By Michael Fitzgerald July 03, 2009 , Record Columnist

Crummy just doesn’t get any better than Mormon Slough. A dry riverbed snaking south of downtown Stockton, the slough is weedy, trash-strewn and crawling with shady characters.

Now the man who did the final design for Robert E. Burns Tower at University of the Pacific has drafted a plan to transform Mormon Slough into a forested and flowery river parkway.

Glen H. Mortensen, 85, a retired architect, is the latest to come up with a vision to green the slough, which he calls Stockton Aquatic Botanical Park.

“We took into account the awful scar we have running through the middle of the city,” Mortensen said, “and decided to do something about it.”

A scar it is. For sheer, bleak ugliness laced liberally with urban menace, Mormon Slough is tough to beat. As landscaping, it would be a perfect fit for people living in garbage dumps.

Yet though the slough traverses a redevelopment district and seems the essence of blight, the city has long neglected its improvement.

Before we go on, Mormon Slough’s history is worth mentioning. Yokuts spearfished there, though they were probably never foolish enough to live along its flood-prone banks.

Chinese immigrants built a fishing village on the slough. Delta barges transported cargo along it. Delta Pump, at 646 S. California St., still has sliding doors for cargo.

But Mormon Slough had a nasty habit of bursting its banks and flooding large swaths of the city. In 1911, waterlogged Stocktonians built the Diverting Canal. Mormon Slough went dry.

Mortensen spent two years walking the slough, taking pictures and evolving a design for a 23-block water park.

“It would make all the difference in the world,” said Mortensen, who redesigned Burns Tower when the original plan, calling for a stone tower, proved too expensive.

He also designed Pacific’s School of Pharmacy building.

His imaginative design starts with a waterfall and a boat pond at Wilson Way. It burbles west through a pine forest. It passes an amphitheater and botanical gardens before spilling into the Stockton Deep Water Channel.

Such an asset would improve property values, invigorate downtown, even draw tourists, Mortensen said.

“It ties the south side of the city to the rest of the town, because it’s not separated by industry,” he added.

Mortensen, being the vision guy, did no feasibility study. When I made a few inquiries, it rained no-can-dos. Just as it did in 1997, when Stockton Beautiful proposed a roughly similar idea.

Connie Cochran, city spokeswoman: “To develop it, whether as parkway or any other function, would take a number of years, millions of dollars, and the involvement of a myriad of local, state and federal agencies.”

Kevin Kauffman, general manager, Stockton East Water District: “There’s so many issues.”

Water’s scarce; upstream property owners have planted crops on the river bottom; they’re leery of trespassers, to name a few issues.

¬†Councilwoman Susan Eggman, whose district contains the slough: “The public is not going to like that we’re cutting police and spending money on Mormon Slough.”

Yes, about that. Mortensen’s timing couldn’t be worse. Given the Great Recession, he might as well have proposed building a ziggurat out of Coach purses.

“We can go after grants from the federal government,” Mortensen countered. “We can go after donations from local citizens, clubs, Stockton Beautiful, Kiwanis, Rotary if we can sell the idea.”

Obviously Mortensen’s proposal is a long shot. But that is not to say it can’t be done.

“Mr. Mortensen should contact our Redevelopment Department to present or discuss,” Cochran said by way of invitation.

In closing, I will point out that the city has closed down blighted hotels, pontificated about property maintenance and dispatched caffeinated code enforcers to slap residents with fines. Yet year after year it allows its own property to fester with disgraceful blight.

Mortensen has given his time and talents. He deserves credit for that.

Contact columnist Michael Fitzgerald at (209) 546-8270 or michaelf@recordnet.com

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