Late last year, a minor outrage ensued when it was revealed that chain drive thru Dutch Brothers Coffee was opening on the corner of Pacific and Walnut Street on the Miracle Mile. Opponents opined that a drive thru was a poor choice for that particular corner (with some also expressing resentment towards a chain opening so close to the local coffee spot). But these concerns were for naught as the city planning department had already granted approval, and Dutch Bros is now set to open within the next month or two.
So it was with great interest that I watched the Planning Commission in December debate a very similar proposal for Downtown Stockton– a drive through Chase Bank and Starbucks at the northeast corner of El Dorado and Fremont Streets. But the big difference from Dutch Bros is that in this instance, city staff actually recommended denial of this project based on a design that is inconsistent with city design guidelines. And in a stunner, the Planning Commission agreed, denying the permit by a 4-2 vote. The applicants are appealing that decision, and the City Council will decide their fate on February 21.
Long story short, this was a good decision by the Planning Commission in my opinion, and I hope the council upholds it next month. And to be clear, the issues surrounding this project have nothing to do with the tenants. Rather, this building as proposed would be completely out of place in our downtown. This Chase/Starbucks is designed as if it belongs in a suburban strip mall, not an urban downtown center. I’m very happy to see Chase’s desire to invest in new downtown buildings, but I do not believe we should bend our standards to accommodate them.
The problem with the project’s design is that it’s not compatible to the rest of downtown. Never mind that drive thrus really don’t belong in any downtown, but the building itself is setback a whopping 55 feet from the street and provides a grossly unnecessary 38 parking spots for a tiny 3,200 square foot bank. Meanwhile, all other buildings in the vicinity are generally fronting the street itself and hide their parking mid-block. Take a look below, and you can access the full staff report here:
This contrast in style is an affront to strong urban design principles. What you should see in a vibrant urban community are buildings that front the sidewalks, creating an engaging built environment for pedestrians, cyclists and even drivers. As proposed this building will severely clash with its surroundings and create an even less pleasurable streetscape (even though El Dorado Street’s car-dependent design is ultimately the biggest barrier).
Of course, the applicant claims to have a legitmate purpose for this underwhelming design. During the Planning Commission hearing, the argument was made by the applicant that Chase’s corporate standards require the setback for “employee safety.” But when questioned about other more urban locations, such as in Los Angeles or the Bay Area, the spokesperson conceded that they do make exceptions in these areas, albeit they may come with higher costs.
I call bull on this. If Chase and the developer really wanted to adhere to Stockton’s design guidelines, they easily could. A prime example of a well-designed drive thru bank can even be found literally next door to the proposed site. The Bank of the West building sits on the northwest corner of El Dorado and Park, and includes a drive through as well.
As you can see, Bank of the West found a way to front the street and maintain the street wall. Their drive thru is perfectly accessible without overly disturbing the continuity of the building. It’s that easy. Not convinced? Here’s two more examples of banks downtown that adhere to the neighborhood’s urban fabric: BBVA Compass on Channel and Hunter Street, and the Bank of Agriculture and Commerce on Weber and California Streets.
To be clear, neither of these examples are feats of incredible architecture by any means, but they at least show that you can build a bank with a drive thru that has decent urban form.
For those still actually reading this, a bit of background on how staff came to their decision for the Chase/Starbucks proposal. The staff recommendation for denial was based on something called an Architecture Review Committee (ARC) — an ad hoc group of local architects that critiques plans for new buildings that come through the planning department to ensure that we build nice things. For the Dutch Bros building, the ARC decided that the design was fine by city guidelines. This time, however, the ARC concluded that the Chase/Starbucks design was not cohesive for a downtown building, and the Dutch Bros episode might be why.
According to city staff I’ve spoken to, the Dutch Bros Coffee outcry has created a “heightened awareness” within the Planning Department (and by extension the ARC) of the community’s sensitivity to design issues. This is great news, it means that community voices are being heard and considered when making planning decisions, whereas in the past this may not have been the case.
Another concerning point is that the applicant unilaterally decided they were above the city’s design guidelines, ignoring chances to reconcile their design with staff’s concerns. After the ARC makes their critiques, staff notifies applicants to give them a chance to address suggested changes and revise their plans to accommodate reasonable requests. In this case, the applicant decided they didn’t need to adhere to the city’s guidelines or the ARC’s recommendations. Instead, they tried to ram through their project “as is” over the objections of the staff, and in the past this might have worked. As a city, we’ve been trained to simply accept what is given to us. But we have a strong Planning Commission that made the right decision and I hope the council agrees.
I do not believe Stockton should ever settle. For too long, we’ve been told that we should just be happy that people are building anything here, and we should be content that we’re getting some new jobs and commerce. I reject these notions, and I believe many other Stocktonians share this sentiment. We should not lower our standards simply because a lot has sat vacant longer than we’d prefer. When we allow new buildings to be built, these are decisions that have an effect on our community for years and years. We have an obligation to demand the best for our communities, and not just downtown, but everywhere. At the end of the day, upholding this Planning Commission decision is a small victory, but it will be a significant one.
PS There’s already a Starbucks two blocks away, how the heck is that going to work???