Steve Chase likes to emphasize that he did not come to Stockton to push papers. As Stockton’s latest Community Development Director, Chase plays an integral role in shaping the city’s growth as it emerges from economic tribulation. According to Chase, who’s been on the job for just over one year, Stockton has all of the pieces to come back much stronger than it was before.
“I am amazed at Stockton’s economic drivers,” says Chase, who has over 30 years’ experience in community building. “The port, trade, universities, a diverse workforce of white and blue collar workers. We got it all. It’s why I was attracted to Stockton.”
Chase appears to be the right person to transform the city’s business-as-usual approach to community development—especially for downtown. Previous efforts to rejuvenate Stockton’s core have languished under past directors, despite the area’s waterfront location, historic buildings and business core. Chase understands what needs to be done and is wasting no time making it happen.
Towns and gowns
“In a normative world, this might take 15 to 20 years,” says Chase in regards to the time needed for downtown revitalization in most cities. “In reality, I see this happening in three to five years. And I am dead serious.”
Chase envisions a downtown that is alive with activity both day and night, with Stocktonians living in the same neighborhood as they work. Bars, restaurants, cultural activities and academic institutions will create an intricate urban fabric, attracting an educated workforce– and the businesses that covet them. To Chase, the ingredients to foster this vision already exist.
“Downtown Stockton has great bones,” says Chase, “These buildings are built to last hundreds of years. It’s gritty. All the elements are here.”
The linchpin of Chase’s plan for Stockton involves collaboration with the area’s academic institutions. Specifically, Chase envisions something he calls a “living center for urbanism and design” where students from Pacific, CSU Stanislaus and even UC Davis will live downtown to study urban design. This “towns and gowns” approach is the key to downtown’s rebirth as graduate students demand the types of goods and services that the area currently lacks.
Thinking outside the box
To make this vision a reality in such a short timeframe, Chase is thinking creatively. Instead of revamping codes, developing master plans and consulting experts—an arduous process that can take years– Chase is working within the city’s existing framework to provide flexibility for would-be downtown investors. For example, changes to floor area ratios and minimum parking requirements could help spur mixed-use development. Chase even mused that certain streets could be eliminated to allow for more developable land, adding value to potential projects.
“My job is to remove the traditional 1970s planning standards so that we aren’t constricted by things like setbacks or lot coverage,” says Chase. “I am not interested in taking three years to put together a whole form-based code. What we can do is reinterpret what we already have on a project-by-project basis to eliminate as many obstacles as possible. As the Community Development Director, I have the authority to do this.”
Codes designed for suburban subdivisions make infill expensive and risky, but cities that work with developers rather than simply enforcing outdated ordinances can make a big difference. To this end, Chase is currently making the rounds with various developers to figure out how he can use his authority to circumvent the city’s cumbersome bureaucracy for the good of downtown.
“It’s been a breath of fresh air,” says Dan Cort, President of Cort Companies, which is hoping to turn the Elks Building into student housing for UOP students. “Steve has been a tremendous asset. He really believes in downtown and what we are trying to do. It’s great to have the city working with developers instead of making it their mission to make our jobs as difficult as possible.”
This kind of creativity and willingness to collaborate with developers, academic institutions and other government agencies is a welcome change in Stockton. Chase notes that before he came to town, each of these stakeholders operated within their own respective networks, independent of each other’s actions. To reverse the city’s trajectory, Chase hopes to bring these parties together to work towards a common goal.
Working with green-field developers
Of course, a city must manage all development, not just downtown and infill. Over the past 60 years, Stockton’s growth has almost exclusively occurred on the edges of the city. What happens when traditional developers want to restart their march on farmland, extending city limits?
“That is a non-starter for me,” says Chase. “I am not interested in extending the city’s existing boundaries.”
On the other hand, Chase feels that green-field developers, such as Grupe and Spanos, can be instrumental in downtown redevelopment. While these companies don’t have the expertise or know-how to develop on smaller parcels of land, they do have tremendous buying power than can be leveraged for downtown projects. Chase envisions a sort of cap and trade arrangement where in return for single-family housing projects, large developers are asked to use their economies of scale to bring down the costs of downtown development by purchasing fixtures or hardware items in bulk.
In the end, downtown should be the priority for any city. In Stockton, Chase notes that everyone he talks to feels strongly about seeing the neighborhood succeed.
“Everyone already has an ownership of downtown,” says Chase. “The attraction is already there, now we just have to make it a reality.”