“What’s the future going to be like?” asked San Joaquin County Supervisor Carlos Villapudua on a recent evening at the University of the Pacific. “What’s San Joaquin County going to look like?”
Villapudua posed this question to a gathering of prominent local officials and real estate development professionals as part of a roundtable discussion hosted by the Local Government Commission, a nonprofit agency that works with local governments on furthering their sustainability and economic goals. The discussion fed off of a recent report by the commission on strategies to revitalize urban cores in the Central Valley.
In addition to elected officials such as Stockton city council members Michael Tubbs, Moses Zapien, Dyane Burgos and Elbert Holman, local developers, property management firms, city planning staff and economic development agencies were seated in UOP’s alumni house to discuss how to facilitate the process of downtown development.
The topic is a tricky one, evidenced by the evening’s introductory presentation from Curt Johansen, president of the Council of Infill Builders. After intently studying the Central Valley’s potential for infill, Johansen and his team came up with some primary barriers keeping Central Valley cities from progressive development: insufficient infrastructure, utilities and pedestrian and bicycle routes; insufficient cultural and recreational attractions; and historically low constraints on horizontal growth—also known as sprawl.
According to Johansen this facilitation of sprawl “diffuses the energy of the city” and its costs to society and the environment have been continuously underwritten in archaic zoning laws and lack of oversight.
Having just officially breached the 300,000 mark, Stockton’s population will approach a half-million residents by 2050 and is projected to be the fastest growing region in the entire state over the next two decades. For Johansen and others in the room, this impending growth creates a serious need to discuss what form that growth will take and how to make it sustainable. He stressed that downtown development should not simply be undertaken for its current trendiness in the market, but because it implies real cost savings for municipalities when single-use structures are converted to mixed-use since its much less expensive to service existing infrastructure near the city center – essentially getting more bang for the buck.
Despite citing that 97 percent of future growth could be accommodated through infill, Johansen told the audience that shooting for a 50/50 split would be aggressive enough.
“We don’t have to be sustainable 100 percent of the time,” he said. “Let’s just figure out how to make the sustainable happen more often.”
As Johansen took his seat, the conversation turned to those in attendance who debated the “chicken and egg” component of the task before them: How do you get people invested in downtown? Do you start with restaurants? Nightlife? Is it better to have housing established first before attempting to attract commercial businesses?
But, as always, these questions proved to have no easy answers. Many cited the burden of the city’s financial insolvency which prevents city staff from thinking progressively about incentivizing developers who might otherwise turn their sights on Stockton. Others described Downtown Stocton’s inadequate pedestrian infrastructure such as insufficient crosswalks and dangerous one way boulevards that carry commuter traffic quickly away from downtown once 5 p.m. hits. All were in support of building housing units in the downtown area but said a solution will need to be found to the expensive cost associated with bringing older buildings up to modern code requirements – a cost that often renders many rehabilitation projects infeasible.
Still, there is evidence that people and organizations want to be downtown. Representatives from The Cort Group and CAFÉ Coop suggested encouraging local artists to use downtown space for pop-up concerts and art shows, and noted the opportunity presented by burgeoning technology startups seeking affordable working space outside of Silicon Valley. There is a nexus already linking Downtown Stockton to the cultural and intellectual components vital to thriving downtowns. The next step according to others like Mahala Burns of Cort Companies should be encouraging and providing space to these groups and potentially – similar to other cities – turning a blind eye to artists and others looking to take over and set up shop in old, dilapidated buildings.
Whatever the outcome, the gathering provided an important step in bringing together those already working on improving downtown to discuss ways to collaborate and partner. Public-private partnerships were stressed as essential to fostering downtown prosperity, and that neither sector would be as successful on their own versus if they worked together.
“The Central Valley is changing,” said Johansen during his presentation, “You need to figure out how to control that change to have the best outcome possible.”