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Steel benches coming to downtown Cedar Rapids

Wooden ones will be removed; fewer will be added back

Wooden benches in downtown Cedar Rapids will be replaced this year. The $100,000 project, funded by the self-supporting Downtown District, is expected to take place later this summer and early fall. The design matches benches planned for the Third Avenue Bridge to provide a consistent look and feel. (B.A. Morelli/The Gazette)
Wooden benches in downtown Cedar Rapids will be replaced this year. The $100,000 project, funded by the self-supporting Downtown District, is expected to take place later this summer and early fall. The design matches benches planned for the Third Avenue Bridge to provide a consistent look and feel. (B.A. Morelli/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Wooden benches along sidewalks and parks in downtown Cedar Rapids are set to be replaced, but only about half as many will be put back when the project is complete later this year.

Jesse Thoeming, executive director of the Downtown District, which is paying for the project, said only about 10 percent of the 150 benches in the district get used throughout the day, although the benches get higher use during events such as the farmers market.

“We’ll replace half of what we have now,” Thoeming said. “We just don’t need all of them.”

The project is the centerpiece of the downtown self-supported municipal district’s streetscape budget for 2019 with a goal for a substantial upgrade, he said. The 72-block district goes roughly from Eighth Avenue SE at the entry to the NewBo District to First Avenue SE and Third Street SW in Kingston Village to a jagged boundary between Fifth and Seventh streets SE on the east end.

“We wanted to do something with our streetscape budget that would have the biggest impact, and the benches rose to the top of the list,” he said.

The new benches will be a black powder-coated steel, which will be far easier to maintain than the existing wooden benches that must be re-stained twice a year, he said. They should be better able to handle harsh winters and dings from skateboarders, he said.

The $100,000 project is expected to take place later in the summer and early fall and phased in over a few weeks, he said. The design matches benches planned for the Third Avenue Bridge to provide consistency.

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Organizations have reached out about using the removed benches, Thoeming said. Some benches that have already been removed along the Fourth Street SE railroad corridor and the Cedar River walking path were due to nearby road construction and planned flood control construction, he said.

The benches will mostly be open, although a handful will have a removable center armrest for compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act, Thoeming said.

Cedar Rapids took notice of a “local lesson” from Iowa City in approaching the project, he said.

A replacement project in Iowa City last year sparked protest due to armrests in the middle of the new benches, which some called “hostile architecture” to homeless people and others who sleep on the benches.

Iowa City wound up replacing 20 percent of the 70 benches with ones without center armrests.

Some users of Cedar Rapids’ downtown benches said Wednesday they are looking forward to the changes.

“Sometimes people crowd the benches,” said Dennis Brown, 50, a regular visitor to the downtown area. “If you have something in between, you have your own personal space and you can avoid fights and chaos.”

Brown noted when it rains, the wooden benches absorb the water and can soak you long after the rain stops. But the powder coated steel simply can be brushed off. He said they will look nicer and last longer.

John Hall, 47, another regular, said he thinks reducing the number of benches is a response to people frequently sleeping on them — and he is in favor of that.

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Thoeming said the project is not intended as a deterrent to transients, but rather an attempt to improve the decor. He said project officials are still reviewing which ones will be eliminated.

l Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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