How’s Stockton doing?
Couldn’t be better, according to Mayor Kevin Lincoln. In his recent State of the City Address, the mayor called Stockton “the best city in the nation.”
There’s nothing wrong with positivity – except that it’s not true. The mayor himself seemed to acknowledge this later in his speech when he said Best City is what Stockton is shooting for.
A worthy goal, of course. And given Stockton’s assets – its downtown, its waterfront, its proximity to the San Joaquin Delta and Bay Area; the grit and resourcefulness of its diverse residents; the city’s comeback, from bankruptcy to smart money management and cash reserves – the city may be poised at long last to make impressive progress.
“We have the ingredients. We just haven’t baked the cake yet,” said Stockton’s Economic Development Director Carrie Wright.
Let’s see what’s going into the oven.
It ain’t all gravy. Stockton’s fundamental challenge, thanks to the low-wage farm economy, is that median household income here is roughly $10,000 below the national average. Consequently, City Hall never collects enough tax dollars to cure the city’s perennial problems.
Facing Stockton’s issues
Crime, for example. The city simply can’t afford the 600 police deemed necessary for a city that has grown steadily through good times and bad and now is California’s 11th largest. It must settle for 485 – and it’s got a bad problem with officers being lured away, leaving the PD currently with only 408 sworn officers on staff.
Because of this, and a national wave of violence, crimes such as homicide, burglary, robbery, and car theft are spiking so far this year, and we’re just entering summer’s high-crime season.
“While we have seen an increase in murders so far this year, our staff, along with our law enforcement partners, continue to follow our ceasefire model and have been working non-stop on these investigations,” said Stockton Police spokesman Joseph Silva.
He added that detectives just solved two murder cases.
As for everybody’s biggest gripe, the homeless problem, last year the city spent $7 million on shelter and transitional housing, $8 million on affordable housing, $1.6 million on disadvantaged peoples’ water bills, and nearly $40 million on emergency rental assistance.
It is adding over 100 beds to the shelter and hiring a “safe camping operator.” County government is chipping in money for Sonora Square, 37 affordable, “low-barrier” housing units downtown.
A homeless count due out any day will reveal how much of a dent, if any, these efforts put in the problem.
Today’s column doesn’t have the bandwidth to analyze the 10-year tenure of Chief Eric Jones and the impact of his progressive forays into procedural justice, implicit bias training, and reconciliation. That needs doing, even as Jones retires and his successor, Stan McFadden, takes office.
There’s a sense that Stockton is always grinding along in third gear, that since its heyday in the 1930s it has never been equal to the challenges of its decay and need for reinvention. Nothing illustrates this – or could prove the skeptic wrong – better than downtown and the waterfront.
Statistically, downtown is as safe as any other city district. But its vacancies and lack of people gives it an uneasy vibe. Perhaps also Stockton’s farm economy cements a rural conservativism leery of the urban potential inherent in the city’s downtown.
Real downtown progress
Yet there is real 21st-century urbanist progress down there. Including – this is a major breakthrough for city planners – recognition that bicyclists like to ride without being mown down by cars.
The Miner Avenue redo is a lovely piece of work. Using the “Complete Streets” model, Public Works reduced lanes from four to two, striped a big, safe bike lane, added greenery, and built a roundabout with a nice touch: the spires from the old Hunter Square fountain.
Numerous projects such as Grand View Village, Hunter House, and the Ruhl Building are housing hundreds of residents downtown. The recent Flavor Fest brought 10,000 attendees. New businesses have strengthened the area’s weak after-hours pulse.
Like FED bar-restaurant. “Hopefully this will inspire more business owners to come down here,’ said Manager Vanessa Galban. “Especially since every other city has better downtown nightlife.”
On the other hand, January of this year saw the official unraveling of Ten Space’s Open Window Project. The downtown revival effort supposed to bring 1,000 housing units and 400,000 square feet of retail/commercial to 15 blocks eked out 34 units and fizzled.
By mutual agreement, the city revoked its development agreement.
“It didn’t work,” said Wright. “Let’s move on.”
On, hopefully, to the waterfront.
“The waterfront to me is the jewel of Stockton,” said Wright. “Nobody has what we have.”
It’s great that Wright gets it, because for decades city “leaders” ignored a key geographic asset that could offer Stocktonians an urban waterfront experience and even draw tourists.
Now at long last, waterfront redevelopment appears to be in the pipeline. The East Coast RBH Group is negotiating to build 500 housing units on the inner harbor’s south bank west of the new City Hall.
The beneficial impact of such a project to Stockton is difficult to overstate. Rooftops = retail = revival.
City government may even be remodeling itself. City execs, addressing red tape and business-unfriendly bureaucracy, streamlined the permit process, cutting its time by 25%, Wright said.
“That’s just not ‘We think we did.’ We know we did. And we measure it on a regular basis.”
Government on the move?
On the other hand (sigh), city government’s long-delayed move to the Waterfront Office Towers is sucking up another $12.4 million in cost overruns because of pandemic supply chain disruptions and because city officials underestimated needed improvements.
The San Joaquin Delta is in worse shape than ever. The fisheries are going extinct, toxic algae blooms are erupting everywhere, and the governor seems hell-bent on appeasing Big Ag at the expense of our region by building the destructive Delta Tunnel.
“I think we’re in for the battle of our lives as a region,” said Barbara Barrigan Parilla of Restore the Delta.
• The Stockton Heat hockey team is leaving Stockton for Calgary, Canada. Let’s hope arena management uses the newly opened dates to book concerts and other events.
• Sherwood Mall is remodeling, rebranding, becoming an “outdoor-oriented shopping experience,” and in 2023 adding a Sprouts Farmers Market.
• The 9-business Empire Theatre complex so important to the Miracle Mile remains closed five long years after the city shut it down for alleged fire safety violations. Owner and city are still fighting in court.
· The city is launching numerous equity initiatives. For example, seeing that 35 % of Stockton households lack internet and 8% a computer, the city is providing over $8 million in Chromebooks and WiFi.
There’s grounds for guarded optimism that Stockton can make big strides on fronts where it has long been woefully deadlocked. Of course, the possible looming recession could gum everything up; that happened in 2007. Yet despite the jokers in the deck there appears to be skilled players at the table.
So maybe Mayor Lincoln wasn’t being entirely Pollyanna when he said in his State of the City address, “The city has an opportunity to become a thriving 21st century city for all. This is our moment for the City of Stockton.”
Michael Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. He’s on Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.