Government

Do Iowa City Ped Mall benches discriminate against homeless?

City staff say new benches will open up seating options

New benches on the Pedestrian Mall have middle armrests as seen in Iowa City on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
New benches on the Pedestrian Mall have middle armrests as seen in Iowa City on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Benches meant to open up more seating options on Iowa City’s Pedestrian Mall may send another message to people who are facing homelessness.

As part of Iowa City’s two-year effort to update the underground utilities and streetscape look of the Ped Mall, the city installed new benches with armrest dividers in the middle, which make it difficult to lie down on the benches. The issue gained attention after a Catholic Worker House Facebook post.

“There is a concern about downtown Iowa City being a safe place for everyone to be,” said David Goodner, a leader in the organization, adding that “hostile architecture” for the homeless happens all across the country.

Goodner said he believed public policy should “always keep the poor in mind and always make sure the preferential option is there.”

“We were happy to start the conversation,” Goodner said.

The original post with photos of the benches asked “Do Iowa City’s new Ped Mall benches discriminate against the homeless?” It’s gotten 113 shares and 43 comments as of Friday afternoon.

The idea of the divided benches was to satisfy the public’s desire for more Ped Mall seating while adding fewer benches, said Scott Sovers, senior civil engineer for the city. He said it wasn’t intentional for the city to prevent people from sleeping on the benches and renderings were shown at public meetings before the work began.

“The way that we could (add more seating) was to provide a center armrest on the benches with the thought that folks are going to feel more comfortable sitting on a bench with a divider, that they feel comfortable sitting next to someone they’re maybe not with or a stranger,” Sovers said.

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A few of the older benches without a center armrest are still left on the College Street portion of the Ped Mall, from Clinton to Linn streets. Updating those to the new separated benches are part of the second phase of the work, which is scheduled to get underway in May.

Much of the project’s first phase on Dubuque Street from College to Washington streets has been completed. In the spring, crews will finish pouring the concrete foundation and placing brick pavers at Blackhawk Mini Park and a along the face of some buildings.

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

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