Although the Lodi City Council had made it clear two weeks ago that the 712 N. Sacramento St. property eyed for an access center would be purchased, several residents and business owners still voiced their opposition this week.
The council on Wednesday voted 3-1 to direct staff to purchase the property for not more than $2.2 million. The property, currently owned by Lague Family, LLC, and once home to Accurate Air Engineering, will be purchased using a portion of the $2.8 million in both capital outlay funds from San Joaquin County, as well as from American Rescue Plan Act funding.
“We had a robust discussion about this project during our last council meeting,” councilman Mikey Hothi said. “One thing I haven’t heard over the time we’ve discussed this is a better location. We always hear that the present location is bad. Is the location perfect? No. But given the ones that were on the table, it is the most suitable.”
Lodi resident Jeff Birch disagreed with Hothi’s assertion there were no other viable sites, stating the city-owned property on East Century Boulevard near Salas Park would be ideal because funds would not have to be used to purchase any land.
He added that the city could build a facility twice as large as what is proposed for Sacramento Street, and pull twice as many homeless individuals off the streets.
“(Salas Park) is a much better place, not to mention at Salas Park, the closest homes are 500 feet away,” he said. “On Sacramento Street, it’s literally across the street from residential homes, and in the vicinity of our downtown, which we’ve tried to build up the last two decades. So to say that there isn’t a better place that’s not only paid for, where we don’t have to throw down $2.2 million before we even start breaking ground, is ridiculous.”
Birch was one of about a dozen speakers Wednesday night urging the council to reconsider purchasing the Sacramento Street property.
Lance Pierovich owns property at 420 N. Sacramento St., and he worried about the future of the area if an access center was built there.
“I think this piece of property would be better suited to have a business in there that would actually produce revenues for the city of Lodi, versus drain the city of Lodi,” he said. “We’re trying to make Sacramento Street a more likable street. When I was a kid, Sacramento Street was kind of the dregs of Lodi. It’s 100 years old. I’d kind of like to see it be something one of these days. I think this type of project will just kind of drag the area down.”
Along with the Sacramento Street and Century Boulevard properties, the city had proposed a site it owns on Thurman Road in the industrial area as a third location for the access center earlier this year.
The three properties were the only three out of the 129 properties considered that met the project’s size minimum of 1.4 acres.
The city had 128 sites it owns that were considered, but only 47 met the minimum size requirements. Of those 47 properties, only 13 were not committed to future uses.
And of those 13, only five met the project’s minimum requirements for an access center which included close proximity to resources, necessities and public transportation. Three of those sites were eliminated due to environmental concerns, which included noise and proximity to waterways.
When it was determined Lodi Electric Utility planned to use the Thurman Road property to expand its facilities, the city considered property at Auto Center Drive and Pixley Parkway as a third option.
However, three council members on Sept. 15 said Century Boulevard and Auto Center Drive were not close enough to the necessities and resources those who would use the access would need.
Ultimately, the council majority determined Sacramento Street was the only suitable location.
Stefan Sekula owns a handful of businesses on Sacramento Street, and spearheaded a campaign in August to ask the council and city to reconsider placing the access center in the area.
He and wife Robin Knowlton were able to gather signatures from more than 40 business owners and residents opposing the Sacramento Street location.
“We have already absorbed two homeless facilities on North Sacramento Street and feel strongly that other areas of our community should shoulder this obligation,” he said Wednesday. “It was disconcerting to us that the other two sites were dismissed so easily, when all the arguments for rejecting them also apply to the North Sacramento Street location: proximity to residences, impact on neighboring businesses, increase in vandalism, litter, and crime.”
Sekula added that because Vice Mayor Mark Chandler has been forced to recuse himself from discussions regarding the location, the neighbors in the area have had no representation on the council during the site selection process. He added it “unfair at best and looks suspicious at worst.”
Chandler again on Wednesday recused himself due to a conflict of interest, as his father-in-law owns a business near the Sacramento Street location, and his wife is employed there.
Estate Crush owner Bob Colarossi said the access center plan was “narrowly drawn,” as well as drawn in a way that the only ideal place for the project is the Sacramento Street location.
He added that when new businesses plan on opening up shop in Lodi, the city sends out notices to the surrounding area. Colarossi said he never received any notice about the Sacramento Street proposal.
“Like any good business does, when you find yourself in a challenging situation, you look for alternatives,” he said. “My suggestion to the city is to think about splitting the tiny homes away from the access center and try to find land the city already owns, and use the grant money to try and build on it. I never heard that really discussed as an option. I know people looked at different locations for the tiny homes, but then it seemed like all of a sudden, this all got stuffed together in one big project and kind of railroaded through. That’s how this feels.”
Councilman Doug Kuehne said neither of the projects the city has developed to tackle the homeless situation in Lodi have been a “rush to judgment.”
He noted that last year, the council chambers were full of residents opposed to the proposal of placing the tiny homes project at Chapman Field on North Washington Street.
More than 100 letters were read, but the council listened to each one. Ultimately, the tiny homes were sited at the corner of Washington Street and Lodi Avenue.
In addition, according to News-Sentinel archives, the access center and its three proposed locations have been discussed since May.
“We’re trying to move forward,” Kuehne said. “We know it’s going to be a (not in my backyard) situation. The car dealerships, the restaurants, the hotel owners. They didn’t want it in their backyard either. Maybe we didn’t do a very good job reaching out to them. But we already have homeless downtown and we’d like to clear the streets, and our parks, and make Lodi safe again if we have some place to put them.”
City manager Steve Schwabauer said he has heard the concerns from citizens, and understood why they would not want the access center in their neighborhood.
But, he said, he has had strong feelings since the beginning of discussions earlier this year that wherever the facility ultimately ended, it would require the highest level of protection from the secondary effects of homelessness.
“I have heard the cries of people to get some relief from this,” he said. “That’s why we’re here and why I’m committed to anyone in the area, that we will keep a very high level of cleanliness in the area, and a very high focus from the police department to prevent camping in the area in the roughly five blocks around the center. If (the patrol area) needs to be bigger than that, then it will be bigger than that.”
Mayor Alan Nakanishi again cast the lone dissenting vote, citing the same reasons for opposing the project last month.
“The people and businesses in this district were strongly against this location during a town hall meeting,” he said. “I believe the council should have listened. I believe the city should look for city-owned property elsewhere, rather than buying land from a privately owned entity that potentially could bring business and property taxes into the city.”