Thursday, December 15, 2011
Urban Land Institute returning to evaluate Stockton/The Record
Group whose ideas helped spur city resurgence coming back
STOCKTON - It's time for private developers - and not government - to breathe life back into Stockton's downtown, say city leaders looking for fresh ideas on how to make that happen.
While their approach has its critics, they believe they'll get some good ideas from the Urban Land Institute, an internationally recognized organization that researches and advocates for progressive development.
The organization left its mark on Stockton before. In 1997, a strike team assembled by the Institute parachuted into town. That whirlwind visit sparked ideas that turned into the arena, cinema and restaurants.
Those features and others today give residents reasons to come downtown, a place Mayor Ann Johnston said used to be a "disaster zone." She and the City Council this week agreed to bring back the Institute.
"This is the second phase of a much larger, grander plan," she said. "This is the logical extension."
This time, the focus will be on the downtown core with the Cabral Rail Station as an anchor to the east and an eye on one day attracting the high-speed rail to stop in Stockton.
The end goal is to have housing, entertainment and markets around the transit centers to create jobs and reduce car traffic.
The politics and economy today are much different from 1997, when the city paid for most of the projects borne of the Institute's report.
In this visit, scheduled for five days in February, the city will task the panel - a group of accomplished real estate, legal, financial and planning experts, who have yet to be assembled - with finding ways to attract private investors.
In this so-called new economy, cities such as Stockton can't rely on their redevelopment agencies, from which cities for years used to borrow money to spruce up blighted areas.
The state this year abolished those agencies in a move that has prompted a court challenge. That case awaits a California Supreme Court ruling. Stockton is moving ahead as if its redevelopment agency were gone.
In its visit, the panel will tour downtown and interview more than 100 community members.
They'll also come up with a vision and step-by-step plan to carry it out, said Deputy City Manager Mike Locke, who is overseeing the project.
"We're not looking for a broad discussion," Locke said. "We're looking for action sets."
Aside from city staff time, it will cost Stockton nothing.
The Institute's $120,000 fee will be paid for by Grupe Co., A.G. Spanos Corp. the San Joaquin Rail Commission, Stockton Downtown Alliance and the San Joaquin Council of Governments.
There will be an emphasis on filling vacant lots and using existing buildings, some of which pose challenges because they are old single-resident hotels with seismic problems, Locke said.
"Some properties would be best demolished," he said.
What makes the Institute's panels successful, said Locke, is that they are made up of professions at work in their various fields. They know how to tackle obstacles, he said.
Not everybody is convinced. Gary Malloy, a retired businessman and avid watcher of the city council, said he didn't want to dash the city's dreams, but he doubted private investors, the linchpin of this plan, would step up.
He noted that the large developers invested little in downtown in the best of times.
"Now we're in the worst of times," he said. "I hope six months from now this isn't going to end up on a shelf."
Mayor Johnston said that in the Institute's first visit to Stockton, they came up with ideas that seemed "far out" at the time. But today many of those proposals are built, Johnston said.
They also include Dean De Carli Waterfront Square and the marina.
The city needs to lay the foundation in anticipation of more prosperous days, Johnston added.
Gary Podesto agreed. He was Stockton's mayor in 1997, when the Institute first came. He said it took a decade for the city realize the panel's vision.
"There's nothing to lose by having them there," Podesto said. "Anything you do is long range."
Contact reporter Scott Smith at (209) 546-8296 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his blog at recordnet.com/smithblog.