Traveling down Miner Avenue is not a particularly pleasant experience. Used car dealerships, vacant storefronts and auto repair shops dot the landscape amongst an expanse of empty lots. But despite its rough appearance, this once-thriving avenue is gearing up for a comeback; the city is pursuing a major overhaul of Miner Avenue that will facilitate development along the moribund corridor. With any luck, Miner Avenue could become Stockton’s most vibrant street.
In its glory days, Miner Avenue was known as “Auto Row,” a hub of activity, boasting numerous storefronts and car dealerships featuring the latest in automotive style and technology. Ironically, the proliferation of the car is partly to blame for avenue’s demise, as more people used their cars to relocate further away from the city center. Eventually, most dealerships moved away or were replaced by used car shops, creating large swaths of unused land and lots. While many see these spaces as blight, others see a unique opportunity to jumpstart downtown revitalization efforts.
“Because there are large amounts of empty lots, there are a lot of opportunities for development,” says Program Manager Lorraine Islas. “We feel that the streetscape plan will serve as a catalyst for growth.”
The project began in 2009, when the city decided it was time to spruce up Miner Avenue. Although the avenue connected two of downtown’s major assets—Weber Point to the west and Cabral Station to the east—the corridor itself continued to languish. Building off of the recommendations provided by the Urban Land Institute, the city envisioned Miner Avenue as a “pulse point” between the two downtown destinations while providing a basis for economic revival along the length of the corridor. Partnering with the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission (SJRRC), Stockton won a $250,000 grant from Caltrans for planning and design ($300,000 total with the city and SJRRC contributing $25,000 each.) While developing the plan, the city worked with property owners and held workshops to make sure that community input was included. The result was the Miner Avenue Streetscape Master Plan.
But despite widespread interest in the project, it was pushed to the back burner in recent years as the city dealt with other matters. Luckily, new Economic Development Director Wendy Saunders saw the importance of revitalizing Miner Avenue and made the plan a priority. In March of 2012, the council voted to adopt the plan.
The plan creates a comprehensive vision for Miner Avenue designed to enhance the driving experience as well as improve access to pedestrians and cyclists a like. Diagonal parking would be converted into parallel, opening up space for bike lanes and improved sidewalks. A landscaped median would also be built along the length of the corridor, and a roundabout at the Sutter Street intersection would help with traffic calming. The plan even calls for innovative planter technology to reduce storm water runoff. These wholesale changes will transform Miner Avenue into what is known in the smart growth world as a “complete street,” turning the car-dominated stretch into a safe and pleasant corridor for all modes of transportation.
But these changes amount to more than just a facelift: “Complete street” projects carry tangible economic benefits and have proven to be a boon for development in other cities. In DC, a project to spruce up a small section of Eighth Street Southeast helped entice 44 new businesses to open up along the corridor, bringing in 200 new jobs. Closer to home in downtown Lancaster, California, a project enhancing pedestrian access and calming traffic contributed to $125 million in new private investments, leading to a 26% increase in sales revenue. In Mountain View, similar downtown streetscape improvements spurred $150 million in investments. Moreover, increased walkability is proven to increase property values, even in Stockton.
Stockton stands to reap similar benefits by transforming Miner Avenue into a “complete street.” Developers have expressed their support, knowing that any investment on infrastructure will make development more attractive to investors and more successful overall. Thomas Reeves, Manager of Public Affairs and Community Planning at the SJRRC, believes the project dovetails with the commission’s ambitious plans to revitalize the neighborhood surrounding Cabral Station.
“When a station area is inviting, safe, close to other attractions, and accessible, people are more likely to ride transit.” Says Reeves. “We know passengers laying over (at Cabral Station) need places to go while they wait for the train or bus. It’s imperative that we have a safe, easy, and walkable route from (Cabral Station) to the rest of downtown.”
The Miner Avenue Streetscape Master Plan is particularly unique to Stockton in that several organizations are working together to achieve a common goal. In addition to the Economic Development shop, the city’s Public Works office also has supported the plan, which had been a rarity on other economic development projects in the past. Islas also expects the San Joaquin Council of Governments to throw their weight behind the plan. And not only is the SJRCC a supporter, but could even leverage their financial resources to provide some funding.
“We have access to special funding programs for transit oriented development and smart growth projects which we could work with partnering with the city on,” says Reeves. “We have staff that are passionate about revitalizing the neighborhood around the station.”
While the plan has been adopted by the council, there remains plenty of work to be done. The city will need to conduct environmental reviews and traffic studies before they can break ground. The planning department must make changes to the area’s zoning or develop zoning overlays to encourage mixed-use development along the corridor. And, of course, the plan needs to be paid for. While Stockton’s partnership with SJRRC certainly helps, city funding sources for the $8.4 million project may be hard to come by as bankruptcy proceedings make it difficult to provide matching funds for various grants. Nevertheless, the city is pushing forward and will seek funding as part of its “One Voice” trip to Washington, DC where officials lobby for federal funding towards various initiatives.
When contemplating Downtown Stockton’s revitalization efforts, it’s important to remember that economic activity begins on the ground floor. All types of buildings and shops can be built or opened, but if the ground level is not inviting, it is difficult to truly transform a neighborhood. Project’s like the Miner Avenue Streetscape Master Plan make street-level vitality possible by creating an environment conducive to walking, biking and taking public transit while also allowing automobile traffic to flow smoothly. Hopefully, the city’s plan will accomplish these goals and serve as a catalyst for more development activity downtown.