After businesses complained about loitering by both disruptive teens and transients on Elm Street, the situation has improved between Sacramento and School streets.
The teenagers moved on, but business owners say the transients remain, so the Lodi City Council unanimously took action Wednesday night to remove four of the eight benches on the street to see if that solves the problem completely.
"The only people who sit on these benches are the vagrants and the migrant workers, and they're here day in and day out," said Ronald Houck, owner of Studio 20 Art Gallery.
The number of police calls have gone down since the city had a meeting in April with property and business owners. The teens hanging out on the street also attended and apologized for their behavior.
"I know they were upset by the 'Nightmare on Elm Street' stigma. They felt their behavior was inappropriate. I would guess that maybe they didn't feel welcome there anymore," said Gary Benincasa, interim police chief.
He has concerns with moving the benches because he said the transients will probably move elsewhere in Downtown to other benches, or sit on the sidewalk.
Greg Soligan, owner of The Merlot, said he understands that people are concerned the transients will move, but the situation on Elm Street is frustrating.
"Why should we have 12 vagrants on Elm Street all the time, when we could share the vagrants with everyone? … We are trying to conduct business, make a profit and pay our taxes, why should we have all the vagrants?" Soligan said.
At the beginning of the meeting, Councilman Larry Hansen said he was not in favor of the benches being removed because he is afraid it would lead to all of the benches being removed Downtown. He said there are people with medical conditions who use the benches to rest during events.
But after hearing the argument from the merchants that no one is using the benches except the vagrants, he agreed with moving four of them.
Even though she hates the idea of taking out amenities, Councilwoman Susan Hitchcock said the city needs to make sure Downtown is a welcoming, inviting place.
"The economy is making things difficult enough without adding more injury in that area. … Ultimately, if we have to take out every bench to solve the problem, that might be the solution," she said.
But people sitting on the benches Tuesday afternoon were upset that the city would even consider taking them out.
Howard Goulet, who has lived in Lodi for 28 years and is homeless, was against moving the benches.
"(The teens are) either going to hang out here on the benches, or they'll hang out next to the wall. It's just a natural community thing that's going on. If you're kicked out of doors, where you going to go?" he said.
The council plans to monitor what happens when the benches are moved and directed staff to work with businesses to see if the situation improves.
Lodi Police Officer Ken Slater said he has talked with the people on the benches when he goes on bike patrols. There are eight main people who sit there, he said, and only one is homeless.
He does try to sneak up on the people who loiter on Elm Street to catch them doing something illegal, but he has only been successful twice out of about 50 times.
Councilman Bob Johnson questioned whether part of the problem is the liquor store on the corner because other businesses with alcohol licenses would not sell to the people who loiter around the store.
"With the inability to become heavy-handed because of individual's rights, is there a way to become heavy-handed with people who might be contributing to the problem?" Johnson said.
The sale of alcohol is one of the main concerns for Lee Chau, the head manager of Saigon Grill.
"The biggest problem I see for Lodi itself is that the kids actually use these guys to get cigarettes and alcohol," Chau said.
James Chacko, owner of Payless Market, said he turns away teens who try to buy alcohol without identification.
"I know some homeless people, they come buy for the minors but for them I have to give. … They have the right to buy," he said.
He is in favor of the city moving the benches because he does not want anyone to sit and drink near his store.
But there's at least one business owner who does not want to see the benches moved. June Atwood Aaker, of Abrahamson Printing, said she would like to see the city get back to its original plan for Downtown.
"I want them to close Elm Street down and make it a place for entertainment. I think if they have barricades up so traffic can't get through and events are hosted there, the problem with the benches could cure itself," she said.
Staff writers Jordan Guinn and Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato contributed to this story.