The Stockton City Council avoided a controversial decision regarding future residential growth Tuesday, Feb. 25. Without fanfare, the council allowed developers to drop an appeal of a Dec. 12 Stockton Planning Commission decision to halt a residential project in northern Stockton known as Bear Creek East, a sign that sentiment might be shifting away from the city’s developer-friendly past.
The commission had voted 4-3 to stop progress on the 317.3-acre project slated for agricultural land bounded by Bear Creek to the south, West Lane to the west, 8 Mile Road to the north and a Union Pacific Railroad line to the east. The area is currently agricultural land outside Stockton city limits, but could one day be the site of up to 2,122 homes if the project goes ahead as planned.
Two limited liability companies that own the 10 parcels making up the project site originally hoped the City Council would override the commission’s ruling, allowing them to move forward. But attorney Michael Hakeem of Hakeem, Ellis & Marengo, appearing on behalf of the developers, said before the meeting that it was pointless to push the matter, given that the city has begun to amend the 2035 General Plan to reflect dramatic economic changes since the blueprint for growth was passed in December 2007.
Hakeem said though Bear Creek East is “fine” and its specific plan is in good order, it’s likely the city won’t be ready to move from the planning phase to the entitlement phase of the project until the general plan has been retooled. City staff has estimated that process could take as long as two years. Once the amendment process is complete, Hakeem said, developers would likely bring the project back for the next stage of approval.
“There’s no sense in us slogging through right now when the city’s not ready,” he said.
The Sierra Club argued in a Dec. 12 letter to the Planning Commission that the project should not move forward until the city amends its general plan to reflect a 2008 settlement between the city, the club and then-Attorney General Jerry Brown.
That agreement admonished city leaders for the expansive, growth-heavy 2035 General Plan that foresaw Stockton’s population leaping from about 300,000 in 2014 to more than 500,000 in 2035, and villages — nodes of residential and commercial development — sprouting on the city’s extreme four corners. The settlement mandated a balance between growth on the city’s fringes and city core, and governed environmental standards on new development until the city created and passed its own Climate Action Plan to reduce greenhouse emissions, which is currently under development.
But as city staff pointed out during a Feb. 18 workshop at City Hall, the housing and growth projections imagined by even the 2008 settlement are out of whack with a much more austere reality.
Test for growth
When the 2035 General Plan was passed, Stockton had yet to be walloped by recession, foreclosures and bankruptcy. Growth was on the back burner, as the city and many of its residents struggled to tread financial water and investors shied away.
Bear Creek East is the first major development to come before Stockton planners since the city became the country’s housing bust Ground Zero and a byword for an out-of-money municipality. That has made the project a test case for developers, city staff and the City Council regarding growth.
Will it follow convention toward the city’s fringes? Or will it be directed toward the city’s heart? Smart-growth proponents, including Eric Parfrey of local activist group Campaign for Common Ground, say the general plan amendment process is a chance for Stockton to plot a more sustainable future. At the Feb. 18 workshop, he plainly labeled the development plan as “sprawl,” and urged a new way forward when thinking about Stockton’s expansion.
For those like Parfrey, who fought the 2035 General Plan’s growth horizons, holding off on Bear Creek East is a step in the right direction. The project is on productive agricultural land outside city limits, and the city already has thousands of to-be-built homes within its purview. (The city has approved anywhere between 22,000 and 44,000 homes — the numbers are disputed.) However, some in the development community warn that taking a do-nothing-for-now stance could lead to more economic gloom.
Stop sign or new way forward?
The Building Industry Association’s John Beckman, urged the City Council on Tuesday during the public comment period to not scare away opportunity. Though he didn’t take a specific position regarding Bear Creek East, Beckman told the council that shutting down similar developments until the general plan amendment process is completed would be like “throwing up a big stop sign” to investors.
During the Feb. 18 workshop, Beckman predicted another cycle of robust growth followed by pullback in the local housing market. He warned the council members then, and again Tuesday, that stalling projects already on the books could make the city miss out on the anticipated upswing.
“I hope that they realize what their staff is doing right now is destructive to the city,” he said before Tuesday’s meeting. “The economy is going to pass them by … If you want to shut down everything down until (the general plan is amended), OK.”
A week earlier, however, Community Development Department Director Steve Chase took exception to the idea that the city wanted to stop all development. Chase said he views proposed growth through the lens of a community planner rather than a private developer — parties whose goals do not always align. And that different viewpoint might mean altering existing visions of the city’s projects to fit legal and financial reality.
Parfrey also suggested on Feb. 18 that it might be time to break away from real estate’s historic boom and bust cycles, one of which helped contribute to Stockton’s current status as a city recovering from municipal bankruptcy.
“This is a new normal, a new growth strategy,” Parfrey said. “You don’t have to repeat the mistakes from the past.”