Last Tuesday night potentially changed the trajectory of our city as we know it, and this is not hyperbole.
In a stunning rebuke to 60 years of poor land use planning, the Stockton City Council ask city staff to proceed with the most aggressive sprawl-reducing Land Use Alternative as part of the General Plan Update. Essentially, there will be almost no new annexation of land into Stockton until 2035 under this plan unless amended. The one exception provided by the council (Councilman Holman, to be exact) was to craft language or policy that would allow outward growth only in the event of a major institution relocating to Stockton with land requirements that exceed the capacity of the existing city limits, such as a major job center or a university. The staff will now create a final land use plan to move forward with the Environmental Impact Report.
The whole meeting itself was somewhat surreal. It’s generally been the case that the battle for growth in Stockton is framed as one simply between developers and land preservationists. After Tuesday, it’s become clear that this narrative is no longer true, and actually hasn’t been for some time. We’ve become a city awaken to the consequences of unfettered growth not just from a farmland perspective, but from an environmental, social justice, mobility, and neighborhood revitalization perspective. Before the meeting, a consortium of community advocates submitted a letter beforehand that included Catholic Charities, the American Lung Association, the NAACP, and the Audubon Society, among several others. And at the meeting itself, members across a broad spectrum of our city—from infill developers to senior rights advocates to cycling enthusiasts– marched to the podium to explain why Stockton benefits most from a city that reduces sprawl. In the end, the support for Alternative C was overwhelming and undeniable, and the city council agreed.
On one hand, I am not surprised at this swell of this grassroots movement to promote smart growth. Ever since I returned to Stockton three years ago, it was clear that the seeds had been planted and people were finally in tune with the realities of poor land use decisions. I’m proud to be just one of these many voices.
What did surprise me was the lack of an organized response from the greenfield development community during the meeting. A handful of developers were present, such as Dave Nelson from the Spanos Companies and the development team for Bear Creek East. But out of the nearly 20 speakers, only one was clearly pro status quo, and that was predictably John Beckman of the Building Industry Association. And even his defense of “business as usual” development was bizarre and even feeble.
Mr. Beckman took to the dais citing statistics of an overall decrease in Downtown Stockton population and increase in vacancy rates, concluding that people actually didn’t want to live downtown. It’s a position Mr. Beckman reiterated in his letter to Roger Phillips posted here. This is, of course, an asinine argument. There are almost zero new homes or units built in the greater downtown area, of course the population has declined! And the two new projects that have been built in recent memory have been wildly successful, with University Plaza hovering around 95% occupancy (and charging over $2 a square foot no less) and Cal Weber 40 sporting a 300 person waiting list! And as our company (Ten Space) continues to work on the Open Window Project, I can tell you with confidence that there is plenty of demand in downtown, or else we wouldn’t be building anything.
I have a hard time believing that dismissing pent up downtown housing demand would somehow persuade the city council and staff to choose Alternative A—the business as usually land use scenario that Mr. Beckman’s clients most likely prefer. Mr. Beckman is tasked with protecting and advocating for single family home builders, mostly in new suburban locations, but to dismiss the community’s desire to see neighborhood revitalization seems like a very roundabout way of doing so. In the end it’s my hope that Mr. Beckman’s clients can find value in untapped markets such as downtown, we would all be better for it.
I cannot overstate how big Tuesday’s vote was for the future of Stockton. I have a long held belief that a number of our city’s ills are a direct result from our sprawling land use pattern, from obesity, to segregation, to stagnating neighborhood revitalization, to our shortage of community resources, and even our bankruptcy. That’s basically what this blog is about. So to not only see the council vote in favor of Alternative C, but to see them ask thoughtful questions and articulate why Alternative C clearly was the best option gives me incredible hope for the future of our city. Land use is not an inherently sexy issue, but it has a tremendous impact on our daily lives, so it’s refreshing to know that our leaders are thoughtful in this area. Codifying Alternative C doesn’t heal the poor land use mistakes of the past, but it acknowledges that smart growth is vital to start the healing process and sure a sustainable a vibrant future.
To be sure, there is still much work to be done on the General Plan. While in the near term it appears that good land use has won the day, remember that this is not the final vote. Staff now is now tasked with carrying out their direction from the city council, and in a couple months we’ll have a final land use map to vote on once again. And from there, it’s still incumbent on the community to continue to demand language that prioritizes other policies, such as community safety by design, addressing food desserts, and prioritizing active transit, among other priorities. But today, we can enjoy this victory as a sign of better things to come for Stockton.