As the weather heats up, so does a contentious Charlottesville issue—the presence of panhandlers and loiterers on the Downtown Mall. In response to complaints from business owners, the City of Charlottesville made an effort to break up a regular crowd that frequently occupies Central Place near Second Street by quietly taking away several fountain-side benches. The move has irritated some, but others say it doesn’t go far enough.
Zocalo owner Andrew Silver was the first to speak at the June 18 City Council meeting, describing the activity going on outside his restaurant: profanity, fighting, spitting, littering, even drug dealing and prostitution, all of which were making employees and customers uncomfortable.
Charlottesville Vice Mayor Kristin Szakos said the Mall is far from being perceived as a dangerous place, but a dangerous spot can grow if certain behaviors become the norm.
Councilors agreed with city staff that it was time to remove the benches, and Szakos said it was “painful to see them go,” but a necessary measure.
“As a community we have certain types of behavior we can expect,” Szakos said. “So we set expectations and figure out ways to make sure they’re met.”
City Manager Maurice Jones said pulling the benches was one step in the city’s efforts to curb disorderly conduct on the Mall. “We are currently working on a comprehensive plan with both short and long-term solutions.”
Jones did not specify details of long-term plans, but the short-term solution did not go unnoticed by the area’s regulars, who now hang out on the large concrete blocks at the top of the Central Place steps.
“I think it’s bullshit,” said a young man who goes by Black Gezez, gesturing toward the now benchless fountain area from his perch on one of the blocks. “It’s a public area, so we sit here. It’s like sitting at a park.”
Weston Taylor, who frequents the area with his friend who was convicted for gang activity, agreed.
“I don’t know why they did that,” he said. Taylor has been coming to the Downtown Mall for years, and said he’s seen it change over time.
“It’s not as welcoming as it used to be,” he said. He said the Downtown area should be a place for everyone, “even criminals,” but he has witnessed stereotyping and police bullying.
Joan Fenton, who has owned businesses on the Mall for 12 years, also noted changes Downtown, and said she has seen more problems over the past two years.
“We are at a tipping point where action has to be taken to keep it from going into decline,” she said.
A survey conducted by the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville revealed that a number of business owners and patrons are concerned and feel unsafe, and Fenton said she wants to see more police presence on the Mall.
“One, they cannot be omnipresent,” Jones said. “Two, some of the behaviors are not against the law, so they cannot cite or arrest someone who, for example, is simply being loud or inappropriate.”
City Police Chief Tim Longo has acknowledged the problem, and said he transferred theresponsibility from the department’s patrol bureau to the neighborhood bureau “to ensure more direct accountability for those resources and their management.”
Local attorney Jeff Fogel, who represented five people in a suit against the city in 2011 over regulations that aimed to restrict panhandling on the Mall, said the problem is overstated and the city’s response is inappropriate.
“I realize that some people may act in a way that’s disturbing to others on the Mall,” he said, “but to eliminate the few seats that exist is to say that only if you have money and will spend it do we want you on the mall.”