Plans to reutilize the US Army’s surplus property known as Schroeder Hall as a new eastside Long Beach Police substation have gained traction in recent months, despite the proposal still calling for a mentally-ill homeless treatment center to be placed near the site, which residents have fervently fought for years.
City management provided a status report Tuesday night to the Long Beach City Council on what has transpired over the last six years, leading up to recent developments, regarding the City’s ongoing bid to acquire the vacant property. City staff is expected to provide the public with a full written report on the status of the proposal.
The report comes after a closed session hearing took place on Oct. 2, when the City Council, in an 8-1 vote, directed City Manager Pat West to move forward with the transfer process and “reuse plan” that would turn the former Schroeder Hall Army Reserve Center, located at Grand Avenue and Willow Street, into a new eastside police substation. The substation would replace the existing dilapidated and overcrowded east division police substation currently located along Los Coyotes Diagonal.
Plans, however, also include a hotly contested proposal to use a one-acre property, adjacent to the Long Beach Health and Human Services Department, at Burnett Street and Grand Avenue, as a daytime mentally-ill homeless treatment center that would be operated by nonprofit Mental Health America (MHA). Under the 1987 McKinney Act and in accordance with the federal government’s Base Closure and Realignment (BRAC) Commission, the City is required to accommodate a homeless-services provider as a condition to acquiring the surplus property.
But, residents at the Oct. 23 City Council meeting expressed opposition to plans that would locate the MHA facility close to homes, fearing that many of the mentally-ill homeless would have no other option but to wander into neighborhoods and parks after the “drop in” treatment facility closes its doors.
“The kind of clients that they’re going to bring in there doesn’t work,” said Joe Sopo, a local real-estate agent and vice chairman of the community group Neighborhoods First. “These people are hidden under the freeways, they’re anti-social, they’re treatment-resistant, they hear voices, and they don’t take their medication.”
During the closed-session meeting last month, the City Council agreed to have city staff begin an environmental impact report (EIR) process, continue looking for other potential “alternate sites” for the homeless-services provider and prepare an initial list of “operating restrictions applicable to the MHA facility, no matter the ultimate location,” according to a city staff report.
West said he would provide the City Council with recommended restrictions, such as required hours of operation and how clients can be transported, for the MHA facility by mid-November. While MHA entered into a “legally binding” agreement with the City to provide a daytime treatment program, city staff confirmed that the agreement didn’t stipulate any restrictions that MHA would have to abide by. Therefore, the only recourse that the City would have if MHA didn’t follow the City’s yet-to-be-determined restrictions would be to relinquish the property back to the US Army Reserve.
The proposed Burnett Street location provides a 1.5-mile buffer to Stearns Park. But the proposed location is still several miles away from MHA’s multi-service center and other resources that the clients would need, said Barbara Shuler, a Grand Avenue resident. “I think this is ill-conceived, and we really need to do more to seriously find a site that is going to be convenient for them, so we can get the best, most optimum use of the resources that MHA is bringing to the city,” she said.
In response to residents’ concerns, West said city staff has worked with MHA representatives to find an alternate offsite location, which the City is permitted to do under the federal guidelines. However, he said, out of nearly 100 city-owned properties reviewed by city staff, none was determined to be suitable locations.
Sopo implied that MHA has been “too picky” in its selection of an offsite location. Some residents stated that a property on Santa Fe Avenue has been submitted, but it has yet to be considered. “You’re telling me, in a city as large as Long Beach, that we can’t find a location?” Sopo said. “It’s either you’re being hoodwinked or MHA is being too picky.”
West said city staff determined that many of the sites reviewed were found to be unsuitable because they were parks, interchanges, next door to a park or a school, not large enough or required zoning changes.
Although it was revealed that a site on Long Beach Boulevard would have been suitable since it was located near other homeless-services facilities, Bank of America had sold the property in a private sale. The new owner was willing to offer up the site if the City found another location for the company, either through offering city-owned property or purchasing some other property, but West said no suitable location was found for the property owner.
Asked whether MHA would be open to accepting “cash in lieu” of a site, West said the MHA board rejected the offer, stating that, “entitlements are more important.”
Fourth District Councilmember Patrick O’Donnell, who cast the lone dissenting vote against moving forward with the transfer process, said he continues to oppose any plan that would put the MHA facility at or near the Schroeder Hall property. “Where I fall on this issue is I don’t want it located at the designated site,” he said. “I want it somewhere else … I’ve been very clear on this from the start … we monetize it, we move it somewhere else, which we’re allowed to do, and that is my simple preference.”
Still, West said that, if the City doesn’t move forward with the transfer process, the US Army could start its own plans that may include putting a homeless-services provider on the property anyway. If the City Council fails to act soon, the City stands to lose $3.5 million in leftover redevelopment agency funds allocated for the police substation, he said. “Right now the US Army is telling us … they’ve waited long enough and they’re waiting for the City Council to take action on this,” West said. “They’ve stated that they will take the property back and do their own BRAC process and put their own homeless provider on this site.”
Fifth District Councilmember Gerrie Schipske said there is no time to “second-guess” city staff’s inability to find a suitable alternative location for MHA, adding that the only option at this point is to continue moving forward in a “transparent” process.