Stockton benefits from a handful of good parks. Weber Point, American Legion, and Oak Park are some that come to mind. But the best park in my opinion is also be the city’s most isolated. With roughly 180 acres of bucolic scenery, meandering trails, hundred-year-old oaks, and abundant wildlife, Oak Grove Regional Park is one of Stockton’s hidden gems. The park has picnic areas, a nature center and even lakes, making it the perfect centerpiece of a community. Or, at least it should have been. Despite its assets, the park remains barricaded from nearly all sides as would-be patrons can enter only from a single access point along a busy stretch of Eight Mile Road. The remaining perimeter of Oak Grove is cordoned off by an eight-foot high masonry wall, effectively keeping hundreds of households oblivious of the oasis in a dessert of stucco homes that sits next door.
In most cities, a great park such as Oak Grove would be prominently featured and accessible from all areas. But county officials thought it would be best to wall Oak Grove Park from encroaching development, and developers didn’t mind. As a result, Stockton’s best park is basically only accessible by car, even for people who live right against its boundaries.
As you can see, Oak Grove is surrounded by residential development. But instead of making the park accessible to the neighborhood, the surrounding homes are sealed off with an 8 foot cinder block wall. Because of this design, many residents who physically live just a block or two from the park have to walk over a mile to reach the park’s Eight Mile Road entrance. And even then, pedestrians are forced to walk alongside an arterial road with cars traveling at 55 miles per hour or more. That small stretch of the journey can be quite stressful, effectively deterring neighborhood residents from walking to Oak Grove.
Nothing can realistically be done to reconnect Oak Grove Park with the surrounding community. Instead, the question is, how did such a great park become a liability and not an asset?
The park has a history of being marginalized by developers and municipal officials alike. In 1997, when the Spanos Development Company was expanding their empire toward Eight Mile Road, it became clear that something had to be done to address the development’s encroachment on to Oak Grove Park. But instead of incorporating the park and its grand oak trees into their plans (which could have been achieved by including a road around the perimeter with houses facing the park), the company sought permits to cut down 18 trees near Oak Grove’s border, some of which were over 100 years old. Environmentalists called the act a “wholesale destruction.” The county parks department was not pleased, and decided it was in the park’s best interest to have developers to construct a wall around the park to keep the public out of the natural oak habitat.
In 2003, Oak Grove lost out to sprawl interests once again. To make room for the anticipated increase in traffic generated by planned development, county officials agreed to remove nearly two acres and 17 trees from the park. By shaving off 27 feet from Oak Grove’s northern end, officials cleared the way to widen Eight Mile Road (sidenote: the growth that was predicted never took place, and as a result it appears that the road widening was never really needed).
Today, we are left with a park that is nearly inaccessible by foot despite being in a census tract with over 10,000 people. Sadly, nothing can be realistically done to remedy these poor planning decisions. Instead, we are stuck with a wonderful park that is underused and underappreciated. A grim reminder of how our region’s lust for suburban development creates communities where genuine public spaces are treated as an obstacle instead of an asset.