Disappearing downtown benches spark rumors in Columbia

nophillips@thestate.comAugust 22, 2013 

Carrie Hilton, Alan Smith and Caleb-Scott Cohoon had to find another shady spot to sit Wednesday in Boyd Plaza. Four park benches located in the plaza at the Columbia Museum of Art have been removed, causing for a shortage of seating in the park around lunch time.

TRACY GLANTZ — tglantz@thestate.com Buy Photo

— The message on Main Street, if park benches are any indication, is move along.

With the recent removal of a lone bench in front of Mast General Store and four other benches in Boyd Plaza in front of the Columbia Museum of Art, there are few places to sit along the downtown thoroughfare.

Stories about the disappearance of those benches are varied, especially in light of the city’s latest brouhaha over homelessness.

City Councilman Cameron Runyan said the benches had been removed to prevent homeless people from sitting down. He also said benches had been removed in the Vista for the same reason. That theory was shared Wednesday by several people who were smoking cigarettes or eating lunch in the plaza.

But a member of the Boyd Plaza Foundation said the four benches simply are being repaired. They will return, said George Bailey, a member of the foundation who strolled through the plaza on his lunch break. Boyd Plaza is a city park, but the foundation sponsors beautification projects such as landscaping and irrigation.

“The homeless are a concern in Boyd Plaza,” Bailey said. “But the benches weren’t removed so the homeless can’t sit down. It would deprive everyone else.”

The rumors over disappearing benches might have been triggered by the city’s most recent plan for dealing with homeless people.

Earlier this month, City Council approved a plan to divert homeless people from downtown to an around-the-clock shelter for seven months while city leaders and service providers work out a long-term solution. The plan, which was drawn up by Runyan, has led to threats of lawsuits from those who say the new plan violates civil rights. But supporters say Columbia needs to do something about the number of homeless people roaming downtown streets and disturbing businesses and residents.

It is true that there are few public places to sit along Main Street.

Two courtyards, including one at the corner of Lady and Main streets, never had benches. The plaza at the corner of Main and Gervais streets has seven benches with little shade in sight.

Joelle Ryan-Cook, the art museum’s deputy director, said the four Boyd Plaza benches were removed earlier this summer.

“They were disintegrating because the wood slats were 15 years old,” she said.

The old benches are in storage while the museum figures out the best, most cost-effective way to replace them, Ryan-Cook said. She also noted that four other benches remain on the opposite side of the plaza and there is seating in a small amphitheater and around the big fountain.

As for the Mast General Store bench, it was removed two or three months ago, said city spokeswoman Leisha Utsey.

Mast officials complained in July to city officials that homeless people were hurting downtown business. Efforts to reach the store’s general manager Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Matt Kennel, president of City Center Partnership, which manages a 36-block area of downtown, said the bench had been removed at Mast’s request.

That’s in keeping with a longstanding city policy, Kennel said. If a business wants a bench, it can request one or have one that already is installed removed.

“Benches are good things when they don’t cause problems,” Kennel said. “Benches are nice, but businesses staying in business are more important.”

As for benches in the Vista, Utsey said two had been removed so that bicycle racks could be installed. Otherwise, no one in the city’s parks and recreation or public works departments has been taking up benches around downtown, she said.

For the people who frequent Main Street everyday, several said Wednesday that bench removal would be a senseless strategy in dealing with the homeless.

“I don’t think that’s ever going to work,” said Johnnie Major, a barber who works on Blanding Street.

If the city doesn’t want homeless people begging or loitering, then put more police on the streets, he said.

“We have a police department,” Major said. “It’s called policing.”

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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