By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. May. 20, 2015

The date was August 17, 1999. On the City Council agenda was Review and Approval of the Preliminary Design of the Santa Monica Transit Mall project.

The ‘big picture’ decision that night was to formally commit to taking lanes out of traffic on Broadway and Santa Monica Bl., to create wider sidewalks (with cafe zones) and transit-priority lanes in their place. The Council also addressed street furniture – new bench seating in the ‘arbors’ where people would be waiting for the Big Blue Bus (BBB), and additional mixed seating elsewhere on the Transit Mall from Ocean Ave. to 5th St.

The preliminary designs contained contemporary wood slat chairs and benches with cast metal arms. The benches had the typical ‘anti-homeless’ dividers/armrests in the middle.

As a Councilmember, I proposed an amendment to remove the dividers, saying they were unfriendly and anti-social. There would be many individual chairs for people who wanted to sit alone. Therefore it made sense to keep the benches open ‘for the sake of romance’ and couples who wanted to sit close, and ‘for the comfort of people of all sizes, and their stuff.’

This amendment was not deemed friendly by the maker of the main motion, who asked that it be voted upon separately. First-year Councilmember Kevin McKeown seconded my amendment, saying he supported ‘romantic cuddling’; adding that since the approved design would apply city wide, it would also be better for the neighborhoods to have “the added comfort factor of no dividers for their stops.”

Mayor Pam O’Connor joined in support, stating she often takes the bus and sits on bus benches, and that the few existing benches with dividers were difficult to use when there were multiple people waiting. “Most of our benches are open and painted blue – simple benches,” she added, “and we haven’t had any trouble with that.”

Councilmember Ken Genser said he had not been aware these decisions would apply citywide, and did not feel ready to make that kind of decision, especially without seeing a life-sized model. City Staff replied they were planning on producing life-sized models of all proposed street furniture for public review (including the arbors themselves), before any final designs would be approved. The main motion was then amended to defer furniture design decisions until these models were produced.

When the matter came back to the City Council in January 2001, the staff recommendation – which the Council adopted 7-0 – had evolved to supporting open benches, with the flexibility to add dividers only if experience demonstrated it necessary.

Fast forward to our current community debate over bus stops and benches. The Bus Stop Improvement Project (BSIP) grew out of a lengthly process at the Council level between 2008 and 2013. New stops began being installed in 2014, and will continue until approximately 200 are completed by sometime in 2016.

The BSIP brings many new amenities, from real time signage, lighting, shade and recycling, to Americans for Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance.

But there has been a great deal of community opposition to the bus stop design – including because it eliminates bus benches entirely, replacing them with single person seats. In response, the BBB has made adjustments to seat design and placements, and added shade at low-volume bus stops. But it has not agreed to bring back back bus benches.

The BBB website states the inclusion of benches in the new design “was never in the plans nor was a requirement given to the BBB by the City Council nor stakeholders consulted”; and that the BBB and the Santa Monica Police Department received many complaints filed by riders and owners of businesses about “loitering on the benches.”

“As such,” the site continues, “BBB was assigned criteria for evaluating design proposals that included ‘imperviousness to loitering by non-riders and vandalism’, as difficult and uncomfortable as that may be to disclose. The [past] aluminum benches do not comport with the new design and its requirements.”

The problem with this explanation is that the public policy making body for the City is the City Council, and the City Council never ‘assigned’ such criteria to the BBB. Furthermore, “imperviousness to loitering’ was not discussed during Council meetings, nor was it part of any written or oral staff reports to the Council during that period.

Should it have been? If we are going to embed such ‘deterrence’ in our public spaces, shouldn’t this be openly debated and made as a conscious public policy choice, rather than by omission?

If so, what can we learn from more than a dozen years of open bus benches on the Transit Mall? With the large number of people using the bus – and with a similar demand for bus stop seating, few individuals monopolize the benches to the exclusion of transit riders. Elsewhere on the Transit Mall, some seating has been relocated a few feet because of its proximity to outdoor dining. But otherwise the combination of foot traffic, seating demand, and active management (on the Transit Mall and Promenade) has a moderating effect, and there has been no movement for dividers since the benches have been installed.

With this correlation, open benches could have been reasonably considered for the high- and medium-volume stops under the BSIP design. But the Council was never asked whether it wanted to explore addressing rider and business concerns without eliminating bus benches entirely.

The reality is that we are installing bus seats across Santa Monica that are uncomfortable and unsatisfactory to a large segment of our community.

Many criticize the BBB for not supporting simple, open benches so many of us find to be functional, practical, and economical. But the current BBB administration inherited the basic BSIP design from the previous BBB administration (part of a process that has also gone on for years too long, in part because the Council pursued a custom design, which then required even more time to find a company to a fabricate it at a reasonable cost.)

Under these circumstances, it’s not unreasonable that the BBB is trying to do the best it can with the design they inherited, rather than a major change at this point. That’s something more appropriate for Council to do, given that it was the Council that approved the ‘no-bench’ approach, even if only by omission.

Back in August 1999, there was also no mention in the staff report of the ‘deterrent’ intent behind the proposed bench dividers. It took a Councilmember to raise and challenge that – which ultimately led to much better public policy. But that didn’t happen this time. The anti-social premise was left unchallenged.

Neither this time did a Councilmember insist that there be physical models for the public to review – models which would have previewed the public backlash, and compelled a debate about benches and overall approach when it could have made a difference, before a design was approved and a construction contract awarded.

Where were these voices when they were needed?

Where was the wisdom that reminds us that in the attempt to exclude ‘others’, the ones we end up shortchanging are often ‘ourselves’?

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004). He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.

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