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Group asks Iowa City to remove ‘hostile’ new Ped Mall benches

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Mark Petterson (left) and Ethan Forsgren, members of a group organized by the Catholic Worker House, discuss Ped Mall bench design following a meeting with City Manager Geoff Fruin on Monday, Jan 7, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

A group demanding the removal and replacement of the new Ped Mall benches met with Iowa City Manager Geoff Fruin on Monday morning. Organized by Iowa City’s Catholic Worker House, the group believe the design of the new benches, which have armrests in the middle, are a form of hostile architecture, intended to stop people who are homeless from lying down to rest.

“We made our ask very clear — that we want all new benches taken out and replaced with the old benches,” Mark Petterson, who was part of the citizen’s group, told Little Village after the meeting.

A Nov. 23 post on the Catholic Worker’s Facebook page sparked a public debate over whether the new benches installed as part of the Ped Mall Improvement Project were an example of “hostile architecture,” the term for designs that discourage the homeless from using a public space.

Discouraging people from stretching out on Ped Mall benches wasn’t a consideration when the new design was selected, Iowa City Senior Civil Engineer Scott Sovers, who is overseeing the Ped Mall Improvement Project, told Little Village last month. And the issue never came up during the three public input sessions prior to the start of the project, all of which featured illustrations of the new benches, and all of which Little Village attended.

“By and large, the feedback we got was very positive on the benches we selected,” Sovers said. “There was never a time where anybody brought up concerns about the ability to lay down on the benches.”

The 85 benches that were in place when the project began, which only had armrests at each end, are being replaced by 70 new ones, all of which have armrests in the middle as well. The 47 shorter benches have a single armrest in the center, and 23 longer benches have two armrests, creating three sections for people to sit in.

Sovers explained the idea is that having an armrest in the middle creates separate spaces for people, and instead of ending up with one person per bench, two or three will sit comfortably — separately, but together.

“I find it more unfriendly with rails down the middle [of the benches],” said Ethan Forsgren, who volunteers with Catholic Worker House. “You can’t sit as a family, you have to split up the family in the pens between rail guards. You can’t comfortably read a book, if you want to turn sideways or stretch out.”

The design of new benches installed in the Ped Mall has drawn concern that they alienate the homeless. Monday, Jan 7, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Forsgren said that ultimately it was an issue of who has the right to use public spaces, and whether the reasons the city had for choosing the new bench designs were more important than “the discomfort of someone who is willingly choosing to sleep outside because that is the best option available to them.”

“I thanked them for their input and informed them that the City Council has already asked staff to develop cost estimates for changing a portion of the benches to a different style,” City Manager Fruin told Little Village in an email about the meeting.

Petterson said that according to informal calculations by his group, it would cost approximately $100,000 to replace all the new benches.

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“It’s an $8.1 million project, so that’s not a whole lot to do the right thing,” Petterson said. “The project is only halfway done. They could fix it.”

The benches will be discussed at the Jan. 22 city council meeting, and the Catholic Worker group will be holding a prayer vigil at City Hall prior to the meeting.

“We’re going to keep working,” Forsgren said. “We’re going to keep fighting to get all of those benches changed.”

A few of the traditional benches will remain near the Iowa City Public Library entrance. Monday, Jan 7, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village


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Comments:

  1. I have worked in downtown Iowa City over 40 years arriving between 6:30-7:00am- in all those years I have never seen more then 2 people sleeping on the benches. Most people that are sleeping outside in the downtown area sleep in protected doorways- just my observation over 40+ years. Keep a few of the older benches.

  2. A family with small children separated by arm rests? Remove the armrests.
    Larger people? Remove the armrests.
    Separating people? Remove the armrests.

  3. A family with small children separated by arm rests? Remove the armrests.
    Larger people? Remove the armrests.
    Separating people? Remove the armrests.

  4. To say that the reason the benches were never questioned because no one in the public meeting said anything about them seems like a hollow excuse/explanation. Most people attending such meetings aren’t attending them as advocates for the homeless or might not even notice such a detail. Sounds to me like a decision was made–it was about keeping people from sleeping, and the City managed to slip this “feature” in to the Ped Mall. Iowa City doesn’t have a huge homelessness problem but the City wants to move it away from downtown.

  5. How about a compromise where 25% of the benches are without center armrests? Perhaps all the benches do not need to be replaced. I rarely see *that* many people sleeping in City Plaza.

  6. this is what is wrong with america these days. these guys had 3 chances to bring this up before hand. I just don’t understand where this entitlement comes from. you miss 3 deadlines and now you just expect the city to pay over a 100k? I think its even more ridiculous the city is even entertaining the thought of doing it. pure madness. I agree with deb there too above. In addition to that. i have never seen a family of more than 2 sitting together. it’s usually mom or dad sitting and the kids running wild in the fountain or on the play equipment. I legit can not wrap my head around the stupidity of this debate.

  7. My only concern is that the new benches are ugly. The old ones had personality and flair in the iron work.

  8. Before caving into the pressures of a very small group of very loud individuals, I would encourage the City Council and/or City to donate what it would cost to replace the benches DIRECTLY to the Shelter House to address the homelessness situation. Crissy Canganelli, Director of Shelter House gave a very articulate speech at one of the recent council members stating this “bench dilemma” was totally taking the conversation off of the important work of the homeless situation in Iowa City. I have recently moved a short distance outside of downtown Iowa City, but had lived for years downtown. I can attest that there were VERY, VERY few persons who actually used the bences to lie down and sleep and/or rest. This is much ado about nothing.

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