not only ‘open space” suburban development is contrary to the urbanism concept, but to attempt such edge developments with design gimmicks (illusion of open space when in fact you are surrounded by open space in the edge of town) is the epitome of urban sprawl. There is nothing more urban “sprawlie” than an a 4.3 unit to the acre project at the edge of the city.

        To reverse urban sprawl you need density. If density prevents you from selling your edge developments to builders (because it’s more expensive for the them to do more complex construction) then so be it. Don’t do them.

        But to truly promote urbanism we need – as a community – to celebrate the urban life and make urban development our preferred development model. The admiration and practice of urbanism needs to be unconditional and notorious. In plain view for everyone to see.


  1. Tuesday notes: Dameron, Dan Cort, and the waterfront « Stockton City Limits - November 20, 2012

    […] still sits mostly idle, and his readers provided plenty of comment fodder. I responded with an idea to develop the waterfront into a mixed-use community. But what would this kind of development look like? While […]

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