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

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.

“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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