Column: Iowa City Ped Mall ordinance misses the mark

Suggested restrictions on Ped Mall use pretend to target annoying behaviors, but are aimed at homeless and other "undesirables"

So, if I’m reading this right, the time could be coming when Iowa City will charge me $65 to take a nap on the Pedestrian Mall.

Plus court fees, that’s probably double what they’d charge at one of the area’s more modest hotels — where I’d get the bonus of sheets and a shower.

But you’re right, I’m being silly. The chance that I would be cited under proposed ordinances being floated in this, the most recent battle against Undesirables being waged by some downtown interests, are pretty slim. And to me, that’s the most compelling reason to reject them.


The problem, as Iowa City Downtown District Executive Director Nancy Bird described it to me Friday, is that some people are making it difficult for others to enjoy downtown, especially this summer as construction projects are putting the squeeze on popular Ped Mall real estate. “We’re talking about people who spend a lot of time downtown on the Ped Mall,” she said. They carry big bags, block off entire benches, they destroy vegetation and clog the North entrance.

Some, but not all of the folks she’s describing, are homeless. Their presence on the Ped Mall is nothing new. In fact, you don’t have to dig too far in City Council history to find at least one “Ped Mall Rat” turned elected official. But let’s talk about today.

I’ve worked downtown for a decade, I told Bird. I was on the Ped Mall just a day before our phone conversation — and I don’t see the crisis. I’ve always found downtown a pleasant place, except maybe during Homecoming or right after the bars have closed. When is all this supposed to be happening, I asked. Are there different times of day or parts of the week when things go south?

“It’s one of those things, you might not notice just passing through,” she said. “A lot of this activity, it depends on when you’re down there, if you spend the day ... .” She said her merchants could tell you horror stories: Rude behavior, destruction of property, parents afraid of the example being set for their kids, and on and on.


The proposed solution: An ordinance with a half-dozen or more provisions, such as barring people from laying down on park benches between the hours of 5 a.m. and 10 p.m., and from sitting on or laying down on the large walled structures that hold Ped Mall greenery. Add to a 2010 ordinance passed that bans begging near buildings, ATMs and on much of the Ped Mall (itself a refinement of an earlier ban on “aggressive panhandling”), making it illegal to ask for money on sidewalks where parking meters are present, or on any of the three Ped Mall entrances. Outlaw shopping carts and personal items that take up more than four square feet and require people to stay within 20 feet of their property. Prohibit the use of public electrical outlets without explicit permission from the city.


If these sound like reasonable restrictions to you, I suggest you check your mental imagery. In your mind’s eye, who is plugged into that electrical outlet? A scruffy guy with a portable DVD player and a change of clothes in a plastic grocery bag? A young, hipsterish freelance writer? Who is asking for money? A mom caught without change for the meter? A kid on an errand? A Vietnam vet?

The proposed ordinance pretends to address annoying behaviors, but it seems clear to me that the real target is certain people.

The proposed ordinance pretends to address annoying behaviors, but it seems clear to me that the real target is certain people. People who are all-too-common scapegoats here, blamed for interfering with downtown commerce and the general image of the place. Blamed for making downtown seem “scary” to an unknown constituency, even though actual incidents, or even threats, of violence are rare. Bird insisted that I’m wrong in thinking so. That it’s just as wrong for a student to nap on a Ped Mall bench as it is for a person who literally has no place else to go. She said she expected the new ordinance, if adopted, to be enforced uniformly across the board.

“To paint this in a way that we’re going to come down and rattle people who look different is not true,” she said. “All of these things are common respect issues that we want everyone to follow. I don’t think this is a civil rights issue. I think this is about making sure everyone follows the same rules.”


Downtown business owner Kurt Michael Friese disagrees.

Friese, who owns Devotay on the city’s north side, also runs the kitchen over at Shelter House, where he’s built a “micro-apprenticeship” program where clients learn entry-level kitchen skills to help them get food service jobs and take a step toward stability. I wasn’t the first to ask for his thoughts on the ordinance, so he drafted a formal reply on his blog. It’s thoughtful, and worth reading in its entirety (you can find it here:, but I’ll just highlight a few parts here:

“There are many misinformed people who believe that the ten or twenty ‘homeless’ citizens that frequently loiter on the Ped Mall are just lazy bums,” Friese wrote. “It’s an easy conclusion to come to if you are the tireless self-employed shopkeeper working 90 hours a week to keep your business afloat in tenuous times while a vagrant snoozes on a bench outside your window. But when you look past the symptoms and focus on causes, the solutions become more complicated than passing rules that ban sleeping in flower beds or pushing shopping carts past the splash pad. Those are mere Band-Aid solutions, and treating a symptom that way may hide it, but it won’t cure it.”

“What’s needed, more than anything, is for all of us to wake up to the realities of mental illness and its all-too-frequent partner, substance abuse,” he wrote.

“Even still, this only addresses part of the problem. ... Shelter House is full almost every night. We turned away, on average, about twenty people each night last month, and that was during the good weather. In the winter you can imagine how hard it is for our staff to turn a family with kids back out into the cold.”

Much more than nuisances, inconveniences, rude and crude behaviors, this is what City Councilors should talk about when proposed ordinance changes come before them on Tuesday.

The behaviors targeted by this ordinance aren’t the problem, they’re a mirror. Instead of sacrificing public use of public space as a roundabout “solution” to the aesthetic problems presented by this segment of our population, why not talk about the real problem, itself?

Comments: (319) 339-3154; jennifer.hemmingsen@sourcemedia.netGoogle

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