California’s San Joaquin Valley has been one of the epicenters of the foreclosure crisis. Cities like Sacramento, Modesto, and especially Stockton saw some of the worst of the housing crash and economic downturn. At one point, Stockton had the highest rate of foreclosures in the nation, with an estimated one in every 31 homes in foreclosure during the third quarter of 2007. Recovery is but a word in Stockton, where the city has continued to struggle with foreclosures, which still total above the national rate. The city was recently happy to lose its first place position in another ranking, Forbes’ Most Miserable Cities list. Stockton was at the top of that list in both 2010 and 2011, but improved to 11th place in 2012. Better, but still not great.
Now, in Stockton and other San Joaquin Valley cities, officials are trying to reframe development, shifting away from the sprawling subdivisions and unrealistic mortgages of the past and toward a more compact, dense and centralized pattern. These foreclosure-wracked cities are refocusing growth downtown.
A new draft plan [PDF] from the San Joaquin Council of Governments outlines the way forward for cities like Stockton. By focusing on smart growth and transit-oriented development, the plan proposes to orient new housing and development around transit corridors and existing centers within the cities of San Joaquin County. The plan highlights more than 250 sites within the county's seven cities, many of them in Stockton.
“There’s a lot of potential in our city,” says Sam Kaur, associate regional planner at SJCOG. “The time will come when we can make it work, but this is the right time to plan.”
As the metropolitan planning organization for the county, SJCOG is now required by state law to create a sustainable communities strategy that outlines how the region will meet greenhouse gas emission reduction goals. The organization is focused on transportation planning for the region, but increasingly recognizes that housing and commercial development are also looped in with transportation planning.
“When you look at the program, it has a housing nexus to it,” Kaur says. “Because every time you talk about transit oriented development or infill you’re talking mixed use, you’re talking higher density.”
And with a voter-approved half-cent tax creating a fund for transportation projects in the county, officials are hopeful that some of this transit oriented development will begin to take shape. Still, Kaur notes only a small portion of that funding has been dedicated to smart growth efforts.
“It’s $65 million over 30 years. That’s sounds like a lot of money, but it’s really not in the big scheme of things,” says Kaur.
For Stockton, every bit helps. And according to city planning manager David Stagnaro, SJCOG’s plan dovetails nicely with the city’s own recently released draft climate action plan [PDF]. In it, the city shifts away from its sprawling past in favor of more development downtown.
But building a more dense, walkable “smart” downtown requires building, and the market for housing in Stockton is not exactly in its best shape.
“To give you some sort of comparison, there were three consecutive years, 2003, 2004 and 2005, that we built 3,000 or just under 3,000 units each year, for about 9,000 total. And last year we built under 150 homes,” says Stagnaro. “So that’s about a 95 percent drop.”
“We understand that it’s an extremely tough market right now.”
The city’s general plan, approved in 2007, calls for more housing downtown. And the new climate action plan bolsters that idea. By the time of the general plan’s buildout in 2035, there could be an additional 4,400 units of housing downtown. And Stagnaro says some of that transition is already underway. The city has seen new downtown amenities open up recently, like a new transit station, a renovated train station, an arena, a ballpark, and a hotel.
While a decade ago the downtown was crowded with single-room occupancy hotels and a large homeless population, Stagnaro says things are changing. Even crime has gone down. Continuing that shift, though, will require new approaches to development.
“The key thing in all this is partnering to a degree we haven’t in the past with the private sector,” Stagnaro says. “We already cooperate with agencies, and we’re going to cooperate even more. But getting the private sector engaged, especially since we’ve lost a major tool out of our toolbox in the form of redevelopment, is going to be huge. That’s what we’re focusing on.”
And some in the development community are embracing this official move toward building downtown. Developer Zachary Cort is one who’s been working to bring more infill downtown, and he knows how hard it can be to focus growth in one area.
“What’s in Stockton is Stockton’s version of urban sprawl, which is to build more and more up north, and it doesn’t centralize the city. It doesn’t allow for a walkable community, which has hindered our growth,” Cort says. “It’s difficult to walk anywhere. Not because it’s dangerous, but simply because some people don’t want to walk 45 minutes to get to the grocery store and 45 minutes home. Especially when it’s 95 degrees outside.”
Cort is hopeful that the city’s new focus downtown, coupled with SJCOG’s emphasis on creating transit oriented development and infill downtown, will start to undo some of the damage caused by the city’s sprawling development of the past. With more attention and a little more money filtering into projects downtown, he says, more people will start to think of it as a viable place to live.
“We’ve got a wonderful downtown with great boundaries, and I think the people are ready for it. I really do,” Cort says.