The Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review wants the city’s Department of Parks & Recreation to re-consider a policy through which public chairs on the Downtown Mall are being replaced with backless metal benches.
Landscape architect Lawrence Halprin’s original design for the mall called for 150 public seats with wooden backs that could be moved.
“The theory was that, to make a great urban place, one of the things you need is lots of seating,” said BAR member Laura Knott. She said the board’s guidelines state that materials should be replaced as close to the original as possible.
Doug Ehman, manager of the parks division, said the chairs are being converted to benches out of public safety concerns and because the wooden material is prone to deterioration.
“We were looking for a unit that would operate not unlike a parking meter in that they would permit some-one to sit down, have some time to refresh themselves and then they would move along,” Ehman said.
In 2005, as the city was beginning to prepare to renovate the mall, it commissioned a study from the firm Wallace Roberts & Todd. The company suggested installing replacements that looked like the ones Halprin had recommended.
Charlottesville spent about $8.7 million in 2009 to renovate the mall and replace bricks first laid in 1976.
“At that time, as part of those renovations, about 30 single chairs with backs constructed of wood slats and metal were installed at various locations on the mall,” said Mary Joy Scala, the city’s historic-preservation planner.
“The chairs were fixed in place — whereas the original Halprin chairs were moveable — due to concerns regarding theft and placement in the fire lane,” she said.
The parks division removed chairs in Central Place in 2012 after some business owners complained about profanity, fighting and other incidents that they said were caused by people loitering there.
“Back in 2012 and 2013, there were nodes that had developed on the mall where people would come in and sit in those chairs not only all day but all night,” Ehman said. “We were beginning to have nodes where activi-ties and events were taking place that were of concern.”
At the same time, seats in front of City Hall were replaced with the backless benches.
“The BAR did not review this change,” Scala said. “At that time, sufficient backless benches were also pur-chased to replace all of the 2009 chairs.”
The Department of Parks & Recreation made a request to replace all the seats with backless benches, but this time checked in with the BAR for a recommendation.
“They are backless to discourage loitering. It is probably unrealistic to expect movable chairs again on the mall for various reasons,” Scala said.
Ehman said one advantage to the new design is that people can sit on them and face any direction.
Most of the seating on the mall is for cafes and restaurants that pay the city to rent space and reserve tables for customers.
Knott said the mall needs more public seats that can be used by anyone for free.
“The emergency situation that the [city] had to respond to, particularly around Central Place, is a problem,” Knott said, referring to the incidents of 2012, “but I think we can’t let that drive our decision about how these [benches] should be replaced.”
Other BAR members were supportive of her view.
“The chairs are occupied most of the time and people look very comfortable leaning back, reading a book or talking to a friend next to them,” said BAR member Carl Schwarz.
“I think it would be a shame to take away seating on the Downtown Mall in a way that people are meant to enjoy the mall without having to go to a restaurant and spend money,” said BAR member Stephen Balut.
BAR members said they wanted to see a map of existing seats before they could grant approval. They also want Ehman to research alternative seating with backs.
Ehman requested a deferral of the city’s application and said he would come back in the fall.
“I’m not necessarily opposed to more seating space going on the mall, but I just want to make sure it works,” Ehman said. “I don’t want to recreate the same issue we had before by inadvertently doing something which aesthetically might be wonderful but operationally is a nightmare.”