Several times a year, thousands of Stocktonians flock to the north side of the downtown waterfront to take in baseball games, hockey matches, concerts, graduations and other events. And while the ballpark, arena and hotel are generally lively, about a fifth of the original Stockton Event Center project remains empty and undeveloped. Just south of the arena and east of the ballpark sits nearly 10 acres that were supposed to be turned into retail sites. Obviously, retail development has yet to materialize, leaving event center patrons with few pre and post event entertainment options. For the most part, these visitors show up for the event at the scheduled time and leave upon that event’s conclusion. What if we could keep people around longer?
The fact that this retail space was never built may actually be a blessing in disguise. I’ve already pointed out the center’s poorly situated parking garage, but there is still time to improve upon the retail space design. It’s important that this parcel be developed in a thoughtful and original manner as there is a great opportunity to create a public space buzzing before and after events. Right now, other than the bar and restaurant at the University Plaza (both are awesome, by the way), there are no pre or post game options for fans directly adjacent to the ball/park arena. But that could change with a unique development serving as a functional public space even when there are not events. To achieve this, let’s examine what needs to be done and explore some ideas for what this could look like.
Get rid of that surface parking!
The original site plan appears to call for on-site surface parking. With a massive parking garage just steps away, why on earth does there need to be any more real estate devoted to automobiles? This type of car-centric design is more suited to the city’s outer rungs, not on the waterfront where we should encourage walking as much as possible. Also, allowing cars into the area makes it more dangerous and less appealing for pedestrians. With a parking garage and surface parking just north of Fremont, there is zero need for additional parking spots here.
Easy on the chain stores
I understand the importance of national chains to anchor these kinds of projects: they serve as financially sound tenants while reinforcing a project’s stability to other interested businesses. However, too many chains can make a place feel fake. Local businesses and entrepreneurs should be courted for a project like this to retain some local flavor.
Stay away from gimmicks
Some cities turn to gimmicks to attract tourists, something that should be strictly avoided not just for this parcel but for all of Stockton’s waterfront. For example, Baltimore recently considered some ridiculous ideas for the Inner Harbor, including a zip line and a rock wall. The best waterfronts and downtowns are devoid of tourist traps and instead offer authentic experiences unique to that city. So, please, no amusement park rides.
I believe that there are a handful of options that would make best use of this space. Let’s take a look:
The first type of development that comes to mind is a container park. Yes, I am referring to the same kind of containers used for transportation on rails and barges, but for a very different purpose. In other cities, containers are used to transform public spaces into eclectic, mixed-use areas offering affordable spaces for entrepreneurs looking to open restaurants or shops at low costs. Container parks are easily modified to accommodate different ventures, from outdoor bars to art galleries, serving as a kind of small business incubator. This kind of out-side-of-the-box development fosters vibrancy not seen in traditional retail or commercial spaces and could work well on Stockton’s waterfront.
There are several examples of container parks in other cities. In Las Vegas, a container park development—unimaginatively dubbed Downtown Container Park— is being built on an empty downtown lot. The park features a mix of cafes, boutiques, bars, galleries, community space, an outdoor theater, and children’s play area (not to mention a two-story high fire breathing praying mantis)
The Navy Yard neighborhood in Washington DC features a ballpark-adjacent container park known as the Fairgrounds. DC’s container park hosts Washington National’s fans before and after games, hosting live music and a variety of local food vendors. The Fairgrounds are also active in the off-season, hosting events such as beer festivals and monthly food truck gatherings known locally as Truckeroo (Stockton already has something similar with Friday Food Truck Frenzies, which are already held next to the arena).
The container park concept is fairly new and unique and would make Stockton’s waterfront stand out against others. Not only that, but a container park would serve as a nod to the area’s industrial past, while at the same time fostering local businesses
The argument could also be made for residential as part of whatever is built on this parcel. Through a mixed-use approach, apartments could be constructed on higher floors with retail on the lower floors. Next door, the popularity of the University Lofts provides proof of demand for waterfront housing from young professionals and UOP students. Moreover, an influx of people would help support retail businesses, and these businesses would also entice potential residents who have long lamented the immediate area’s lack of amenities. (note: a container park would not work for residential, but there could be a mixture of the two).
Create public spaces
Whatever is built here should be inclusive. There certainly should be restaurants and commercial activity, but there should also be ample public space to be enjoyed before and after games and events. Right at the confluence of waterfront strollers, hotel guests and event patrons, this space needs to be a gathering point for Stocktonians to congregate and enjoy the waterfront together.
What do you think? We are probably a couple years at best from seeing any movement on this parcel, which is now owned by Marina Towers LLC thanks to a lawsuit settlement with the city. We don’t know what Marina Towers has planned, if anything, but it’s never too early for a conversation about the best use of Stockton’s waterfront.