(Don’t) take a seat: Downtown Mall still lacks public benches

The Downtown Mall has hundreds of private seats owned by restaurants and cafés, but only 37 public seats. PC: John Robinson The Downtown Mall has hundreds of private seats owned by restaurants and cafés, but only 37 public seats. PC: John Robinson

Last year, the Seattle Department of Transportation installed 18 new bike racks on a stretch of pavement underneath Highway 99. However, the racks were not meant to provide more resources for cyclists—but to prevent the homeless people who had been camping there from coming back.

Seattle is just one of many cities known to use hostile, or “defensive,” architecture to deter “unwanted behavior,” such as loitering or sleeping in public spaces. Curved and slanted benches, street spikes and dividers, boulders and spikes under bridges, and benches with armrests—among other examples—have been spotted and posted on social media in cities across the country.

While city governments claim that such architecture is needed to maintain order and public safety, critics say it unfairly targets the homeless, preventing them from having places to rest.

In Charlottesville, this debate has lasted for years, specifically surrounding public seating on the Downtown Mall. In 2012, the North Downtown Residents Association released a report (endorsed by downtown businesses) claiming that the increasing amount of panhandlers and loiterers on the mall “yelling obscenities, verbally assaulting passersby, fighting, and engaging in other disturbing behavior” made mall employees and patrons feel unsafe and uncomfortable, The Daily Progress reported. The report recommended, among other things, that sitting and lying down be banned on the mall.

The same year, the city removed the fountain-side chairs in Central Place near Second Street, and replaced the seating in front of City Hall with backless benches, in an effort to prevent “disorderly conduct” on the mall. 

However, no bans on sitting or lying down were passed, and, as of today, “individuals who are residentially challenged or unsheltered” on the mall are not breaking the law, but “can be arrested for trespassing…if [they] are blocking entryways to businesses, or for aggressive soliciting, just to name a few examples,” says Charlottesville Police Department Public Information Officer Tyler Hawn.

Controversy arose again in 2016 when the Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review unanimously denied the Parks & Recreation Department’s request to replace all of the mall’s wooden chairs with backless metal benches to discourage loitering. BAR members believed the benches would be uncomfortable, and they’d prevent those who did not want—or have the means—to spend money at a business from fully enjoying the mall, dishonoring architect Lawrence Halprin’s intentions and design (which included 150 public chairs).

The city has since listened to mall patrons’ complaints that the backless benches in front of City Hall were not “human-friendly,” replacing them with the originally designed wooden chairs, says city Communications Director Brian Wheeler. But it has not added any more public seating to the mall, which, according to Wheeler, currently has 37 wooden chairs 

Stephen Hitchcock, executive director of The Haven, says the issue doesn’t feel as loaded as it did a few years ago.

“Obviously, you’re going to have people who have pretty strong opinions about folks who are holding signs on the mall, or asking for money, or sitting in front of the landmarks,” says Hitchcock. “But, I feel slightly encouraged, at least in contrast with what I hear happening around the country [with hostile architecture]…something that I feel is really important about the Downtown Mall is that it is one of the only places where the city sees itself, across race, class, gender, sexual orientation, you name it.” 

However, on January 4, Charlottesville resident and activist Matthew Gillikin revived the discussion surrounding mall seating on Twitter, pointing out the very few public chairs available, compared to the hundreds of private chairs owned by restaurants and cafés.

In response, someone else listed the fees the city charges each downtown business with outdoor seating: $125 annually, plus $5 per square foot—revenue generated from what is ostensibly public space.

The Center of Developing Entrepreneurs, currently under construction on the west end of the mall, could add more public space–plans call for an exterior courtyard and outdoor amphitheater for public and private events.

According to Wheeler, if the community wanted to add more wooden chairs to the mall, or even “a different type of bench that was much longer, [that] you could lay down on,” the proposal would have to approved by the BAR. 

The city would also have to allocate a significant amount of funding for the seating, says Wheeler. He estimates the wooden chairs on the mall cost $1,200 to $1,500 each, and says they are expensive to maintain.

And while the city wants to be “good stewards of the mall…the number one architectural change we can make for our homeless population is to give them an affordable home and economic opportunities,” says Wheeler. “We want to get people out of homelessness.”

 

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Kinda like the lack of public restrooms downtown… It’s really? simple people. If you didn’t come downtown to spend money DON”T GO DOWNTOWN!