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Why downtown Stockton? The $308M question

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POSTED July 27, 2017 12:37 a.m.

I am not going to shed a tear when the current San Joaquin County courthouse ceases to function as such at the end of the month.
That said you can’t help but wonder what the good judges of the San Joaquin County Superior Court were thinking.
They made the call to build the $308 million replacement in downtown Stockton and not in French Camp near the San Joaquin County Jail complex.
In a way, downtown Stockton makes perfect sense. It is the heart of the county seat. The county administration center — the third nicest building in Stockton — is there. The county human services agency — the second nicest building in  downtown Stockton — is there. And now the courthouse — the nicest looking building in downtown Stockton — is there.
See a pattern? Without San Joaquin County downtown Stockton would have no anchor. You could even argue downtown Stockton would turn into a near ghost town during weekdays.
I’ve got to be honest. If you’re not pulling for Stockton to gain strength and you live anyway in San Joaquin County, then you are pulling for your own community not to do as well as it could. That’s because Stockton is economically as well as image wise joined at the hip with Lodi, Manteca, Lathrop, Tracy, Ripon, and Escalon.  Image is important as many people — including firms that could bring coveted higher paying jobs throughout the county — lump Manteca, Ripon, Tracy, and Ripon et al with Stockton.
We saw that during the housing crisis. For several years during the Great Recession, a lot of big banks never separated Stockton from the rest of the county. At one point during the darkest days of the housing collapse, banks struggling to sell foreclosed homes for a six-month period were relying on out-of-state appraisers who made no distinction between the market value of a 10-year-old home with 2,500 square feet whether it was in Stockton, Manteca, and Ripon.
From that perspective, building the new courthouse in downtown Stockton was a no-brainer.
But if I was worried about a jury pool getting the wrong impression, I would have built the courthouse in French Camp.
First impressions are hard to overcome. I asked nine fairly new residents who had moved to Manteca  during the past five years that if they had ever reported for jury duty in downtown Stockton.  Five had. Then I asked if that was their first time in downtown Stockton. The five said yes.
Then I asked what their impression of downtown Stockton was. Three used words such as “crime ridden” and “unsavory.” Whether this is a fair observation, isn’t the issue. It is their perception.
My first call to jury duty in Stockton was in 1991. They had us park in a surface lot four or so blocks to the northeast of the courthouse. Just a half block away from the parking lot, I was propositioned. Then a lady — who was walking behind me — asked if I was going to the courthouse. She had jury duty as well and asked if I would walk with her. About halfway there, we walked passed a drug deal going on.
In 1993, I was called again for jury duty. This time I elected to park in a two-story city garage a bit to the north of the courthouse. As I was pulling in, the attendant at the booth asked if I was going to take my bicycle racks off the top of my car. When I asked why, he said they have racks stolen all the time from vehicles parked in the garage.
It doesn’t seem wise to me to have perspective jurors to have to run a gauntlet of questionable activities and then not expect some of them not to subconsciously tip the scales against a criminal defendant. That might be seen as a bit of a stretch but I’m willing to bet a large number of non-Stockton residents — right or wrong — that are called to jury duty see Stockton as a hell hole for crime. I personally don’t see it that way.
With the newer parking garage a block away, much of the riff-raff is out of the way.
It is essential San Joaquin County and Stockton try to build on the synergy of county employees and those that have business with county agencies to lure private sector employers to downtown Stockton in much the same manner the San Joaquin Partnership works to bring distribution and manufacturing jobs. That may be preaching to the choir or simply underscoring what they are now trying to do, but it is critical for all county residents that it happen.
Then there is the issue that the existing courthouse next to the new 13-story courthouse will become a six-story reminder of downtown Stockton’s struggles. It isn’t likely to be torn down anytime soon due to astronomical asbestos removal costs associated with its demolition. It’s just what downtown Stockton doesn’t need — another boarded up and abandoned multi-story building.
That said, the real charm of the new courthouse is the 12th floor. Instead of being stuffed in a windowless bunker in the basement as is the case with the existing courthouse, the jury processing and waiting room is in an expansive space with a nice view of parts of downtown Stockton that have changed for the better as well a panoramic view of the edge of the Delta.
It will provide jurors — especially those from outside of Stockton — with a sense that the city of 300,000 plus isn’t in the running to serve as the set for a sequel to Mad Max.

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