Downtown Stockton’s Fremont Square may finally be living up to the characteristics of the visionary explorer it was named after. Long known as a haven for localized drug use and criminal activity, a wave of community interest has flooded the neglected public park, making it a possible starting point in the quest to restore downtown. Two organizations in particular, Leadership Stockton and Fremont Square Collaborative, have approached the city and are in talks to transform the blighted space into a downtown asset.
Just a few years ago, Fremont Square had serious problems according to Lieutenant Tony Sajor, Jr. of the Stockton Police Department.
“The park had several challenges, the first being the group of adults who were using the park as a place to sell controlled substances,” he said.
Earning the nickname, “Pill Park,” Fremont Square was also a stomping grounds for public drunkenness. Trashcans were upended daily and the ample shade provided by overgrown trees, coupled with numerous seating areas encouraged loitering and criminal activity. Numerous narcotics operations were conducted with minimal impact and after police staffing levels dropped it was evident that enforcement efforts alone were not enough to counteract the escalating criminal activity overtaking the park.
“It became apparent that the solution would have to come from a larger partnership with the community, with everyone giving a part of what they do,” said Sajor.
In 2012, after being approached by the adjacent Bank of Stockton – which had installed bullet-proof glass to protect its employees from gun fire – the Police Department partnered with the Parks Department, the bank and other downtown organizations to remove the square’s seating areas and install parking meters. The effect was immediate. Those who had once lingered in the park to sell drugs and hang out moved on to other, less public, areas where enforcement was easier.
Removing criminal activity proved to be Fremont Square’s first catalyst toward reemerging in the public eye. Soon after, local schools began to once again use the park for physical education. This regular, stable use of the square prompted others to take notice, including Leadership Stockton.
Hosted by the city’s Chamber of Commerce, Leadership Stockton is a community organization made up of new citizen members each year who are interested in learning about community government. The group picks a “class project” and for 2013/14 their sights fell on Fremont Square.
“The park has already gone through some major changes and we’d like to hop on board,” said class member Michael Mark who detailed the organization’s plans to install outdoor gym equipment in a portion of the square. “We chose Fremont Square because Stockton Collegiate is using the park for P.E. needs. We want to provide permanent equipment for the kids.”
Currently in the fundraising stages and awaiting plan approval, Leadership Stockton hopes to install equipment that can be used by all members of the public, including wheel-chair accessible equipment, “the only such equipment available in the Valley,” according to Mark.
While Leadership Stockton is in the midst of debuting its plans to the community and city staff, another effort has also emerged. Tim Egkan of The Cort Group, a downtown development company specializing in urban infill, led a town hall discussion in December 2013 to discuss the potential of bringing a community garden to Fremont Square.
“We had a good cross-section of the community there,” said Egkan. “We’re taking steps to engage members of the community. If we go forward, (the garden) needs to be embraced and well-utilized.”
Dubbed “The Fremont Square Collaborative,” Egkan has partnered with other Stockton advocates like Dave Cecilio of Restore Stockton and Don Aguilar of Central Valley Neighborhood Harvest to holistically revitalize Downtown Stockton.
“We believe it’s all about timing,” reads a statement on the group’s Change.org petition page, which has already garnered 150 signatures in support of a community garden. “Before we start adding grills, tables, play equipment and the like we need a critical mass of people to take ownership of the park … we need constant presence.”
Egkan sees the installation of a community garden with 50 eight-by-eight-foot plots as just the first step in a broader effort to improve downtown. He envisions produce swaps, community workshops, local concerts and a vibrant farmer’s market inhabiting the space.
“We’re not taking this lightly,” he said. “Any improvements are meant to be completely intentional and thoughtful. What does the community – the stakeholders – want for this park? This is not the be-all end-all. It’s a start.”
For Micah Runner, the city’s Economic Development Director, the public-private partnerships emerging out of Fremont Square are something he’d like to see more of.
“These are potential improvements that will only enhance the neighborhood for the residents and people already working around the park,” he said. “The city should be open to private investment in public facilities if someone is willing. We want to make sure those ideas are brought in and considered.”
Runner’s concerns centered on the magnitude of renovations and what maintenance of the park would look like once completed. According to Egkan, a willing volunteer base has already expressed interest in park maintenance and Leadership Stockton has submitted a memorandum of understanding to city staff proposing long-term equipment care.
Though the two projects are currently being vetted separately, more conversations and collaboration are necessary between Leadership Stockton and Fremont Square Collaborative to ensure design compatibility. Victor Machado, parks manager for the city, noted this was expressed to both parties and no objections were raised.
“The projects proposed by Fremont Square Collaborative and Leadership Stockton demonstrate the community’s willingness to see positive changes to Fremont Park,” said Machado. “We hope to see that their commitment can include long-term use and care for the proposed improvements.”
Despite the pending navigation of municipal bureaucracy, support for Fremont Square’s evolution into more than a neglected and underutilized public space is evident. According to one commenter on Fremont Square Collaborative’s online petition, “This is a part of the Stockton Renaissance- a testament to our come-back grit.”