Government

14 of Iowa City's Ped Mall benches won't have armrests

Compromise addresses protest by homeless advocates

Protesters gather Jan. 14 to bring attention to the new benches on the Pedestrian Mall in Iowa City, saying the benches’ middle armrests are “hostlle” to homeless people who may want to sleep on them. The Iowa City Council on Tuesday decided 14 of the 70 new benches will be without middle armrests.  (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Protesters gather Jan. 14 to bring attention to the new benches on the Pedestrian Mall in Iowa City, saying the benches’ middle armrests are “hostlle” to homeless people who may want to sleep on them. The Iowa City Council on Tuesday decided 14 of the 70 new benches will be without middle armrests. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Fourteen of Iowa City’s new Pedestrian Mall benches will have no middle armrests, allowing people to recline on them.

The decision to have 20 percent of the Ped Mall’s benches without middle armrests followed protests by the Catholic Worker House, which said the new benches — with middle armrests — were hostile to the homeless population. The group organized a “sleep-in” on the benches in hopes of getting the council to reconsider the bench’s design.

Discussion at a City Council work session Tuesday evening showed a majority of the council members supported the Ped Mall design but were open to compromise.

“What I guess frustrates me a little bit with this is I think what has come up is a solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist,” council member Susan Mims said.

“You talk to our police that are down there, we basically have no homeless people sleeping down there,” she said. “ ... To be proud of having benches that they can sleep on, I’m not proud of that. I want to do a whole lot better for our homeless, and that’s what we are doing in this community.”

City representatives say the armrest dividers are meant to increase seating by helping people feel more comfortable sitting next to someone they don’t know.

“It has been framed as a homeless issue, and the way I view it is choice for everyone,” council member John Thomas said.

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“That’s the way we should be looking at the armrests,” he said. “It’s not simply the homeless who are impacted by the benches having a mid arm. ... This is a public space where we’re talking about everyone of all different sizes and ages.”

After the meeting, the Catholic Worker House released a statement saying the council voted for more “discrimination against poor and homeless people” with their directions to city staff Tuesday.

“Despite this disappointing action, we can celebrate a real victory today. Today is a victory thanks to the thousands of people who prayed and took action to stop hostile architecture,” the Rev. Guillermo Trevino said in the statement. “We forced them to change their plans and exposed the sometimes disingenuous and underhanded reality of local politics.”

Changing the style on 14 benches will likely cost the city $10,125.

City Manager Geoff Fruin last week outlined the cost of replacing the Ped Mall benches. To replace all of the 70 benches would have cost the city $150,000, or $21,000 to replace about half of them.

“We don’t need to think about it only literally, but it’s also a metaphor,” council member Rockne Cole said. “Our greatest fear is that downtown is becoming a gated community and we don’t want that. And we want to make sure that we demonstrate literally that everyone is welcome in our downtown.”

The Ped Mall is in the middle of a two-year, $8 million improvement of underground utilities and aboveground streetscape. Half of the mall was completed last summer, with the remainder scheduled for this coming summer.

The council on Tuesday directed city staff to save and reuse as many of the 17 old “benchmark” benches — the ones decorated by artists — as possible. It also directed a $10,000 donation be made to Shelter House’s homeless services.

City officials have questioned whether focusing on benches — rather than emphasizing other homeless services and resources, such as Shelter House’s low-barrier winter shelter and the county’s new Behavioral Health Urgent Care Center — is productive.

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Shelter House recently opened Cross Park Place, a 24-unit apartment building that provides low-barrier, affordable housing to those who are chronically homeless and frequent users of shelters, emergency rooms and jails.

l Comments: (319) 339-3172; maddy.arnold@thegazette.com

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