A bit more lawlessness might be just the thing Downtown Stockton needs to kick its rebirth into high gear.
It might seem counterintuitive, but those familiar with urban renewal suggest a bit of rule-bending sometimes helps communities take root in historic urban cores. They’re not suggesting the lawlessness of assaults, vandalism or petty theft, but the type of creative legal interpretation that has helped create artist villages and funky urban oases in other cities around the country.
In a conversation several weeks ago, Cort Companies broker Mahala Burns explained to me that the renaissance of some New York neighborhoods was boosted by what is essentially squatting, wherein people looking for a new place to live turn unused lofts and abandoned spaces into housing. In many of these neighborhoods, their small-scale reclamation projects were largely ignored by regulatory agencies and allowed to blossom into self-sustaining communities. And once the notion of turning these areas into livable locations gained traction, moneyed interests stepped in and turned the once off-the-radar spaces into legitimate housing.
“When it became cool and trendy, they were shipped out, and it was made legal,” she said. “But it doesn’t pencil out (for serious development) until it’s trendy and cool.”
In the right context, those shipped out individuals can be thought of as urban pioneers, setting up a real community where others fear to tread. Conveniently, Stockton has plenty of space that can be thought of as urban frontier. It just probably isn’t in the type of loft space that made New York City’s artist villages possible.
Downtown Stockton certainly has its underused buildings. According to Burns, there are some structures in which the ground floor is in use but the upper floor is less than fully utilized, if at all, owing partially to outdated design. And then there are the downtown hotels that seem to sink into further decrepitude with each passing month.
But unless the city embraces benign neglect and allows a little below-board tinkering, or rules are eased to allow for more reclaiming of this unused space, it’s likely most of the underused but habitable places will continue to languish. And not even the most intrepid bohemian is likely to turn one of the city-owned hotels into a livable space. That would take serious investment from someone with deep pockets, or an innovative partnership with a nonprofit that hasn’t yet come to fruition.
But another space that’s uniquely Stockton could offer a different type of usable frontier. Namely, the waterfront.
The waterfront helped Stockton become a boom town following the Gold Rush years, and it could lead to the reinventing of downtown. Despite the extensive work that’s gone into revitalizing the waterfront, the area is underused, and there are plenty of ways this potential Gold Coast of Stockton could be developed. Some might be more practical than others.
For example, it isn’t difficult to imagine a community of houseboats lined up along the channel’s north shore, providing the type of built-in residential base that developers and planners agree is vital for a sustainable, walkable downtown. After all, houseboats were a common residence in Stockton’s earliest years. Commercial opportunities exist as well. Take the Sherman, a 92-year-old ferry boat that’s been moored near the Stockton Arena for nearly a month. According to The Record, the owners hope to retrofit the historic vessel into a hotspot for food and entertainment.
More of these types of creative, out-of-the-box uses for the waterfront are possible — though as with most urban pioneer movements, there could be trouble to making them fit within the law. The city of Stockton or private landowners — not to mention the Department of Boating and Waterways — could make guerilla-style houseboating difficult for a flotilla of river rats moored on a high-profile levee.
But just because hurdles exist does not mean the ideas should be dismissed out of hand. That’s not strictly the point. The point is to imagine using Stockton’s resources in new ways. The point is to consider something that on the surface seems outlandish but might actually work given the right partnerships. The point is that revitalizing Downtown Stockton might benefit from thinking outside the box — possibly, even, outside the box marked “strictly legal.”