Is San Joaquin County pulling a fast one on the City of Stockton?
The Record’s Mike Fitzgerald reported a few weeks ago that San Joaquin County officials appear to be back peddling on a promise to tear down the current courthouse and replace it with a public plaza with underground parking. If true, the move is disingenuous and deceitful on the part of the county, and will have detrimental effects on the redevelopment of Downtown Stockton.
By not replacing the old court house with a new plaza, the county will have pulled off an impressive bait and switch. The city basically gave Hunter Square to the county for free. At the time, it was assumed that a new plaza would be part of the deal. Now, if no plaza is built, the city will have given away a historic landmark and in return will get a building that serves the exact same functions as the existing courthouse, albeit more efficiently. No permanent jobs are created, existing jobs will just be consolidated in a new building. And while the county gets a nice, shiny new tower, the city essentially gains nothing, losing a public space while being saddled by an eyesore of an empty, old courthouse.
And the presumption of new a plaza wasn’t an empty promise made in passing; the county has been touting a public plaza for years. In the project’s environmental review, it’s made clear that demolishing Hunter Square would be a blow to the city’s heritage.
“Development of the proposed project will produce an irreversible significant environmental change due to the loss of Hunter Square Plaza as a historic resource. The loss of the resource is a significant irreversible environmental change.”
That comes straight from the project’s environmental report, available on the project website. County representatives fully acknowledged that the loss of the square would be a setback to the city. Here’s another excerpt:
“…the County plans to raze the current courthouse and build a new plaza once the Superior Court moves to the proposed new courthouse, and the County’s new plaza will be superior to the existing Hunter Square.”
Not only are we supposed to get a new plaza, but the county goes as far as saying that the new square will be even better than its predecessor (which, in honesty, isn’t a huge claim. The latest iteration of Hunter Square wasn’t the most beautiful).
The county even appeared to have dedicated money to this project. The plans for demolition of the old courthouse, construction of the new square, and even a subterranean parking lot, are outlined in the county’s 2012-2017 Capital Improvement Program. $3.6 million was set aside for tearing down the old courthouse, while $11.6 million was earmarked for a new plaza and underground parking. But suddenly, the money seems to have dried up as officials are quoted as being non-committal to the project.
This new development isn’t just a case of the county swindling the city, but the redevelopment of downtown is at stake as well. The current courthouse has long been derided as an atrocity, given the beauty of its predecessor which was wrongfully torn down. Should the current courthouse remain, there would be a huge missed opportunity to create a unifying public space in the heart of Downtown Stockton. Moreover, an empty, derelict courthouse would kill street level activity, as it does now, along Weber Avenue.
Fortunately, observant people such as Fitzgerald are sounding the alarm. He also quoted an individual on his blog who noted that the county could easily afford the demolition of the old courthouse and the construction of new plaza. But it’ll take more than a couple blog posts to get the county to recommit to a new Hunter Square. More people need to speak up and demand that the county be strong stewards of Downtown Stockton by making good on their promise of a new Hunter Square.