A new report from the Council of Infill Builders should be required reading for anyone who hopes to create a vibrant, thriving Downtown Stockton.
The document, “Bringing Downtown Back: Ways to Boost Infill Development in the San Joaquin Valley,” is a blueprint for restoring the region’s derelict urban cores. Though it focuses on Kern and Fresno counties in particular, the strategies outlined by the nonprofit council of developers, urban planners and former public officials are applicable to Stockton which also suffered when growth marched outward during the past half-century.
The report warns that if significant steps aren’t taken to change growth patterns that favor car-centered subdivisions far from city centers, cities such as Stockton will “repeat the development problems plaguing many metropolitan regions around the United States,” including paragons of sprawl like Atlanta, Phoenix and Los Angeles.
True to its name, the Council of Infill Builders promotes infill residential growth as the key to preventing the Central Valley from becoming the Inland Empire of the north — or at least slowing the process. In addition to improving air quality by shortening commutes and reducing water use, more infill could mean a reversal of fortunes for downtown neighborhoods.
“Accommodating new residents in infill areas — defined as resource-efficient, mixed-use neighborhoods where residents live within walking and biking distance of key services and transit — will help valley communities by revitalizing downtowns and boosting sales and property tax revenues,” write the report’s authors.
But it takes more than willpower to reverse the declining trend. The report identifies several challenges cities face even when their leaders have the desire and drive for a revitalized urban core:
• Insufficient amenities and attractions in downtown areas
• Lack of adequate infrastructure
• Lack of available financing for pioneer projects
• Few constraints on horizontal growth
Bottom line: Developers won’t invest in infill projects unless they can make money. As the council points out, infill remains more expensive than greenfield development, and cities lack the resources to make projects pencil out for their investors: It’s no crime, just reality.
John Beckman of the Greater Valley chapter of the Builders Industry Association agrees with the report’s assessment of the challenges facing infill growth. Beckman said that developers, including one he spoke to in the past week, balk at new residential projects in Downtown Stockton because they doubt they can turn a profit with the rents they’d likely be able to charge.
“What (the developer) told me is that rents are about half of what it needs to be (to make a project profitable),” Beckman said. “That squares up with what I’ve heard from other folks.”
The primary reason that ledger sheets favor greenfield developments is that they’re artificially cheap. According to the Council of Infill Builders, edge-of-city building benefits from “subsidized highway and road building,” among other policies that externalize certain costs.
“Meanwhile,” the authors write, “the true costs of such development, in terms of increased traffic congestion, municipal services, and air pollution, as well as lost open space and agricultural land, are externalized and rarely if ever accounted for by the project developers. By contrast … infill development is by its nature more expensive to build, which means that infill can have a difficult time competing with cheaper outlying housing for many market segments.”
To flip the market equation, the report suggests local officials “level the playing field.” Make infill cheaper — or sprawl more expensive — and builders will be more likely to pioneer in Downtown Stockton.
But Beckman cautions against fees so high on outlying development that “it makes it so painful and so costly for people to live” in new, suburban-style communities. Beckman also said that any fee increases on outlying projects designed to pay for infill would likely face lawsuits brought by developers — he contends the “taking clause” of the Fifth Amendment, which prevents the government from taking property without providing just compensation, applies in such a case.
“The BIA would like to see a vibrant Downtown Stockton,” Beckman said, “and we will do whatever we can to help that process, provided no one else looks at other forms of development to pay for it.”
The traditional development community will likely fight ideas like a distance-based fee that would account for the pollution and wear and tear on public roads that auto-based projects have on cities. Fortunately, other ideas raised in the report could generate across-the-board support and drive growth toward Stockton’s core.
For example, leaders could relax parking and other restrictions on infill projects, waive fees for pioneer infill development, leverage transportation dollars to fund high-density growth near transit corridors, and advocate for the creation of tax increment districts that could funnel future property tax money back toward an infill area. Amending the city growth ordinance could also be an option, as city of Tracy voters did in 2000 when they passed a cap on annual single-home building permits. Beckman even suggested that Stockton could essentially gift land or structures to anyone willing to give building in downtown a go.
But relaxing infill restrictions alone won’t be enough. Downtown revitalization is like the old quandary of the chicken and the egg — which comes first, the demand or the amenities? It’s true that demand for housing in urban areas such as Downtown Stockton is picking up. Slowly, a new generation of professionals are seeking areas with culture and basic necessities within walking distance. The anecdotal evidence of high demand for rooms at the University Plaza Waterfront Hotel reported by this website in 2013 corroborates the larger trend. But people won’t truly flock downtown until amenities are more robust.
While marquee projects like the Bob Hope Theatre, Weber Point and the arena failed to become true economic catalysts, they do provide a foundation that Downtown Stockton can build on. The report makes recommendations for low-cost ways to give revitalization a boost, such as facilitating “pop-up” or semi-permanent retail, food and festival-type events in downtown areas — a clear call in favor of keeping the Asparagus Festival at Weber Point and encouraging the expansion of events like the Wednesday farmer’s market. The report also asks government to be as flexible as possible when it comes to restrictions and permits that sometimes get in the way of downtown events.
None of these suggestions are a magic wand that will transform our downtown overnight. But together, these common sense strategies could slowly push Stockton’s historic center toward a critical mass of organic, sustainable development. Some progress has already been made, and some signs from recent City Council meetings are encouraging. But it remains to be seen if local leaders will stand up and implement the policies necessary to change our traditional growth pattern to remake the face of Downtown Stockton and the city as a whole.