Iowa City Ped Mall bench controversy heats up as temperatures dip

Demonstrators protested the benches with central armrests on the Ped Mall, and the discussion took up much of the city council meeting on Tuesday.


Ryan Adams

Father Guillermo Trevino addresses the bench vigil attendees Tuesday night at Iowa City City Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019.

Kate Pixley & Caleb McCullough, News Reporter

Nearly two dozen people clutching electronic candles stood in a semi-circle in the lobby of the Iowa City City Hall on Tuesday evening as the community protested the city’s Pedestrian Mall benches that are seen by some as discriminatory against the homeless population.

The vigil, which was organized by the Iowa City Catholic Worker House, was organized in protest of new benches on the Pedestrian Mall in Iowa City that include a metal center armrest. Following the vigil, conversation on the controversy caused city residents to spend 40 minutes discussing the issue.

Opponents argued these benches are discriminatory to the homeless population by preventing homeless people from sleeping on them.

The Catholic Worker House pointed to transcripts of two City Council meetings from 2013 as evidence that the benches were designed with malicious intent.

Mayor Jim Throgmorton on Tuesday said that the transcripts are not a reflection of the current council’s decision.

“That was six years ago, and the context was different from what it is today,” Throgmorton said at the opening of the council meeting.

RELATED: Protest sparked by Ped Mall benches 

The cost of replacing the park benches was outlined in a memo City Manager Geoff Fruin released on Jan. 17.

According to the memo, the cost to replace all of the benches in the Ped Mall would be $150,000. Replacing 47 percent of the benches would cost $21,000.

Fruin said the cost becomes much more expensive after 47 percent because the benches that have been put up cannot be sent back, so they must be repurposed or sold.

Donald Baxter attended the protest because of his frustration with how he said the city lied about the matter.

“My concern about all of this is that the City of Iowa City specifically intended to create a Ped Mall that was hostile for homeless people. They just slipped it through and lied about it. It’s incredibly disingenuous,” Baxter said.

Shivansh Ahuja
Benches are seen at the Ped Mall on Wednesday, November 28, 2018.

City Councilor Mazahir Salih attended the protest and delivered a response in which she thanked the participants for their involvement in city issues and urged them to advocate for affordable housing.

“Our people are not sleeping on the Ped Mall,” Salih said. “Help me to raise my voice.”

RELATED: Some accuse new Ped Mall benches of discriminating against homeless

Scott Sovers, project manager for the Ped Mall redesign, has previously denied any animosity toward the homeless population when designing the benches.

In an email to The Daily Iowan, Sovers pointed to the positive feedback his team received in regards to design of the new benches.

“During the planning phase of this project, we received consistent feedback that more seating areas were desired,” Sovers wrote. “Because we felt that there was not physically enough space to include additional benches, we were able to increase the effective seating opportunities by utilizing a style of bench that included a center arm rest.  People are more likely to share a bench with a stranger if a physical barrier exists.”

City councilors’ opinions were divided during a work session that focused partly on the controversial benches.

Mayor Jim Throgmorton advocated for a compromise that would include both benches with and without armrests on the Ped Mall.

“I think somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of all the benches should be without armrests in the center. That seems to me to be within the ballpark,” Throgmorton said.

City Councilors Susan Mims and Bruce Teague said during the work session that the Iowa City community should strive to find better solutions for homeless residents.

“To be proud of having benches that people can sleep on is not something that I am proud of,” Mims said.

Teague said he wanted the community to focus on the larger issue of homelessness in the future.

“I want to address the real issue, and so for me, supporting more money towards the benches is not what I want to do,” Teague said.

At the work session, the councilors informally voted on a solution to the issue. The councilors agreed to replaced 20 percent of the benches, a decision that is projected to cost $10,125. Additionally, the council plans to give $10,000 to the Shelter House.

“I don’t think we made a mistake,” Throgmorton said. “I think we have the opportunity to make a mid-course correction after having gotten some feedback from the public.”

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