Northampton mayor orders benches back on Main Street



Last modified: Thursday, July 25, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — Following public outcry, Mayor David J. Narkewicz is having the Department of Public Works return the six benches that were removed from along Main Street last week to their original locations.

The mayor announced this decision Thursday morning on his Facebook page. He said he was persuaded to change course by public protest and people's reaction to the benches' removal.

"People of good will have weighed in with me on all sides of this complex issue and I appreciate the input I have received. This includes the leadership and members of our City Council, whose judgment and authority I hold in high regard," the mayor wrote. "The overwhelming sentiment I’ve heard is that we should put back the benches, but keep talking about this important issue for our downtown and community. I agree."

Narkewicz said the removal of 6 of the 16 benches was an experiment to test what role, if any, the benches play in regard to increasing complaints from people about aggressive panhandling.

"Legitimate concerns have been raised about the loss of downtown seating, particularly for the elderly and disabled, and the perception removing benches may create that Northampton is somehow less welcoming ... Equally legitimate concerns have been raised, however, that the long-term occupation of benches by a few renders them inaccessible to many and that activities on and around the benches have made our downtown feel less welcoming and safe," he wrote.

Narkewicz is hardly the first municipal leader to remove public benches to curb excessive loitering.

Plenty of cities and towns around the country have done the same to eliminate nuisance behaviors in public spaces, from Harvey Milk Plaza in San Francisco to Selby Five Points Park in downtown Sarasota, Fla.

Closer to home, consider Greenfield, where former Mayor Christine Forgey authorized the removal of several downtown benches during her first term in office seven years ago. Forgey weathered criticism at the time, but some of the benches have never been replaced.

“It was a hard call because there were lots of people who were saying ‘It’s the wrong the thing to do,’ and businesses who where saying ‘Thank you,’” Forgey recalled. “I do think it was effective.”

The move came as merchants were lodging complaints with City Hall about people monopolizing downtown benches, particularly near the intersection of Main and Federal streets. Panhandling, public intoxication, loitering, and use of offensive street language were among the issues cited by business owners.

“They felt like it was a detriment to their business, that it would deter people from going into their businesses,” Forgey said. “Quite honestly, there were issues and a lot of public nuisance calls to that area.”

Forgey said the removal of benches in Greenfield came as the city was attempting to revitalize its downtown. In her view, the nuisance behavior around the benches, while reflective of wider social problems, became unacceptable for the downtown.

“We did what we had to do,” Forgey said. “I would stand by my decision way back then given the context of the time.”

During the past year, Greenfield has been installing new benches in different locations downtown, such as the Town Common, under a new mayor.

Bill Baker, a business owner who for years sought the removal of benches in front of his Main Street store, Baker Office Supply, believes it is a “mistake” to reintroduce the public seating.

“It just breeds issues,” Baker said. “Since they’ve been removed, it’s been a nicer place.”

Baker once had two sets of back-to-back benches in front of his store near the common, which remains a bench-free section of Main Street. A hot-dog vendor now occupies space nearby with a table and a few chairs, making for a more amicable environment, he said.

“I’ve requested that they never be replaced,” he said of the benches.

Planning perspectives

According to some urban landscape experts, environmental modifications like removing public benches are one of many low-cost tools used to discourage loitering, panhandling and other behaviors that communities find a nuisance.

“It stands to reason that if you make places less comfortable to hang out, you’re going to dissuade people from being there,” said Nancy La Vigne, director of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center in Washington. “I think that removing the benches could well be effective, but it shouldn’t be done as the sole method.”

La Vigne, who has written on panhandling-prevention strategies, said a comprehensive approach is needed to eliminate aggressive panhandling and loitering, which can sometimes lead to crime. Educating the public fits into that equation, she said.

“They are certainly viewed as a public nuisance, but it starts with ‘Who are the panhandlers? Why are they there?’” La Vigne said.

La Vigne said municipalities must also consider what happens next. The removal of benches may be successful at eliminating panhandlers in one area but inadvertently redirect them to another.

“Will they take their panhandling activities with them?” she asked. “That’s open to question.”

Northampton City Planner Wayne M. Feiden said people generally like activity and want to be where the action is in a downtown, which is one reason benches become attractive destinations.

The city has tried, particularly along its rail trail system, to locate benches and granite-block seating areas in places where there is the least likelihood of conflict among people who live near and use the trails.

“My own feeling is, it’s legitimate to think about where benches should go,” he said.

Bench removal projects

As in Northampton, decisions to remove, relocate and reconfigure public benches have stirred significant public debate and backlash in other parts of the country.

In 2011, officials in Santa Barbara, Calif., toyed with a $50,000 plan that involved turning more than a dozen benches on busy State Street perpendicular to storefronts to make it harder for bench-sitters to panhandle. The plan was nixed after a public outcry, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

In November, benches were removed in Harvey Milk Plaza in San Francisco’s Castro District to prevent panhandling, public drunkenness and homeless people from sleeping there, according to published reports. The benches were installed only a few years earlier at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars and their removal drew criticism from homeless advocates and others.

The removal and relocation of benches has also occurred in business districts and public spaces in places like Columbia, Mo.; Charlottsville, Va.; and as far afield as Vancouver, British Columbia.

Officials in the Gulf Coast city of Sarasota, Fla., recently removed benches in Selby Five Points Park to deter loiterers and homeless people who officials, merchants and residents in nearby luxury condominiums said had monopolized the seating and essentially cut them off from public use.

“I believe the greater good of the city was held hostage by the homeless who were doing everything just short of lodging on these benches,” said former Mayor Suzanne Atwell, now a city commissioner. “They had a monopoly. They (the benches) were abused.”

Atwell recalled the harsh criticism commissioners took when they voted to remove the benches in 2011. The city saw protests in the park, not unlike the bench-removal protest in downtown Northampton last weekend.

But, she noted, life has changed “dramatically” around the park since the benches were eliminated.

“This was not about civil rights, it was about behavior,” said Atwell, whose father grew up in Northampton. “It was a small group of people who took it over. I found it intolerable.”

Atwell noted that in addition to removing benches, Sarasota has enacted anti-panhandling laws to prevent panhandlers from soliciting for cash in the middle of roads, among other measures.

In 2009, former Northampton Mayor Clare Higgins floated a solicitation ordinance co-sponsored by the city’s police chief that sought to regulate panhandling activities, but it was tabled indefinitely after a public outcry.

In Atwell’s view, while enacting panhandling laws is part of a larger work in progress, removing the benches in downtown Sarasota improved the quality of life for many in the city.

“It was a tough decision, but I think it was the right decision,” she said. “You have to do something. Somebody has to be brave and make a decision.”

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.




 


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