It’s coming up on four years since the city of Merced removed several benches from Bob Hart Square to shoo away homeless people, and now the benches may be coming back.
First described as “an experiment,” the 10 or so benches placed around the square have been in storage since fall of 2014. Other benches remain along Main Street.
Called the “Mayor of Downtown” by more than one councilperson, Rick McMillion brings the benches up again to the council every other month or so. He spoke to them most recently about the benches on Tuesday during a town hall-style meeting at the Multicultural Arts Center.
“How long has this experiment got to go on?” the 70-year-old said on Wednesday.
McMillion, a radio engineer, said the benches would be useful during the popular Christmas and Veterans Day parades. “I’m a disabled Vietnam veteran. There’s not anywhere to sit down during the parade,” he said. “It should be an embarrassment for the city.”
During the town hall meeting this week, the City Council said they’ll consider bringing the benches back. “I was shocked,” he said. “Any other time I mention it, they seem like they don’t want to talk about it.”
The square is surrounded by businesses, including Five Ten Bistro, co-owned by Robert Matsuo. He said he has nothing against the benches. “There’s good people that want to sit on the benches,” he said.
The problem is they often attract homeless people and that can put a damper on the experience of visiting his restaurant. If the benches are policed properly, he said, that would be the best case scenario.
The restaurant’s other co-owner, Mark Pernell, said when the benches were there he saw homeless people in the square all day. “Same people. Same spot. All day,” he said.
The restaurant’s take on lunches has also grown by five times since the benches were moved, Pernell said.
The building that holds Five Ten and other businesses is owned by the Lorenzi family, according to E.J. Almo Lorenzi. He was skeptical of allowing benches without a promise from the city for a greater police presence, adding people are scared to visit downtown after dark.
Lorenzi, with the help of the city’s now-defunct Redevelopment Agency, was involved in developing the square, he said. Lorenzi feels for homeless people who truly need help, he said, but said others “beat the system” and can cause problems in the square.
“I would love to have park benches,” he said. “But, who takes over the deal is not the homeless but the guy who knows how to use the system.”
“One person destroys it for everyone else,” he said.
Businesses in the square, and other places in town, have complained in recent years about having to clean up human waste and garbage left by transients.
The first step is to get a good hold on why exactly the benches were removed, according to City Manager Steve Carrigan. The benches were taken out by his predecessor.
“(The benches) were a common thread at our first town hall,” Carrigan told the Sun-Star. “Another theme from the town hall was a stronger police presence downtown.”
If the council wants the benches back, they’ll probably need to be painted, he said, and will need an extra armrest in the middle to prevent people from sleeping on them. The city will also need to consider putting police on bicycles, and working with downtown businesses who could hire security, he said.
“We’re going to look at all of our options to make downtown a safer place,” he said.