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.
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.
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.”
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
· 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 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: firstname.lastname@example.org