The city of Stockton, CA, was founded at the eastern terminus of the San Joaquin River and the southern entrance to the Siskiyou Trail in 1849. Here, a German gold miner, Charles Weber, purchased 49,000 acres of a surrounding Spanish land grant and built a camp to serve other gold miners and the first permanent residence in the San Joaquin valley. The city eventually became the distribution center for the enormously rich farmlands of the valley, and even built one of the largest inland deep-water ports in the country to service its farm economy.
The land immediately adjacent to Captain Weber’s settlement and the port developed as Stockton’s commercial and civic downtown. The agricultural wealth of the region provided the economic base to support some splendid downtown commercial and government buildings in the 19th and early 20th centuries: the grand mission-style Stockton Hotel of 1910, the 1930 Fox Theater (now the Bob Hope Theater), and several beaux arts office towers. The areas around this center developed modest residential neighborhoods with towering shade trees that would be the envy of any new urbanist to protect the houses during the valley’s scorching summer sun.
In the post-World War II period, Stockton suffered, like most American towns, from the rapid relocation of its downtown retail and commercial core to new suburban shopping malls, office parks, and car-dependent residential neighborhoods. It did, however, retain its county court and administrative buildings, providing the downtown with a daily influx of workers.
In the 1960s, the city’s redevelopment agency decided to stop the outflow of businesses from downtown by knocking down many blocks of 19th century commercial structures (several with wooden sidewalks) and the towering 1910 stone county courthouse, replacing them with car-friendly shopping centers. If this “urban renewal” scheme did not totally destroy the entire downtown, an elevated “crosstown” highway was eventually rammed right through the area, effectively cutting the city in half. But despite these nearly calamitous projects, Stockton’s downtown still has enough buildings to give it the feeling of a central urban downtown core.
Now the Stockton Redevelopment Agency wants to knock down seven more hotels in the downtown that serve as a handsome urban fabric and streetscape, weaving together the disparate structures that still remain in the area. The agency hopes to replace them with something the downtown already has in abundance—more parking lots—turning it into a hodge-podge of half-empty blocks that wants to be suburban but is neither that nor a functioning urban quarter.
Fortunately, there is a dedicated local group, Save Old Stockton, led by city planner Joy Neas and architect Linda Derivi, fighting the agency and trying to keep these buildings, restore them (perhaps as affordable housing), and bring people back to the area. It’s a historic first step at an important preservation movement for the city. And though the group has run into well-organized opposition from local property owners and city officials, it is now preparing a lawsuit to have the buildings and downtown saved.
There will be a series of court cases in the coming months that will determine the fate of the buildings and what remains of the downtown’s unique fabric. This is the perfect moment for architects, preservationists, and planners to weigh in on the importance of preserving dignified usable structures and to reverse the trend of reconfiguring California’s downtowns around the requirements of the automobile. If you want to write a letter to protest this needless demolition, write the Stockton Record (www.recordnet.com) or the city council (www.stocktongov.com/citycouncil/index.cfm) and the leaders of Save Old Stockton, 924 North Yosemite Street, Stockton, CA 95203.