Last week, the City Council passed the “Stockton Economic Stimulus Plan,” reducing Public Facility Fees for homebuilders throughout the city. Depending on your point of view, this temporary reduction is either a job creator that will jump start the city’s stagnant construction sector, or a giveaway to single family home builders who will surely only construct homes outside of the price range of the average Stocktonian.
But I’m not writing to critique this policy. Instead, what strikes me about the debate on fee reductions that has unfolded over the last several months is the narrative that we need to act now because Stockton is falling behind neighboring cities. Proponents of the fee reduction and council members themselves routinely argue that we need to “do something” because homes are being built in Lathrop, Manteca and other cities in our county. Without action, Stockton is missing out on building homes. While this may or may not be true, not once during this debate did anyone ask the most important question: Do we want to be like Manteca, Lathrop, or Tracy?
I argue emphatically that we do not. Let’s stop comparing ourselves to our neighbors. Stockton is not Lathrop, or Manteca, or Tracy, and we should not strive to be. These cities, at best, are bedroom communities for the Bay Area, devoid of true character and lacking authenticity as they have decided their best option is to grow continuously outward. Stockton, on the other hand, is a real city—for better or worse—with culture, history and diversity, which we should embrace.
For Stockton to realize its true potential, we must lean on what makes us unique: Our historic homes, walkable neighborhoods and underappreciated waterfront. No other community in San Joaquin County can boast these same characteristics. The homes currently under construction in neighboring cities are largely indistinguishable from any other form of housing built en masse over the past 25 years. On the other hand, Stockton has historic districts, with homes and buildings dating back to the 1800s. We can build all of the suburban housing we want, but it’s these historic neighborhoods and areas that people must embrace for Stockton to separate itself from the rest of San Joaquin County.
The cynics will cry that these “historic” area’s issues with crime, homelessness and blight are insurmountable and really our best hope is simply to forget about these neighborhoods and build new communities on the fringes. This viewpoint is incorrect and indicative of the defeatist attitude that keeps Stockton down. I’ve personally lived in multiple neighborhoods in other cities that were more crime ridden than any in Stockton, but have found new life with the nation-wide trend of people and businesses moving back into city cores. In all other cities, historic neighborhoods are the most cherished, there is no reason why Stockton cannot embrace this same principle, and indeed we are already seeing an increased interest in these areas, specifically in downtown.
It’s good to know that there is a healthy dialogue around land use policy in Stockton. Let’s continue to figure out the best way forward to make our city the best it can be. But let’s not compare ourselves to smaller commuter towns. We should have higher standards and aspirations than to simply build suburban homes for Bay Area workers.