The City of Stockton in June completed a brownfield reuse project that some people view as a milestone in the slow rebirth of the downtown of the San Joaquin County seat. After about six years of study, cleanup and construction, the city has opened a waterfront plaza that connects the two-year-old outdoor events center with a historic hotel that is scheduled to be refurbished. The park also provides the first link to the waterfront. "I think getting it done will have a huge psychological impact," said Stockton Housing and Redevelopment Director Steve Pinkerton. "Even though there was no wall there, it was just a huge separation between the downtown and the waterfront." "This is regarded widely as the catalyst project to bring our downtown back," said Tim Viall, executive director of the Downtown Stockton Alliance, a quasi-government business improvement district. The new park is also one of the few projects in California stemming from the federal Environmental Protection Agency's brownfield pilot project that has come to fruition. About 20 agencies in California have received pilot grants since the EPA began its Brownfields Action Agenda in 1995 to help communities reuse abandoned or under-used industrial and commercial sites. But few of those agencies have been able to complete all the steps necessary — including full assessment and a state-approved cleanup — to redevelop a contaminated site. In 1996, Stockton received a $200,000 brownfield pilot grant, shortly after the Urban Land Institute completed a waterfront plan for the city. The grant allowed the city's redevelopment agency to conduct "phase one" assessments of several brownfield sites. The city then focused its efforts on a sinking, fenced off parking lot next to the end of the shipping channel. A parking lot and gas station had been built on the site during the 1950s. Prior to that time, it was industrial land that had been used in the shipping industry for 100 years. (Located 80 miles east of San Francisco, Stockton originated as an off-loading point for gold miners, and a deep-water channel has long provided the city with a significant shipping industry.) Eventually, the gas station closed and the parking lot was fenced because the whole thing had been built on creosote piers and was slowing sinking, said Kitty Walker, brownfields project manager for the redevelopment agency. The city used the EPA pilot grant to complete a "phase two" assessment, which more fully identified the extent of contamination. After concluding that the contamination was an acceptable risk and becoming familiar with the state's Polanco Act, which would allow the city to pursue cleanup costs from past landowners, the city purchased the two-acre site in 1998. Later that same year, the city received $3.5 million in federal funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development — a $3 million economic development initiative loan and a $500,000 brownfield economic development grant. At the same time the city was lining up financing and working on detailed plans for the site, it was completing the cleanup process supervised by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control and the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. Actual remediation costs totaled only $100,000 even though the review process took several years — a sore point with city officials. The city broke ground on the waterfront square last fall and cut the ribbon on the $4 million park in late June. The site features a large fountain that connects to the channel, extensive landscaping, and a hardscape area. Space has been set aside for a seasonal ice rink – similar to the one in downtown Sacramento – and there is room for a restaurant to be built later. City officials plan to use the square for farmers' markets and civic events. "We're bringing the waterfront back into downtown," said Walker, who believes the district has "finally turned the corner." Thomas Mix, a brownfields coordinator for EPA Region 9, called the waterfront plaza one of the pilot program's highlights. Creating a public gathering place "works hand in hand with the overall goal of the brownfields program, which is about making the best of what you've got," he said. "It really was a visual blight, and it was a key part of their redevelopment area." Part of reason for Mix's excitement is his belief that the project will induce private investment in downtown – an opinion shared by many people. More than a stand-alone park, the waterfront plaza ties together a number of assets. The Weber Point Outdoor Events Center opened to significant opposition two years ago. The concept of spending $8 million on a large amphitheater in a gritty downtown that seemed to have more immediate needs was not universally popular. However, concerts and festivals soon began attracting thousands of people. "It's been better received than the business community thought it would be," said Viall, of the downtown alliance. Next up is renovation of the Stockton Hotel, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, to an office and retail building. The city plans to lease office space in the hotel when refurbishing is complete. Next door will be an 18-screen movie theater. Tying all of the projects together is the waterfront plaza. The city assembled the property for the cinema and sold it to a developer for $1 because city officials wanted a larger facility than the market would appear to justify, Pinkerton said. To protect the investment, the city implemented zoning that blocked new cinemas of six or more screens elsewhere in town. Like many cities, Stockton undertook numerous downtown planning efforts during the last four decades. And, also like many cities, the city implemented few of the ideas. But things have changed for the better during the last few years, at least partly because of City Council commitment to downtown. The new plaza has helped spur interest in additional downtown and waterfront-related construction. Developers from the Bay Area, who have traditionally ignored Stockton, have been purchasing property, Walker said. Since the downtown alliance was created 3 1/2 years ago, about 125 businesses have opened downtown - four times as many as have closed or moved, according to Viall. Approximately 800 white-collar workers, half in the private sector, have been added to the downtown professional work force of 19,000 people, he said. "A lot of things that people have been talking about for the past 20 to 25 years are starting to happen," Viall said. "We still have a long ways to go, but a lot has happened in the last two to three years that we could only dream of four years ago." Contacts: Steve Pinkerton and Kitty Walker, Stockton Redevelopment Agency, (209) 937-8811. Thomas Mix, Environmental Protection Agency, Region 9, (415) 744-2378. Tom Viall, Downtown Stockton Alliance, (209) 464-5246. City of Stockton website for waterfront square: