Government

What it would cost to replace 'hostile' benches on Iowa City Ped Mall

Catholic Worker House argues armrests 'hostile' to homeless

Protesters this week bring attention to the new benches on the Iowa City Ped Mall, arguing the middle armrests prevent homeless people from sleeping on them. The city manager on Thursday provided the City Council with estimates of what it would cost to replace some or all of the benches. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Protesters this week bring attention to the new benches on the Iowa City Ped Mall, arguing the middle armrests prevent homeless people from sleeping on them. The city manager on Thursday provided the City Council with estimates of what it would cost to replace some or all of the benches. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — It would cost almost $150,000 to replace the new benches on the Iowa City Ped Mall with ones that are more conducive to the needs of homeless people who sleep on them.

The cost estimate was provided in a memo Thursday to Iowa City Council members from City Manager Geoff Fruin.

Fruin provided options, including replacing 10 percent of the benches for about $6,000 or about half of them for $21,000.

The new benches have armrests in the middle and are part of a two-year project to update and improve the Ped Mall.

Catholic Worker House leaders believe the new benches are a “hostile design” for people who may need to sleep on them and are advocating for their replacement.

David Goodner, co-founder of the Catholic Worker House, said his organization met with city officials earlier this week and told the city that replacing around 47 percent of the benches would be acceptable.

City representatives have said the middle armrests are meant to increase seating by making people feel more comfortable sitting next to a stranger.

In his memo to the council, Fruin estimated it would cost just over $21,000 to replace 15 existing benches and 18 of the benches to be installed next summer.

After the 47 percent mark, “the costs increase at a fast rate as the benches installed in phase I (installed in 2018) cannot be reused, and the city would incur the costs of purchasing more benches than needed for this specific project,” Fruin wrote.

The phase two benches haven’t been manufactured yet, and the city would need to negotiate a change order with the Ped Mall contractor, if the City Council decides on that route.

The bench designs were part of public meetings leading up to the Ped Mall reconstruction.

To call attention to the design, the Catholic Worker House held a “sleep-in” protest on the Ped Mall earlier this week. As part of the event, the organization handed out “wanted” posters of Fruin, with the question, “What would Jesus do, Geoff?”

Goodner said the fliers were made because he believes Fruin lied about the intentions of the armrests.

In a 2013 City Council work session, council members, including current Mayor Jim Throgmorton, and Fruin, then the assistant city manager, discussed benches with middle armrests as a way of deterring homeless people from sleeping on them.

“When you do something like that, it opens up the door (to) calling you out personally,” Goodner said.

The council likely will take up the issue in its Tuesday work session, which typically start at 5 p.m. in City Hall. The Catholic Worker House has scheduled a prayer vigil outside City Hall at 6:30.

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

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