The Iowa City Council decided to alter the Ped Mall Improvement Plan to include benches with no center armrest, during its work session on Tuesday. Twenty percent of the 70 new benches, or a total of 14, will be without center armrests. The council also directed the city engineer’s office to determine how many of the existing painted benches, which have no center armrest, are structurally sound, so they can also be incorporated into the seating options on the Ped Mall after the improvement project is finished.
A report prepared by City Manager Geoff Fruin estimates the cost of substituting the benches with no center armrests for those the city has already contracted to purchase at slightly over $10,000. Along with the changes to the benches, the city council also voted to donate $10,000 to Shelter House, to help fund its services for the homeless.
The councils’ decision came two months after a Facebook post by Iowa City’s Catholic Worker House asking, “Do Iowa City’s new Ped Mall benches discriminate against the homeless?”
For the Catholic Worker House, the answer was a simple “yes.” Including center armrests on benches is a well-known style of “hostile architecture,” the term for designs that discourage the homeless from using a public space. Center armrests make it difficult or impossible to lay down or sleep.
Members of the Catholic Worker House demanded that all the new benches be removed and replaced, which the city estimated would cost $150,000. The Catholic Worker House’s position has received much support on social media.
City officials have said that preventing people from lying down on the benches was not discussed as part of the Ped Mall renovations. The three designs for the 70 new benches chosen as part of improvements to the Ped Mall were on display during the three public input sessions held prior to the start of the project.
“By and large, the feedback we got was very positive on the benches we selected,” Scott Sovers, the city civil engineer overseeing the project, told Little Village in December. “There was never a time where anybody brought up concerns about the ability to lay down on the benches.”
“I guess what frustrates me with this is I think what has come up is a solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist,” Councilor Susan Mims said during the Tuesday work session. “You talk to our police that are down there [on the Ped Mall], and we basically have no homeless people sleeping down there.”
Mims pointed to a letter the council received from Cady Gerlach at Shelter House, that offered some context for the city’s estimated bench replacement costs.
The $10,000 needed to replace 20 percent of the benches would pay for “rent and utilities in a four-bedroom home for six months for a family of seven,” Mims said, referencing the letter. “To me, that’s a whole lot better use of $10,000 than replacing a few benches that people are not even sleeping on.”
Councilor Rockne Cole raised the symbolic importance of making sure the benches appeared welcoming, regardless of how many people might sleep on them.
“I think there’s a fear that downtown is becoming a gated community, and we don’t want that,” Cole said. “We want to make sure that we demonstrate, literally, that everyone is welcome in our downtown.”
The center armrests on the benches had also received support from the public, as the public comments included in the city council information packet show. A Jan. 18 email from Dr. Susan Wall was typical. It concluded, “The arm rests on the benches are necessary for elderly and disabled to get up.”
“I think it’s really unfortunate this has become so focused on one part of the population [the homeless],” Councilor John Thomas, a retired landscape architect who used to design parks and public space, said. “This is a public space, where we’re talking about everyone — of all different sizes and ages, who need to be accommodated on the benches.”
Thomas favored replacing up to 30 percent of the benches, because he felt that center armrests might make it harder for families with small children to use the benches comfortably.
Only Mims and Bruce Teague opposed the council’s final decision regarding the benches. Both said they would prefer to see any additional money spent on programs for the homeless, instead of new benches.