We’re standing on a Main Street corner, Adam Coleman and I, watching a roaring excavator claw down the Stanislaus Inn, the latest old Stockton building wrecked by squatter fire.

Coleman, a downtown resident, is explaining how easy it is to break into vacant buildings when all the owners do is tack up a sheet of flimsy plyboard with screws.

“If I come with a screwdriver, it’s easier to open than a stubborn can of gherkins,” Coleman scoffs.

Downtown Stockton is indeed in a pickle. Over the past six years squatter fires have destroyed at least 10 buildings, from the beautiful Western Pacific Station to the forlorn Stanislaus Inn (not to mention midtown’s Empire Theatre complex).

Stockton’s architectural heritage is being destroyed not only by fire but by bureaucratic inertia, the failure to review and improve a city policy to secure vacant buildings that obviously doesn’t work.

Despite measures that satisfy city officials, squatters break in and light fires to warm their food (or their bottoms); junkies cook drugs; mentally ill arsonists set buildings afire.

Irreplicable buildings are lost forever.  

The Stockton Fire Department responds to the fire at the Stanislaus Inn on the corner of Stanislaus Street and Main Street. (VIDEO BY ARLEN WILLIAMS JR.)

And it happens over and over again. The Record reported the Stanislaus Inn suffered two fires in recent years. Coleman, who lives nearby, has counted seven. Squatters broke the lock on the back door and came and went at will, he says.

Granted, the Stanislaus was neither a historical landmark nor a structure of architectural merit. City records describe the 3-story building’s “subdued Italianate” commercial style as “a fairly standard type of hotel-store construction.”

In its dotage it was a fleabag hotel.

But when it opened in 1906, it was the perfectly decent Lester Apartments. An example of live/work, automobile-free urbanism many Stocktonians probably think of as modern, but which Stockton had down pat, in this case 116 years ago.

Picture living in an affordable, furnished apartment in the center of a thriving downtown, replete with Main Street parades out your front window, every necessary shop nearby, and right downstairs a cocktail bar, a café with live music, and a food market.

Marengo’s Cafe, a ground-floor feature of the Stanislaus Inn, offered live music. Leonard Covello is on drums, Ernie Massei on saxophone and Jimmy Sorelli on piano in 1939. (COURTESY OF BANK OF STOCKTON)

Work, a short walk or streetcar ride away.

Until now, city officials haven’t changed their ineffective approach toward preventing these fires. Their motto appears to be Si non laborat, fac hoc serva: If it doesn’t work, keep doing it.

“If somebody’s bound and determined to get into something, I don’t know that all the forces on the planet can stop them,” said city spokesperson Connie Cochran.

Okay, but then if that is true, then city officials are requiring building owners to take security measures they know don’t work. Or work, with catastrophic exceptions.

“It’s a very complicated balance,” said Almarosa Vargas, manager of the City of Stockton’s Police Services, the city’s code enforcement department. “We have to do as much as we can to give the property owner time to fix the violation.”

This 2021 photo shows the vacant 1906 Stanislaus Inn. The graffiti mural, unauthorized but quite good, was later painted over. (COURTESY OF SPIKE MIGONE)

The city slapped the absentee owner, a Fairfield LLC (arguably a slumlord), with numerous violations, culminating with a “notice and order of intent to abate by demolition.”

Squatters beat them to it. Given how often that happens, clearly the city’s process is too slow and lax. Leaders need to find a better policy, or better enforce the existing one.

There’s no shortage of fix-it ideas out there.

·        Coleman (why not?): “If you came up with a
working barrier down here, you would save a lot of buildings.”

·        Robert Holzer, Cultural Heritage Board: “There
should be an occupancy requirement. The building has to be occupied or they’ll
fine you.”

·        Mike Huber, Downtown Stockton Alliance: “I think
there should be an ordinance: if you buy a building, you should have to perform
… they have got to perform in it in a certain period of time, otherwise you start running up violations.”

Huber for mayor.

“Anything that helps to get these buildings fixed or demolished,” said Vargas, the code chief. “Anything that’s more positive for the community, it’s definitely something we should look at.”

Of course, reducing the homeless population would help, too. City and county are grinding away at that.

But it’s a heavy lift. A recent homeless census counted 1,355 unsheltered homeless people living in San Joaquin County. Of those, 66%, almost 900, live in Stockton. And that’s probably an undercount.

Coleman marvels at all the homeless people he sees and the lack of order that lets them do what they will.

“They are having bonfires in the parks. This is like a medieval tribe or something,” he said. “Medieval nomads.”

Urban miners are brazenly stripping buildings. “The Earle Hotel, they stripped everything. In the end they were unscrewing steel beams. Steel beams 40 feet high! It’s ridiculous.”

The Stanilsaus Inn lays in ruins. (MICHAEL FITZGERALD/CONTRIBUTOR)

The Stockton Police Department seems to agree. The officer in charge of the bike patrol sits on the board of the Downtown Stockton Alliance, said police spokesman Joseph Silva.

“He’s aware of the vacant buildings downtown,” Silva said. “Him and his bike officers, they will do special checks. If they see people inside, they will go in and address it.”

They’ll also respond to calls for service if local residents or businesspeople see squatters or evidence of break-ins, Silva said.

Well, there you go. I spent most of this column griping that the city seems unable to change course, then Stockton police did exactly that. Hats off to the SPD for attempting a better way.

City Hall, do you copy?

Michael Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. Phone (209) 687-9585. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email: mfitzgeraldstockton@gmail.com

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12 Comments

  1. Thanks for this article. For a while the City itself owned a number of old buildings downtown. Some burned. At one time our fair city possessed a great collection of historic properties and contributing buildings that easily defined a district. Many are gone, but a significant number remain. We citizens need to encourage new approaches.

  2. Great article. I miss your columns you used to write in the Stockton record. I also miss the letters to the editor. The Record is not about Stockton anymore.

  3. Thanks for this, Mike. One of my concerns is the Civic Auditorium. It’s a historic building but it’s in decay–like other things. The Symphony is celebrating its Centennial year in 2026-27, and we believe, if done well, could be a lynchpin in bringing people back downtown. We are working on an appointment with Harry Black who has told Philip West that the money for restoration isn’t the problem. I’ve also heard that there is money to be had (actually earmarked for Stockton) through the National Park Service, but no one at the city will do the paperwork to get it. I’d like to talk to you about this sometime.

  4. IT breaks my heart every time I see a historic Stockton building go up In flames. We can’t afford these loses!

  5. Michael, I love reading your take on a problem that keeps small, and larger, investors in Downtown Stockton awake at night.

    Am I going to wake up with my building gone ?

    There’s a lot to unpack in what I’m writing below, and not all of it has directly to do with the fires, but all of it is applicable one or other way to why buildings are empty or take a long time to be developed/redeveloped.

    I’ve only been in Stockton since 2016, and I’ve seen a fair amount of historical structure go up in flames. Common thread is that these buildings seem abandoned by their owners or caretakers. Nowhere was this more visible to me at the Western Pacific Station. It was earmarked to be demolished by ACE for a parking lot, transients succeeded in that goal with the third fire.

    During one of my lasts meetings as Economic Chair for DSA pre-COVID, I asked the question to the DSA team: why do investors, large or small, buy in Downtown Stockton and let their investments languish ? What can we do ?

    There were a variety of answers, but some of the recurring ones were: no comprehensive economic development of the City focussed on Downtown or Midtown, a lot of red tape that is not understood, or even unknown, at the time of purchase, making return on investment slim. (Take a look at “Additional fees for SUSD”, and then take a look what we get for these fees in terms of education quality compared to other cities. Yes, there are CA cities that wave these fees to support their Economic Development.)

    The increase in transient activity, worse since 2016, and COVID19 didn’t help and requires most of the smaller investors to refocus resources. That’s life.

    Even when we, as DSA, organized the live/work conversion discussion in 2018, ROI became a subject as our live/work expert guest speaker didn’t see an ROI at the rental rates common in Stockton and the conversion cost in general at the end of the day.

    We no longer need a massive amount of offices, converting the top floors to residential comes with red tape that most non-investors never heard from. Converting old hotels is not inexpensive, but it is still a better carbon footprint compared to demolition and building with more concrete.

    I’ve equally studied Neighborhood Revitalization policies, and more recently, taxes levied on empty residential buildings. Vancouver is the first major city to do it since 2017, Los Angeles and San Francisco are on the fence.
    The early results are not all that convincing. (Besides the question if it is even constitutional, consider the potential for reversal and return of funds.)
    90% of the investors sitting on empty property pay the penalty and charge these through to the next owner. The extra tax revenue is nice for the city. I still have to see a plan what this “extra” money is earmarked for. Economic Development ? (sarcasm)

    Empty residential buildings are there for a reason. Those that are versed in the science of city development and revitalization, know that taking care of the brick and mortar aspects of a development area is not the first step, or even the most important step, in the process of redevelopment and infusion of economic growth in a neglected area (Downtown and historic Midtown have similar challenges and are historically neglected areas, at least since the 1970’s.)

    WIthout a comprehensive CIty Hall vision and policy around Neighborhood Revitalization, we’re nowhere. Let’s add that this effort needs to be able to survive multiple election cycles.

    In my humble opinion, it’s about an approach that considers employment access, education quality and accountability, public safety and public health (AB 617 is a step in the right direction). Without the investor community knowing what to expect, how do we motivate them to further invest in their properties for residential conversion or attract businesses to invest in in our City and help shoulder the risk ? (Codestack/Kendal building is an example of runaway conversion cost for the purpose. Oops, we had a fire there also … )

    I don’t claim to have all the answers or even grasp all the issue, but I don’t see a comprehensive vision with policy from City Hall. Maybe Stockton’s issues are not large enough yet for City Hall to attract talent that can develop these policies. We have so many issues to deal with. Yet, we have to deal with them, or we’ll keep sliding in the wrong direction, a less attractive area to develop.

    I’m open to discussion on the subject, like I said, there’s a ton to unpack and there are experts that do this for a living.

    It’s also fresh in my mind I live in a City that neglected his historic City Hall through deferred maintenance to the point where it was no longer “economically fixable”. I believe this problem to exist throughout the city.

    Food for thought.

    Best regards,
    Rudi Blondia

  6. A good start would be to take code enforcement away from the police (they’ve got enough on their hands) and turn it over to public works. Maybe even hire a few more inspectors. Meanwhile, the fire department should create a census of empty buildings and assess their security and fire risks. Publishing a map showing these properties will probably be shocking. Such a map should include the names, mailing addresses and phone numbers of the owners. Property owners need to be put on notice. Code violations should come with hefty fines and liens which must be paid prior to sale.

  7. The city council’s legislative committee is meeting at 4pm on 7/20 to discuss ordinances relating to empty buildings. This meeting will be at the council chambers and is open to the public. Show up and let them know that we need proactive enforcement rather than reactionary, which is what we have now.

    1. Thanks for the heads up Bill, didn’t see this only until your FB announcement. I’m glad I could make it and had the opportunity to listen to the Council. The heart is there, but I don’t see how a registration requirement when your building is less than 51% occupied, within 10 days nonetheless, coupled with inspection, fines and taxes, is going to prevent structures that have been empty for over a decade from being set ablaze by transients with free reign. There was simply no opportunity to find out how well these schemes are working in other cities.

  8. Wow, quite an echo..
    A comprehensive attempt to revitalize these old structures had been
    made some 12 years ago by the Common Grounds Committee,
    a group of enthusiasts around the late Rosaleo Estrada.
    Despite potent investors ready, a promising master plan with
    long term parking and even a mid scale food market chain on board,
    the project failed because the City Councill was not ready to provide
    financing for earthquake-, handicapped- and fire safety requirements.

    Cort company tried the same thing on a wider scale for profit and
    failed, despite outrages concessions from the Council.

    Moving such a big ship around is not an easy thing and might take
    some experimentation on what works or worked elsewhere.

    Some thoughts:
    The majority of the remaining buildings have strong access barriers
    (e.g. New York Hotel, building on 33 S San Joaquin, Estrella across
    Stanislaus on Main..).

    Moving Code enforcement into a different frame (Public Works), would
    not make their job easier or more efficient, making sure the whole ordinance
    does net get overloaded by unjustified causes, will.
    (My friend, a grandpa of 4, had to do a front yard ‘clean up’, shortly after
    2 realtors set up sales signs in the cul de sac. 3 ride on tool and 2 kid’s bikes..).
    Also: The Commerce Department is already a second ordinance to mandate
    improvements on these buildings.

    Time matters ! Some of the buildings had been accessible for quiet
    a while, before they were set on fire. Meaning, the guy who brakes in,
    is not necessary the one who causes the fire.. (if it happens for the
    reasons given above: warming, drug cooking, a.s.o.)
    The guys who get in first are looking for s.th. to steal.
    (‘Broken Window’ theory..)

    By all means, this article disclosing some of the current measures as
    close to indulgence is a great start, lets hope for 94 more ‘theses’ posted..

    Luther Fitzcarraldo for mayor !?
    (Huber for City Council!)

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