Fewer Northampton benches in effort to curb loitering

Last modified: Monday, June 24, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — Saying they are being used too much, the city removed six public benches on Main Street downtown for a trial period to see if their absence solves the problem of excessive loitering.

Mayor David J. Narkewicz said his office has received numerous complaints, particularly from the business community, that people occupy the benches for extended periods of time rather than for their planned, short-term use.

“The intended purpose of the benches is to add to the streetscape, but we have found that people have taken them over long-term,” Narkewicz said. “We’ve received a number of complaints, so we’re trying to take a look at this issue.”

In response, the city removed six of 16 public benches along some of the most congested areas of Main Street.

The benches removed include four on the south side of Main Street from Sweeties Fine Chocolate to Thornes Marketplace, and two on the north side of Main Street between Center and Masonic streets. At the request of the Department of Public Works, the downtown Business Improvement District removed the benches last Wednesday, moving them to spots near the downtown parking garage and in the area of the Round House parking lot.

Narkewicz said the trial will be evaluated over an undetermined period of time.

Ten benches remain on Main Street — in front of City Hall, at the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority bus stops in front of Pulaski Park and near Dunkin’ Donuts, and at the other end of Main Street in front of Fitzwilly’s and near the former Spoleto’s location at the corner of Main and Pleasant streets. The city did not include benches along Pleasant Street in its evaluation.

Narkewicz said there are a few private benches that will also remain in place, including the peacock bench in front of Skera Gallery and another on Crafts Avenue in front of Pizzeria Paradiso.

“We’re trying to maintain a certain number of benches downtown, but remove those that are creating problems,” Narkewicz said.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the decision is receiving mixed reviews.

Resident Kristin Racicot called the decision “stupid.”

She noticed the missing benches last weekend when she ventured downtown for a coffee and some “people-watching.”

“They’ve disappeared ... I’m so upset,” Racicot, of 34 Michelman Ave., said Monday. “The whole point of downtown Northampton is it’s accessible and walkable.”

Racicot said she is appalled that city officials would “punish the majority for minority complaints” about homeless people and panhandlers who use the benches.

Meanwhile, store managers along Main Street applauded the move. Some interviewed Tuesday said they appreciate that city leadership is trying to deal with a loitering issue they say interferes with their businesses.

Still, some interviewed also said they believe it’s unfortunate that the benches were removed, even if they see the need for such drastic action.

“It’s a shame, because Northampton is such a beautiful area,” said Andrew Fitzgerald, a manager at Synergy, a sportswear store on Main Street.

But even though it means tourists, shoppers and other pedestrians do not have access to as many benches while on the main commercial strip, he said, he is in favor of the decision.

“I think it’s a smart move,” he said.

Fitzgerald said “transients” who tend to gather around the benches have caused problems for his business. In addition to occasional thefts, his staff and customers have been verbally harassed by people gathered near the entrance to the store.

“We’ve had a lot of problems,” Fitzgerald said. “It creates a nasty environment.”

Fitzgerald said he wasn’t sure if discouraging loitering and panhandling was the city’s motivation for removing the benches, but welcomes that consequence.

Narkewicz said Monday he has met with officials from the BID and the Greater Northampton Area Chamber of Commerce in an effort to come up with a workable solution to the recurring problem.

Downtown ‘gauntlet’

Aggressive panhandling has been an issue for at least a decade and has gotten worse in recent years, said Bud Stockwell, who owns Cornucopia Foods downtown and is a member of the Chamber’s Downtown Business Committee. He and other business owners said customers don’t come downtown as often as they would like because they don’t want to “walk the gauntlet of people asking for money.”

“We realize that this is an issue that often stirs up emotions that all we’re trying to do is hide the poor,” Stockwell said. “That’s a very simplistic flash point where people get up in arms ... I think it’s a much more complex thing.”

Rather than hiding the poor, Stockwell said the business community is exploring a bevy of possible solutions that go beyond removing benches to include ways to offer additional support to social service agencies who work with the homeless and others in need.

He adds that the downtown business community is a “giving bunch” that donates money to a variety of agencies, and business leaders would like to come up with ways to educate the public about how to truly help people. Donating a dollar to a panhandler on Main Street might not be as effective as making a donation to ServiceNet or the Survival Center, he said.

Some ideas in the works include using old parking meters along Main Street as a donation spot for social service agencies, similar to the “Happy Frog” downtown. Another idea involves setting up a system in which people can use their cellphones to donate via text message.

“That way, people can still give and the money will more clearly be directed to an agency,” Stockwell said. “We’re hopeful we can make incremental progress of helping people and making downtown hospitable.”


Terri Pajak, a manager at Faces department store on Main Street, said she understands the desire to clear up some of the congestion on the city’s sidewalks, but worries that removing the benches penalizes visitors to downtown.

“What’s unfair is now they’re not there for people who just want to people-watch,” she said. “Part of the thrill of coming to Northampton is great shopping and great people-watching.”

Still, Pajak said she, too, has seen the benches abused; for example, one person was using one as a shelter for about a month.

A flower box was constructed in front of Faces in an effort to discourage loitering in front of the store, Pajak said.

Yolanda Cruz, manager at Shop Therapy on Main Street, was disappointed with the decision to remove the benches.

“It’s a bad idea. The benches are for people to sit, relax, eat their lunch,” she said. “It’s so peaceful.”

Cruz said she’d rather see loitering and other sidewalk nuisances handled by police asking violators to move along rather than have the public benches removed.

Lucas Humann, manager of Sweeties Fine Chocolate and Confection, said he didn’t even notice the benches’ absence until Sunday, four days after they were gone.

He said he hasn’t heard many complaints from customers about loitering or panhandling, noting most people take it in stride.

“It’s a fact of living here,” Humann said. “People ask for change.”

A Northampton street musician who performs under the name “Downtown Daniel” said a lot of people have been upset about the removal of the benches.

“The elderly, the handicapped, there’s no place for them to sit,” Daniel said.

Daniel said he was given the impression that the city opted to move the benches to other areas like Pulaski Park rather than purchase new benches for those spots.

However, he said many who used the benches to sit on and keep their possessions under while they panhandle feel the removal of the benches is a deliberate attempt to minimize their presence downtown.

One of those homeless, a woman named Sarah, who declined to give her last name, is a regular presence on Main Street, usually in front of the Haymarket Cafe. She said she noticed the benches were all gone by May 13.

A few days before they were removed entirely, she said, the benches were flipped to face the road.

People apparently frustrated by the change flipped the bench in front of the Haymarket back around to face the sidewalk, Sarah said.

Sounding out shoppers

The chamber is also preparing a survey of city residents in an effort to measure what they love about downtown and what barriers prevent them from visiting shops in the center of town more often.

Stockwell said the survey is being crafted by the chamber, city officials and others in an effort to make it as unbiased as possible. He anticipates the two areas that will get the most discussion are parking and panhandling.

“We want to hear what people think,” Stockwell said.

Molly Feinstein, co-owner of the GoBerry yogurt shop on Main Street, said she wasn’t upset to see the benches gone.

She said more often than not, the benches attracted very negative behavior. People would occupy them for inordinate amounts of time, be visibly drunk while sitting on them or would sometimes be very aggressive toward customers in asking for money, she said.

Feinstein said the issue is complicated because removing the benches to cut down on loitering may wind up inconveniencing the very people the downtown area is hoping to attract.

She said that if the removal of the benches proves to be too disruptive to downtown, the decision can be easily reversed.

“We’re only talking about six benches here,” Feinstein said. “They can be put back.”


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