***UPDATE: Bear Creek East’s developers have withdrawn their planning commission denial appeal before going Tuesday’s council meeting. The project will be shelving for 18-24 months, per documents provided by the city. SCL will have a full story on the project’s status tomorrow
Tonight, the city council will consider the approval of Stockton’s first major residential development since the recession ended. The proposal, dubbed Bear Creek East (BCE), would add about 2,000 homes—most of them single family– within a 160 acre swath of farmland just south of Eight Mile Road and east of West Lane. In December, the city Planning Commission voted against the project in a 4 to 3 vote, but that decision is non-binding, and the city council could ultimately approve BCE despite the Planning Commission’s vote. With the housing market finally recovering, some may rush to the conclusion that the city must start building homes once again. The Building Industry Association’s John Beckman has said that Stockton should approve this plan or risk missing out on the next “housing boom.” But it’s this kind of reckless, build-at-all-costs mentality that led Stockton into a foreclosure crisis in the first place, and before the council starts approving greenfield projects, it’s imperative that they make sure that any new projects will actually benefit Stockton.
With this in mind, BCE should not be approved at this time. After reviewing documents on the city’s website describing the project, as well as a release by BCE’s developers appealing the Planning Commission’s vote, it’s clear that BCE is not right for Stockton. Despite some nice design elements, BCE represents the same old pattern of sprawling development that drained city finances, exacerbated poor air quality and distanced residents from the rest of the city. Here are the reasons why BCE should be voted down at tonight’s city council meeting:
BCE is “leapfrog development,” not smart growth
When the city planning commission voted down BCE, some referred to the proposal as “leap frog development,” a term referring to greenfield, noncontiguous construction on a city’s outskirts. BCE easily fits this description given that there are no existing adjacent neighborhoods and the project site is currently used for farming (as you can see from the accompanying picture). Nevertheless, the project’s backers think differently, here’s an excerpt from the commission denial appeal.
“MCD North Stockton disagrees the development of the BCE project constitutes leap frog development. On the contrary, the BCE project represents smart in-fill growth in North Stockton.”
This claim is laughable at best, disingenuous at worst. If you read the appeal, BCE’s developers try to sell their project as “infill” on the basis that one day, there might be homes built around BCE. There are two problems with this interpretation of “smart growth” and “infill.” First, there are absolutely no tenants of new urbanism—an emerging division of urban planning which the developers claim to adhere to– where building homes on farmland can be considered “infill.” True infill occurs when a project site is already surrounded by existing development where roads, sewers, sidewalks, etc can be leveraged. Second, BCE doesn’t get points for infill just because there may be future adjacent development where there is none today. Imagine if the group that built Lincoln Village classified their project as “infill” on the notion that one day the city would catch up to them. That would have been a preposterous claim, but it’s the same one BCE is making.
BCE’s developers go on to say that their parcel of land has been in the city’s “sphere of influence” since 1990, so they should be allowed to build. This is an equally disingenuous claim, as neither the sphere of influence nor the general plan promise development rights; they are simply planning documents.
Stockton has tens of thousands of already approved homes waiting in the wings
Another point of contention during the Planning Commission meeting in December was that the city has already approved close to 44,000 homes along the city’s edges (the vast majority of them single family homes), and therefore, BCE is not needed. This is an important point. Before the recession, the city approved essentially every proposed development. As a result, there are several projects that have the green light whenever they decide to start building again, with a majority of these “paper lots” approved for northwest Stockton.
But nonetheless, BCE’s developers say that they should still be allowed to build more. In their appeal, they contend that the 44,000 number is misleading, and that the number of housing units is actually closer to 22,000. This is based on picking and choosing which projects to include (for example, they contend that because the proposed Mariposa Lakes development is not currently within existing city limits, that it should be subtracted from the total) to come up with a number that is less-scary than 44,000. Even if we ignore the cherry picking by BCE, 22,000 is comparable to the number of homes in the entire City of Lodi, and is probably enough to meet demand for the foreseeable future as housing experts have found that the Central Valley has overbuilt single family homes in general. It’s clear that the additional units proposed in BCE are not necessary to keep up with market demand (unless of course we want to continue the hollowing out of our existing neighborhoods.)
BCE will increase emissions
There are several design elements in BCE that would actually encourage walking and biking to a certain extent, something the project’s developers are quick to tout. But these elements are dwarfed by the amount of driving residents will need to do to get in to Stockton to conduct their daily errands. Unless a resident has the great luck of having their job, bank, doctor and favorite food joint located in BCE’s small commercial component, most residents will still need to drive in to Stockton (or Lodi) for most things, like seeing a movie, attending classes at Delta or going to a department store.
The average household in Stockton’s northern reaches emits nearly twice as much pollution than households in more central neighborhoods, and mostly because of increased transportation emissions. More subdivisions on the periphery will create more high-polluting households. Moreover, the city is developing a Climate Action Plan with serious emission reduction goals, but projects like BCE will greatly diminish these efforts.
More police officers would be required to patrol BCE
Based on the project’s specific plan, BCE will require 10 new officers, the cost of which must be borne by the city. In the city’s current state, it’s hard to justify diverting police resources to a shiny new development when there are very real problems within city limits that demand the majority of the police force’s attention. With the police department just getting a handle on crime, diverting resources to patrol and protect new, outlying areas of Stockton could diminish gains made in public safety. In essence, the residents of existing neighborhoods would be subsidizing police protection for brand new ones.
For all of these reasons, I hope the city council will decide that BCE is not right for Stockton. But BCE is not entirely bad, and I’ll give credit where credit is due. I won’t go as far to say that BCE is “wonderfully, deliciously designed” as Planning Commissioner Steve Chase has said in the past, but BCE does have some design elements suggesting that developers are responding to changing consumer preferences. The project appears to include protected bike lanes, higher density levels, commercial buildings fronting their adjacent streets, and a street-grid design that would foster greater connectivity. BCE’s documents also state that the developers would be willing to contribute to a downtown fund, within reason. However these bells and whistles do not diminish the fact that this development is on open farmland outside of the city limits. With so many other greenfield homes already approved, it simply doesn’t make sense to reopen the spigot of subdivision building that helped bring the city into bankruptcy in the first place.