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Local business community weighs in on Downtown Mall seating

Debates about public seating on Charlottesville’s pedestrian Downtown Mall have gone on for as long as the mall has existed.

In April, the city’s Department of Parks & Recreation approached the Board of Architectural Review about replacing the mall’s remaining wooden chairs with backless benches.

When the BAR called for the preservation of plentiful free public seating and expressed a somewhat negative view of backless benches, parks division manager Doug Ehman decided to do further research and return in the fall with a proposal.

The city’s decision will have a clear impact on downtown businesses. On a daily basis many business owners and managers on the mall already deal with distinctions between public and private seating.

“They charge us. It’s not cheap, maintaining furniture and space,” said John Lapanta, owner of Baggby’s Gourmet Sandwiches. “We end up being the bad guy. Customers come in and say there’s no seating outside, and we have to tell people to move!”

The city charges restaurants $5 per square foot per year to have reserved outdoor café seating.

In Lapanta’s view, any increase in free seating would need to be done in a way that would not diminish the value of the space he pays the city to reserve.

“Elderly people need a place to take a breather,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with [free public] chairs, but not, for instance, tables and chairs.”

Splendora’s Gelato Café owner P.K. Ross shared concerns about frequent misuse of patio space. She suggested that limited free public seating leads non-customers into her reserved outdoor café.

“There seems to be this unspoken belief that if it’s not in use, anyone can sit here,” Ross said. “It’s mostly people who sit there and think they can have lunch.”

Rapture owner Mike Rodie was less concerned with the use of his space by downtown employees on lunch breaks or tired shoppers in need of a place to catch their breath.

For him, the problem is panhandlers and others he feels might bother or intimidate his clientele. “You hear these awful conversations,” said Rodie.

He approves of more public seating in concept, but worries about who would end up using it.

“I think we do need seating. I’m just not sure it can be done in a way that will fulfill the need,” Rodie said.

Bashir Khelafa, owner of Bashir’s Taverna, did not share those concerns about panhandlers or homeless people.

Khelafa said he believes it’s important to have plentiful seating, especially for older individuals who may need to stop and rest frequently. He advocates for a more watchful police presence on the mall instead of fewer or less-comfortable seats.

“It’s a matter of balance,” he said. “There are people who see a homeless guy and jump to conclusions, and then groups of ‘concerned citizens’ interfere. That’s the job of the police!”

Stuart Rifkin, owner of The Nook, called for more public seating and specifically referred to original designer Lawrence Halprin’s vision for the mall.

“It’s a public place, it’s an urban park! That’s what [Halprin] envisioned,” Rifkin said. “The comfort level doesn’t matter to me, though. A bench is as good as a chair.”

C’Ville Arts gallery co-op member Jacky Fields, on the other hand, said she feels strongly about comfortable seating.

“We need benches with backs,” Fields said. “Backless benches are very hard on older people in particular.”

The storefront of C’Ville Arts includes a colorful, tiled bench, and co-op administrator Amy Melville allows anyone to sit there.

She shared Khelafa’s disapproval of basing public seating decisions on a fear of potential misuse.

“I do not have a problem with our homeless people on the mall,” Melville said. “Until we have enough services for the homeless, I’d rather work with them.”

Overall, these members of the downtown business community expressed support for expanding the mall’s public seating. In terms of the debate over chairs vs. backless benches, people generally were either strongly in favor of comfortable seats or they were indifferent.

However, Catch the Chef’s Tyler Berry indicated a strong preference for less-comfortable benches designed to limit how long mall-goers sit in one spot.

“They need to do some kind of time limit per bench,” said Berry. “Maybe a bench without a back.”

While many restaurant owners are willing to let non-customers use their patios, virtually no one said that adding more seating would have a negative impact. Most stressed the importance of dealing with the underlying issues of homelessness and interaction between panhandlers and others on the mall.

“To me, currently, [people using our patio] is really a non-issue,” said Whiskey Jar manager Ross Schiller. “But the mall is great for people-watching, and so, personally, I feel there’s benefits to seating where you don’t have to pay.”