Benched: Asheville’s ‘hostile architecture’ and the fight over public space

by David Forbes June 23, 2014

Behind downtown’s shortened and disappearing benches is a struggle about the future of the city’s public space

By David Forbes

On Walnut Street, there exists a particularly odd bench, one that attracts comments from locals and tourists alike. It’s clearly supposed to be, well, a bench, but it’s far too short to comfortably sit on, especially with the brass artwork that takes up about half its space.

And that’s the point.

In 2013 a chunk of the bench was chopped off by the city of Asheville to keep transients and the homeless from congregating in the area, following a number of complaints from nearby business owners. It’s not a singular case, either. At the intersection of Walnut and Haywood, police reversed benches to make face-to-face interaction (particularly, they claimed, drug deals) more difficult. Over the years, benches have been removed from in front of the current Urban Outfitters site, from in front of Pack Library and from outside the Vanderbilt Apartments, in most cases to deal with what city officials said were serious problems with transients in those areas.

In recent weeks, such changes to public space  in cities around the world have received increasing attention. Dubbed “hostile architecture” by critical urbanists these design features — some subtle, some not — are intended to deter groups from congregating. Usually, they’re aimed at keeping transients or the homeless from staying or sleeping in an area, especially if the place caters to tourists. Extreme examples include spikes intended to prevent the homeless from laying down, or even to stop people from sitting at all.

Asheville doesn’t have anything nearly so draconian, but the shortened and disappeared benches are a sore point for critics who say the city’s approach makes public space far less public, especially for its less-powerful citizens.

While this year hasn’t seen any bench removals yet, the idea was raised in a discussion about the benches near Pack Square, and what to do about complaints from nearby business owners about everything from drug activity to buskers.

Complaints and decisions

Removing benches isn’t anything that usually comes up for a debate or vote in Asheville City Council chambers. Instead, it’s one of the many matters carried out by city staff, and in this case the process for deciding a bench’s fate is somewhat ad-hoc.

“We’ve not had one clear, single policy,” notes city planner Alan Glines, who serves as the main point person on downtown issues and deals with the bench removals. “Generally, we’ll look into things if a neighboring business has a complaint.”

The reasons for removing or changing the benches varied by individual case, but in general Glines says that homeless people or transients who gathered near them caused significant problems.

In the case of the benches at the intersection of Haywood and College Street, for example, “over time we found it was a gathering spot for people who would spend all day on the bench, bothering customers and littering.”

The benches at Haywood and Walnut were reversed after the management of nearby furniture store Mobilia complained and the APD believed the people gathering there were dealing drugs.

As for the famous shortened bench, Glines said that rather than removing the bench entirely, the city wanted to preserve the piece of public art, but that the crowd there was a major issue.

“The area became gathering place for transients, folks were feeling threatened,” he says. “The art was getting damaged as cigarettes were ground into it, there were beer cans crumpled behind it, business owners complained.”

So, when he gets a complaint, he and other staff consider the various factors at play before deciding whether or not to remove the bench. Usually, they’ll go to the Downtown Commission, an advisory board that plays a key role in shaping city policies about the area, and one dominated by business owners. While Glines emphasizes that the board doesn’t make the final call, its advice plays a major part in the process.

Then, staff make the decision about whether the bench stays or goes.

Glines notes that he’s generally reluctant to remove benches, but feels that if they get enough complaints and if the problems are severe enough, the city has to respond.

“The Public Works Department wants to put the benches out,” he says. “We don’t want to lose benches, but we also have to provide a safe and comfortable space.”

Last year, when the bench was shortened, city staff mentioned that the area would soon be redesigned, but that has yet to occur.

How it works

Emails obtained by the Asheville Blade give a recent example of this “balancing act;” how the city’s informal process for deciding to shift benches (or not) works and the attention given to the concerns of downtown business owners when they have an issue.

On April 25, John Fleer, owner of the recently-opened Rhubarb restaurant, emailed City Manager Gary Jackson, Vice Mayor Marc Hunt and Council member Jan Davis to tell them about a problem:

I had hoped to write a proactive letter expressing my willingness to think through the current situation and find good solutions .  Instead, today I find myself writing to you reacting to what has quickly become a very disturbing situation .  I have made three calls this week to the police to deal with drug addicts impacting my guests at Rhubarb.  On Easter morning, a man was passed out on the bench in front of Rhubarb while morning foot traffic was beginning and and happy busker was starting to entertain passers by and our brunch service was about to begin.    On Monday night,  I placed a call to the police department to  to come to the aid of a junkie who was nearly paralyzed between sitting and standing at one of the benches in front of Rhubarb around 10pm as several guests were leaving the restaurant.  And finally, last night with a full dining room of 100 people,  a man walked straight into the restaurant off the street asking for help, saying he thought he was “overdosing”.  We immediately called 911.  He quickly deteriorated as my dining room manager sat with him at the host stand of the restaurant.  Of course, many of our guests were within a few feet of this incident and the collection of emergency vehicles outside of the restaurant made for quite a spectacle for all both inside and outside of Rhubarb.  

He continued, adding that this problem was impacting his business:

I was excited about having a business right at the heartbeat of the city.  During the buildout I was appalled at how disrespectful people were of the space in front of the restaurant, including almost daily remnants of urination on the patio and of people having slept in the doorways.  I hoped and assumed this would end when the restaurant was open and the corner was alive again.  But sadly, that is not the case.  The details of our issues have changed, but the nature of the issue has not changed.  The area in front of Rhubarb, Noodle Shop and Posana is recognized as a vibrant place where performers and visitors and residents alike can participate in the vibrancy of the city, but it also is obviously understood to be a place where people with less noble and joyful motives can congregate without being bothered.  Yet, they are definitely “bothering” or more severely impacting the lives of visitors, residents, my staff and my guests.  

Fleer wrote that he didn’t feel he had a definite solution, and that the situation was complicated, noting that “I know that some have suggested that the benches in front of Rhubarb serve as an attractant to the unsavory side of the population.  That may or may not be the case, but I don’t believe the situation is that simple.”

Fleer didn’t call for the removal of the benches, but said Asheville might take a cue from some of the policing tactics implemented by New York mayor Rudy Giuliani during his reign in that city, because “His politics aside, what he did for the safe streets of New York has had an immeasurable impact on the perception and growth of the city worldwide.  And one of the prime elements of his solution was to put a police officer on every corner as a deterrent.” 

“I don’t think that extreme is necessary here in Asheville,” Fleer continued. “But I do think that a more proactive deterrent approach to the problem is critical at this point.”

He noted that in one particular case, customers at his restaurant left because their children were scared of a homeless man sitting on one of the benches and swearing.

“This family was from Chicago and actually lived in downtown Chicago,” Fleer wrote. “They said that an incident like they had experienced at Rhubarb would never have happened in Chicago.”

He concluded that if these issues weren’t solved, it could endanger downtown’s economic growth:

I know that Asheville also has a lot at stake with its perception as the next great southern city.  Over the last two decades, we have all watched Charleston‘s rise.  I am certain that Asheville is capable of that kind of reputation.  But that won’t happen if our visitors and residents, not to mention business owners,  feel threatened when they are downtown.  I love this city, its vibrancy and its diversity.  Those things do not have to come at the cost of having drug addicts and other menacing people roaming our streets.  

In this case, Glines notes that the benches near Pack Square have been there for nearly two decades, and complaints about the people using them — ranging from transients to buskers — have come up from other businesses in the area besides Rhubarb before. Some, he says, have even suggested their removal.

On May 6, Glines placed the issue before the Downtown Commission, writing them:

We have added a placeholder for Friday’s schedule for the Downtown Commission meeting which will begin at8:30 a.m. in the meeting room on the first floor of City Hall.  I understand from communication  sent to the City that you are having trouble with some folks who are in the area or using the benches including perhaps, buskers.  I can’t guarantee that the Downtown Commission will be ready to endorse any solution at this point but I wanted to bring the issue to their attention.  The Commission advises on policy regarding downtown matters.  I would hope you might attend. Thanks and feel free to phone me and discuss.

Glines also invited Fleer to come and talk about his situation. On May 9 the commission took up the issue, and — along with city staff and an APD representative — discussed removing the benches or changing them to make them harder to use for an extended period of time. The shortened bench on Walnut Street was touted as an example of one possible remedy, and even the idea of turning the area around the benches into private property — allowing for law enforcement to clear people out at a business owners’ behest — was broached. The minutes record the discussion as follows:

Urban Planner Alan Glines said that the owner of Rhubarb has expressed concern about the bench activity in front of his business on Pack Square.  If the benches were removed at some point, there is more seating in the area than on Pack Square by their business.  Hopefully there will be additional commercial use on the east side which might attract more pedestrians and more activity to the foundation and not rely just on that corner.

Councilman [Jan Davis] felt we would be premature in removing the benches because our visitors would like to have a place to sit; however, he would like to see an increase in uniformed police presence in that area to deter bad behavior on or around the benches.

Mr. [Dane Barrager] also noted that benches have been designed smaller and bench orientation has also been changed.

Mr. John Fleer, owner of Rhubarb, agreed that an increased police presence might be a deterrent to unsavory activity in that area.  He felt that 90% of the time visitors and residents enjoy the benches; however, the other 10% is offensive behavior.

Chairman [Bruce Hazzard, President/CEO Design Management] said that the Commission has looked at various alternatives to the bench at that location including moving the benches closer to the curb.

Ms. [Pam Myers, director of the Asheville Art Museum] agreed that there is a lot of activity on that corner and there is a vendor who has been permitted periodically on that corner.  She felt that bench has always been an issue.  She wondered a “perching” bench rather than a “sitting” bench might solve the problem.

Asheville Police Officer Boyd McCaskill, working in the Downtown Unit, said that he felt that changing the style of the benches would help immensely.  If a person is lying on the bench, they can ask them to leave.  On Walnut Street the bench was changed to ½ a bench and the numbers of calls were reduced.

There was discussion, initiated by Mr. [Dwight Butner, owner of Vincenzo’s Ristorante], about the owner asking that his easement footprint be enlarged to include the benches, which then they would be on private property and allow the Police stronger enforcement.

Mr. Fleer asked for the Commission’s support for an increased police presence at that corner.

Chairman Hazzard said that the Design Review Subcommittee will look at other bench styles for this corner.  In the meantime, he urged people to report any obnoxious/illegal/ aggressive behavior to the Police Department.

Councilman Davis said that the Police Department has adopted a new Downtown Enhancement Enforcement Plan and they will be enforcing bad behavior more than they have in the past.

In the end, Glines says city staff went with stepped-up police presence as the solution and, in this case, chose not to change or remove the benches. He notes that staff were reluctant to remove benches that had been there for so long, and ae also used by visitors and the elderly. However, he added that with improvements to Pack Square Park in recent years, and the addition of sitting space there, benches on downtown streets might not be as vital as they once were.

‘We see less and less public space’

Protesters outside Pack Library, 2008. Photo by Jen Bowen.

Protesters outside Pack Library picketing against bench removal, 2008. Photo by Jen Bowen.

Removing benches hasn’t gone without some opposition over the years. In 2008 a small group protested the removal of the Pack Square benches, and the city’s approach to dealing with the homeless in downtown in general was a target of criticism far more recently.

Amy Cantrell, a local activist and one of the founders of the BeLoved Community, an organization serving the poor and homeless downtown, is one of those critics. She says the steady decrease of public space through removing benches or making them harder to use is an example of cities — Asheville included — shoving their less-powerful populations to the margins.

“We’re not creating much actual space for people here,” Cantrell says. “Things like turning benches around is a quick way of saying people shouldn’t interact, it’s very anti-community to me, saying ‘you’re not to gather here, don’t even face each other.'”

The issue doesn’t just affect the homeless, she adds.

“It definitely sends a message that space for people, to the elderly or disabled, to folks that come downtown waiting on a bus to get home, to folks that just finished working. Even for our tourists this isn’t the kind of city you want to have; you want a city that’s walkable, you want a city that’s green and you want a city that’s conducive to folks sitting and enjoying the atmosphere.”

The current process, she says, is eating away at public space actually being public.

“We see less and less public space, and more and more space that was public no longer available to many people,” Cantrell says. “Hostile architecture’s an interesting term, because this really does pit people against each other.”

Instead, she’d like to see “city leaders think of all the citizenry, and how it’s going to affect them. Business owners should want our city more conducive to community as well.”

“What we’re saying is we want some people downtown and not others,” Cantrell says. “I’m worried this is just a way of re-segregating the city based on economics. I hope Asheville’s part of reversing that trend; we certainly have the imagination to do that.”

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