Ped Mall politics: Is anecdotal evidence enough to warrant an ordinance?

Ped Mall Politics
Officer David Schwindt chats with an individual on the Pedestrian Mill. — photo by John Miller

Additional reporting by John Miller

Something on the Ped Mall stinks. And no, it’s not hapless Iowa City residents sweating away in the oppressive heat. It’s the proposed ordinance championed by select downtown business owners, and at last tally, six of the city’s seven council members.

The ordinance, introduced in August, aims to restrict certain behaviors on the pedestrian mall. Its directives include limiting the times persons may lay down on benches, banning a horizontal pose of the same manner on planters and curtailing the amount of time individuals can can store personal items in public space.

Though the law would apply to all, it’s widely known that the ordinance is intended to target those who linger near the north edge of the Ped Mall.

Ped Mall Politics
Many transients have moved their gatherings closer to the corner of Dubuque and Washington Streets since construction began on Park@201. — photo by John Miller

It’s an issue that’s been brewing for years, and one that came to a head this summer as construction on the new Moen Group development, Park@201, reached its peak. The construction site has (by all accounts temporarily) blocked access to a group of benches in the Black Hawk Mini Park, where transients traditionally gathered. Since construction began, the aforementioned persons have moved their gathering closer to the corner of Dubuque and Washington Streets, one of the most heavily trafficked downtown intersactions.

The move of this largely homeless group has made them more easily visible to the general populace, and it seems that their presence makes some uncomfortable.

“A lot of people really find some of the actual homeless people they see in the Ped Mall intimidating, threatening, scary,” Iowa City Police Officer David Schwindt said. But, he noted, “[The homeless] really just want to be treated like average people. It’s just that aesthetic thing, that a lot of people would look at them and just think they’re dangerous based on their appearance.”

These words from Officer Schwindt came just days before the council first introduced the latest Ped Mall ordinance. Officer Schwindt talked about how he sees himself as more of an educator than an enforcer. He spoke about how he explains to the public—or more specifically, to those who come to him saying that panhandling ought to be outlawed entirely—that people have a right to free speech. He reiterated that lying on benches is legal in Iowa City, whether people like it or not, and it is not the responsibility of the police to tell them to move along. Nevertheless, the council’s new ordinance would require Officer Schwindt to alter much of this rhetoric.

Many of Iowa City’s more influential citizens are eager for this new ordinance. Business owners, city council members and Iowa City Downtown District representatives have spoken out against what they view as lewd, rude and sometimes destructive conduct by transient individuals.

In an Aug. 21 report from The Press Citizen city council member Connie Champion, whose daughter, Catherine Champion, owns a business on the Ped Mall, suggested threats to safety from the individuals that gather there.

“We do not allow our young girls to leave the store alone,” she said. “That’s how bad it is. They’re really nasty, very sexually suggestive. These are young college girls from small towns and they’re terrified.”

While these type of anecdotes should be taken seriously, it seems that for many proponents of the ordinance, the biggest problem with the bench-dwelling population is that they are aesthetically displeasing.

“A certain group of people have overtaken the set of benches at the Dubuque Street entrance to the ped-mall,” Iowa City Downtown District President Bill Nusser said. “I think that’s threatening to people. It’s unsightly.”

But not all downtown workers feel the same.

Jake Hansen, who manages a downtown establishment, the name of which he requested not be published, notes that a few of his customers have complained about those who loiter on the sidewalks, but says that for the most part, he and other nearby workers have had few problems with the more permanent Ped Mall population.

“It’s mostly an issue of non-paying patrons coming in to use the restrooms,” he explains.

Patrick Grim, who works just around the corner from Hansen, takes a similarly relaxed stance. Though he’s often on the job until the wee morning hours, he notes he has no qualms about his safety or that of those he serves.

“It’s consistently the same crowd,” he says of those who hang around the ped mall. “They keep to themselves.”

Ped Mall frequenter Tyrell Spitt has been no stranger to Iowa City streets for the past seven years. From what he’s observed, deviant behavior among the Ped Mall homeless has been limited to loitering, littering and an occasional argument between friends.

In fact, he notes that most of those who call the area between Washington and Burlington streets home are simply looking to socialize, and that they have an amicable relationship with patrolling police officers and pedestrians.

So what prompts a bevy of concerned citizens to draft and back restrictive directives that limit the freedoms of ordinary, albeit somewhat itinerant, individuals?

University of Iowa law professor Paul Gowder has a few ideas, and they don’t involve out of control crime.

It’s a problem of perception that he’s seen before, one he says amounts to a “denial of the fact that the homeless have just as much right as other citizens to occupy a public space.”

“There’s no evidence that I’ve seen that demonstrates having homeless people congregate in an area causes crime,” says Gowder. “We’re not talking about skid row in L.A. We’re talking 20 people, tops.”

Though the professor of constitutional law admits the proposed Iowa City ordinance seems like overkill, he cautions that council members and political opponents may know something we don’t. “We have to be open minded,” he says.

Acknowledging that many of the city council’s efforts to address the roots of homelessness and develop our city’s services are worthy of praise, at best this feels like a hasty response to temporarily close quarters, as caused by the downtown construction site. At worst, it feels like a baseless attempt to legislate the homeless out of downtown Iowa City.

Meanwhile, as Spitt notes, once citizens like himself are banned from the Ped Mall, they’ll have few places to dwell.

“We’ll move under the bridges,” he says. “And then … who knows?”

Amy Mattson is a freelance writer and editor with a penchant for travel. You can reach her at