A backgrounder on public sitting in Morgantown.
Picture a downtown bench. A bench on a sidewalk. Maybe it sits in the midday shade of a tree—a place a person might stop to sip a coffee, chat on the phone with a friend, tie a shoe.
Such a simple pleasure, a bench.
It can also be very complicated.
If you’ve noticed a lack of benches in downtown Morgantown, that’s not an oversight. Talk about seating, it turns out, can quickly devolve to awkward conversations about panhandling and vagrancy. Downtown’s benchlessness is the result of years of pessimistic thinking on the parts of both city and county leadership—a defeatist response to issues cities everywhere face.
It’s been a foot-weary time in Morgantown, to be sure. But that’s about to change.
Visitors to the refreshed courthouse square, dedicated in May, enjoy the artful celebration of our history, our geography, and our veterans—all while standing. This was the design preference of the Monongalia County Commission.
“When I came on the commission, the commissioners were adamantly opposed to any sort of benches,” says Tom Bloom, elected to the commission in 2012. “I wanted benches. But the more I saw what they were talking about, I saw that they were correct.”
People who complain that there are no benches don’t know the whole story, Bloom says. “They don’t see the problems the benches cause at certain times of day. In the evenings, for example, workers in the courthouse would go out and be confronted and harassed on a daily basis by people hanging out in the square. It became a concern for safety when they were leaving work.”
Complaints about benches—loitering, harassment—are a symptom of a deep-seated problem, in Bloom’s mind. “The reason people think we have a lot of homeless, which we really don’t, is because there aren’t a lot of other people downtown at certain hours. We need to resolve the true thing that’s causing that impression, which is that we need more people downtown, especially 4 to 8 p.m.—we need shops, we need a grocery store, we need more events.”
Benches, Bloom says cheekily, are the last step. “If we had all these people coming downtown and didn’t have enough benches, that would be a good problem. Putting benches in now is ass-backwards.” The county commission updated the courthouse square for the safety and enjoyment of the public, but felt the time was not right to include benches. “We have spaces available if we want to add them at a later date.”
The county commission’s anti-bench sentiment is in line with some other cities’ struggles to minimize loitering and all that can come with it. Street seating has disappeared in recent years in parts of Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and other places, according to urban design news outlet CityLab.
Not everyone sees eliminating benches as the best approach.
“It sends a message of fear,” Ethan Kent, senior vice president of the nonprofit Project for Public Spaces, told CityLab last fall. The most effective way to deal with undesirable activity, Kent said, is to make a place friendlier and more inviting for everyone else. “The bench becomes the battle line, the turning point for cities either welcoming people or designing out of fear.”
It also becomes a gauge of a community’s attitudes: its tolerance for loitering and panhandling, which are completely legal, and its willingness to crack down on aggressive solicitation, which has been a fineable offense in Morgantown since 2012.
City leadership, for its part, is scooching over to Kent’s view.
“We’ve received numerous complaints from people who want to sit,” says longtime Morgantown City Council member Jenny Selin. “They want to sit for their lunch, watch people go by, feel at home in their downtown.”
A healthy downtown, she says, has lots of seating. “It’s considered welcoming and useful to have places to sit. The way you do that is to have lots of benches all over downtown, so whoever wants to sit downtown has a place. Seating for all.” Where the city has removed seating in the past—Wall Street between High and Spruce, for example—it was because it was poorly placed. “That bench was in an alley, and it was too tight when you had a bunch of people congregating around the bench. It made people who wanted to pass by there uncomfortable. Benches need to be placed carefully.”
Downtown benches are part of the “third place” in community building, says City Manager Paul Brake. “‘First place’ is our home, ‘second place’ is where we work, but ‘third place’ is places that we choose to visit, hang out, have that experienced connection with the community.” Benches contribute to that. And in Brake’s observation, a small amount of loitering doesn’t necessarily turn people off. “I was on vacation recently in Santa Monica, a beautiful suburb outside of Los Angeles. Lot of hustle and bustle and also vagrants and loitering. But it didn’t discourage anyone from being in the downtown area.”
While Bloom wants to see more kinds of businesses and activities downtown before the county would install benches, Selin thinks the many people who visit the downtown we have now would appreciate seating. “We have specialty stores, gift shops, clothing stores—we still have a lot of retail. We also have late-night bars and other venues, we have restaurants, we have significant offices, legal and other offices, and our court system and municipal system. And the library. And all of that brings a lot of people downtown who might want to sit and wait for an appointment or stop and eat an ice cream.”
While she acknowledges that the addition of a department store or a music or bookstore might draw a different set of shoppers and diners downtown at a different time of day, Brake says the developer behind any such enterprise would have to approach the city—the city doesn’t have a person whose job it is to recruit businesses.
What the city can do, he says, channeling Kent, is work to make the downtown welcoming. He notes the city’s recent upgrade to LED streetlights downtown and a facade improvement program on offer now in conjunction with Main Street Morgantown. He also mentions the tax credit city council passed last winter for anyone who would make an investment of $5 million or more—though many have noted that that would be an extraordinarily large investment for Morgantown.
And he cites benches.
Bolstered by positive experience with the bench-height walls included in the 2016 renovation of the Public Safety Building plaza—people sit on those all the time—the city applied for and received a grant from the AARP over the summer to place nine benches downtown. The benches the city had ordered at the time this publication went to print are up to eight feet long with armrests at the ends, for comfort, and central armrests to encourage sitting—not lying.
Selin expects that it may not go perfectly.
“There probably will be some issues where people congregate, like a large number of people in an area. There may be issues with aggressive panhandling. Some of that we can handle with policing, and some we’ll probably handle by moving benches. We’re going to have to figure out how to address those problems appropriately and separately, because each issue has its own set of solutions.”
The placement of the benches hadn’t yet been decided in September, according to city spokesman Andrew Stacy, but most would likely be placed on High Street with possibly at least one on Pleasant. They’re scheduled to be installed in December.
Written and photographed by Pam Kasey