Officials with Lodi’s oldest and largest provider of youth sports say the Lodi Armory and neighboring Chapman Field is not the right location for the city’s preliminary plan to house the homeless.
In a Facebook announcement posted last Thursday afternoon, the Lodi Boosters of Boys and Girls Sports said while it was not insensitive to the plight of the city’s homeless population, its board of directors said it should not come at the cost of youth sports.
“By choosing this location, the city has clearly indicated that the kids in town are not a priority — and this is extremely troubling,” the organization posted. “Chapman and the Armory are essential facilities used (six) days a week during their respective seasons. Hundreds of kids use these for practices and games and losing them would have a far-reaching impact on our programs.”
City Manager Steve Schwabauer said the notion the city doesn’t care about Lodi youth was completely inaccurate and unwarranted, citing the $7 million allocated to Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services annually.
“That kind of hyperbole isn’t really helpful,” Schwabauer said Monday. “We are so way far ahead of anything happening. We are going to look at other resources. This is not the only one. And there is going to be a public conversation.”
The BOBS post was created after organization officials read News-Sentinel columnist Steve Mann’s recent article that said there are plans in the works to turn the Armory and Chapman Field, located at 333 N. Washington St., into a homeless shelter accommodating as many as 118 spaces and “a couple hundred” people.
Preliminary plans propose the Armory be turned into a commissary with an administration building behind it, while the field could accommodate 110 shelters and eight “tiny homes.”
The plan also calls for a community plaza, chapel, dog park, as well as three gathering areas, Mann reported.
In its post, BOBS suggested the yet-to-be designed Pixley Park as a better location for a homeless shelter.
Pixley Park, located off Beckman Road east of Highway 99, has been part of the city’s master plan for nearly three decades and has remained undeveloped since 1994. The city has been hoping to one day turn the land into a park with a softball complex.
“We implore city leaders to find an alternate solution and not eliminate vital services for our kids and the kids of future generations,” the BOBS said. “We would be more than happy to sit down with city leaders to try to come up with a long-term solution that would work in the best interest of everyone in Lodi.”
Schwabauer said Pixley Park is not an option, because it is a drainage basin for the city’s industrial area, and must remain as such.
He said people have also suggested building something at White Slough some five miles west of town. However, he said if anything is built, it needs to be near resources to help the homeless out of their situation, such as the Salvation Army or a rehabilitation center.
The Armory is currently the best option, Schwabauer said, because has existing infrastructure and amenities to provide the homeless with necessities in which to live.
“There is not a location in Lodi that isn’t within walking distance from a school or park, because schools and parks were built, they were peppered throughout the city to be close to homes,” he said. “There isn’t a location that isn’t going to draw anger or fear from people.”
Many parents who follow the BOBS Facebook page agreed with the organization that housing the homeless at the Armory, which is directly south of the Grape Bowl and close to the Grape Pavilion, was a bad idea.
“Last year was my daughter’s first year for softball,” Ashley Seibel commented. “One of the practices was held at Chapman field. About 20 (feet) down and on the side of the wall where (6-or-7-) year old girls were practicing, a homeless man was pleasuring himself under a blanket. They moved their practices to Emerson, which is basically a non exist field. That too had (five-to-eight) homeless 10 (feet) from where they practiced.”
Jeni Mackey said Lodi’s homeless problem is so bad because the city is “too kind and generous.” She said the city needed to get tougher on the homeless, and instead of building a shelter, perhaps build a rehabilitation center.
“We need to make our town less comfortable that's why they’re coming here,” she commented.
Mark Armstrong, manager of the Lodi Grape Festival, echoed the youth sports organization’s concerns. He said prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was hard trying to sell the Grape Festival to potential event organizers because of the large population of homeless already occupying Lawrence Park.
The park is located between the Grape Festival and the Armory, and has long been used by the city’s homeless as a living space.
“I think it’s a horrible place location for (the proposal),” he said. “I’m a youth sports guy, and putting (the project) right next to Zupo Field — if we ever get it back — is just a bad idea.”
Armstrong also suggested Pixley Park as a more suitable location for any kind of homeless housing project, as the property is currently not used, unlike the sports fields near the Armory, the Eagles Club and the American Legion Post 22.
“I’m fighting every day for the homeless to leave Lawrence Park, and if something is put at the Armory, it’s only going to get worse if they are allowed to stay there,” he said. “It’s right next door to three facilities, and if people are going to events at any of them, they’re going to be faced with the homeless walking up and down the street bothering them or trying to break into some cars.”
Earlier this year, the Armory was one of 19 state-owned properties in San Joaquin County that the California Department of General Services identified as a potential site that could serve as affordable housing or emergency shelters.
The Armory was removed from consideration earlier this year, and Schwabauer said all state-owned properties were nixed, most likely due to a shift in priorities when the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The Armory had also been considered by the Lodi Committee on Homelessness as a potential site for housing, but the idea has long been met with reservation not only by residents, but some of the coalition’s own members.
Built by the City of Lodi in the 1930s as a Federal Works Progress Administration project during the Great Depression, the Armory was purchased by the National Guard in 1950.
During its history, the Armory has hosted large public meetings, wedding receptions, family reunions and small conventions. High school football players and fans also held after-game dances there every Friday for nearly a decade.
The city entered into a joint-use agreement with the National Guard in 2000, which allowed the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department to remodel the armory’s main building and convert it into a gymnasium.
Last October, that joint-use agreement and lease came to an end after city officials said student and recreational activities were being disrupted by homeless individuals disturbing parents who dropped off their children.
Staff said the homeless were also banging on the armory doors during the classes and camps in attempts to enter the building almost every day.
Schwabauer said any project is several years away and would cost $10 million in resources to build, with another $5 million a year in operating costs — something the city doesn’t immediately have and would have to obtain through state and federal funding.
He added that staff and the council welcome any discussion with the community to find a solution with which everyone can agree upon.
“There is not a good (location) or a perfect one,” he said. “Every potential site will have flaws of some sort. This will be a painful process, but there has to be a staff-level process before there is a public process. But it is much too early to be deciding anything at this point.”