During a nearly three-hour special study session Tuesday evening, Stockton City Council members were urged to adopt a “new version of normal” in regards to planning for future growth. The session was called for by the newly appointed city-manager Kurt Wilson and featured presentations from the city’s Economic Development Department, the regional San Joaquin Council of Governments, the local Building Industry Association and the Sierra Club.
The intent of Tuesday’s meeting was to prepare council members for tough decisions ahead, decisions like the potential approval of a city-wide climate action plan or a possible general plan amendment – the latter holding real and potentially far reaching policy implications for future development . The meeting was strictly informational.
“We’re not making any decisions tonight,” said Wilson in his opening remarks. “We’re here to appreciate the full range of options and the true impacts of the options before us.”
Both the climate action plan and a review of the existing general plan are requirements from a 2008 settlement agreement reached between the city, the Sierra Club and the state attorney general’s office which sued the city after it released its 2035 General Plan based on what it deemed an insufficient accompanying environmental impact report.
Presentations began with Economic Development Director Steve Chase who walked the council through existing general plan recommendations which focused on the development of small villages and districts located on the peripheral outskirts of current city limits. This “four-corners” principal was meant to capture what Chase described as population “leakage” expected with significant expansion and now represents a future that never came to fruition.
“The Stockton of today is now looking at a far-cry different baseline,” he said. “The Stockton of tomorrow will not come close to what was envisioned.”
What was envisioned was based on projections that no longer hold bearing according to Chase. Just ten months after the 2035 General Plan was adopted, the city was hit by the Great Recession and the foundation for many of the plan’s assumptions and recommendations – like a doubling in both population and the city’s physical footprint – were rendered moot.
“What if the world changed?” mused Chase. “What if, the following month after (the general plan’s) adoption, the baseline changed dramatically? What if we became ground-zero for the housing meltdown?”
For Chase and other presenters, this warrants a potential need for a general plan amendment but for John Beckman of the Central Valley Building Industry Association, modifying the existing plan, even moderately, represents a risk to development he believes the city should be hesitant to make.
“Stockton’s got a lot of problems but things are getting better. Things are moving in the right direction, but not here,” he said.
According to Beckman, stopping growth on the city’s periphery would spell disaster for development. He pointed to other cities, like Tracy, that are allowing corporations and big-box stores to locate on their edges, bringing jobs and money into communities.
“Revitalization is happening on the fringe,” he said, continuing to describe what he viewed as “job killing” requirements attached to the draft climate action plan. “I have a fear of what will be left. Is Stockton closed for business?”
Beckman’s remarks invoked some strong sentiments from council members and led to a brief back and forth match between himself and Chase who cited that two million dollars’ worth of activity had taken place last year in permit issuance, though Beckman countered that less than 200 of such permits were for new housing construction.
“The next boom will hit around 2016/17. That’s not much time. We either pass it by or we catch it, it’s your call,” Beckman said to council members before stepping down from the podium.
For the evening’s final presenter, Eric Parfrey of the Sierra Club, Beckman’s reference to the upcoming “boom” opportunity is exactly what needs to change in planning culture.
“Let’s start this great debate,” he said while going on to describe the “spasm” of past development trends that led to the city’s housing crisis.
According to Parfrey, changing demographic and economic trends are contributing to an entirely new housing market that is breaking away from the previous cyclical “boom and bust” nature. The recent opening of the state prison hospital will eventually add thousands of new jobs increasing area employment by 3.7 percent. This, coupled with increasing households being made up of baby-boomers and younger Asian and Latino families, is altering what was a traditional demand for single-family homes.
He recommended the city re-absorb the peripheral edges it has slated for development – like the highly contested Bear Creek East project – and re-designate them as agricultural land. According to Parfrey, the city cannot even entertain the notion of what he described as “premature greenfield development” and instead needs to focus on Stockton’s historic core.
“I’m not suggesting that any of this is going to be easy,” he said. “God knows it isn’t. There’s a reason it hasn’t happened in the last 40-years. This is a new normal, a new growth-strategy. You don’t have to repeat mistakes from the past.”
A current draft of the city’s Climate Action Plan is available for viewing at stocktongov.com/climateaction. A community workshop is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 10 at the Civic Auditorium, 525 N. Center Street.