Summer 2002 – BHA protest sparks citywide objections

Bus benches are now a hot issue, literally and figuratively, after the BHA presented a special agenda item at the July 25th City of Miami Commission meeting. Bus benches manufactured similar to a skillet: black and metal. Bus benches with offensive, visually polluting advertising appendages that scream commercialism in the midst of a residential neighborhood. Bus benches that block sidewalks, impair visibility and seem to be going in wherever the most advertising can be sold.

They’ve made the front and editorial pages of The Herald, Channel 4’s evening news, and coverage in the Brickell Post. The outcry has, thankfully, spurred City of Miami Mayor Diaz to ask for a moratorium on the whole plan. (Click here for Mayor’s correspondence.)

Brickell homeowners made their case at the Commission meeting when neighbors voiced their objections to the bus bench advertising panels that have been installed along residential Brickell Avenue.

“In the past month, I have had more complaints from residents about this topic than any other,” BHA Secretary Mac Seligman told the Commission in his remarks, which Commissioner Johnny Winton echoed.

Homeowners find the large four-by-six-foot panels an affront not only to aesthetics, but also to pedestrians, joggers, cyclists and others using the sidewalks. One bench and panel in front of Brickell Townhouse blocks more than half the sidewalk. Questions were raised about safety, the panels’ compliance with American with Disabilities Act guidelines, and how blind people using canes could possibly anticipate and navigate the panels’ appendages, unexpectedly encountered in the pathway.

An Evening to Remember

As the discussion unfolded, most of the Commissioners agreed that the large advertising panels are unsightly for residential neighborhoods. But then other questions arose, and the debate was propelled to a very public spotlight.

Who is deciding the placement, installation timeline and district priorities? Commissioners asked. Commissioner Arthur Teele asked why the new benches were not yet installed in his district, which is comprised predominantly of low-income, transit-dependent residents who currently don’t have any benches for waiting.

Sarmiento Outdoor, the Latin America-based company awarded the contract for the new benches, was asked to produce a locator map and installation plan for the 1,500 benches planned throughout the City of Miami. Six hundred of that total were not to have advertising.

Brickell was to be one of three areas to get the noncommercial version of the new benches-sans ad panel-according to what BHA directors, Commissioner Johnny Winton and others at a January 10, 2002, Commission meeting heard and understood. But according to the official resolution language by City Attorney Alejandro Vilarello, there were only two excluded areas: Coconut Grove and the Upper East Side, even though Commissioner Winton said his intent and what he thought he proposed in the January resolution included residential Brickell as an excluded area. For some reason, the Commission seemed stymied on a way to rectify the situation to enact their true original intent.

Take a seat? No way! Residents rise up

Then the benches themselves came under fire when Commissioner Teele questioned the efficacy of metal benches in hot South Florida. Commissioner Teele, with transit credentials at the national level, asserted that cities choose materials other than metal for bus benches, and asked Sarmiento to name the cities for which they have created benches that use metal. Sarmiento’s surprising response was that this was the first time they are installing bus benches; their work in the past was limited to other kinds of street furniture, such as bus shelters, in Latin America.

To make matters more contentious, it turns out that one district, that of Commissioner Angel Gonzalez, will be getting 200 wooden benches instead of the metal ones. Commissioner Teele asked how that decision was made and by whom, but never really received an answer, although Commissioner Gonzalez said he would share the preferred wooden versions with Teele’s district.

After an hour of debate, further discussion on the matter was postponed until later in the evening when the Sarmiento representatives were to return with their city-wide bench locator map and installation plan. They never reappeared, so another meeting was scheduled for August 22.

In the days subsequent to the discussion on the metal construction, bus riders, commissioners and the Mayor have given the benches the seat test. Indeed, the benches are too hot to sit on to no one’s surprise (except apparently to Sarmiento).

BHA Saw It Coming

The Brickell Homeowners Association voiced its opinion at its Board meeting with city staffers, Sarmiento and its lawyers in January 2002, where the homeowners were clear that the commercial advertising would be very unwelcome in the Brickell residential corridor. BHA Directors thought their objections were just a restatement of what had already been agreed upon, as they were confident that residential Brickell had been excluded from the advertising version of the benches at the City Commission meeting a week earlier. But somehow “Brickell” never made it into the City’s official resolution language.

BHA passed its own resolution to again go on record with its opposition to the advertising panels. The resolution was shared with City Commissioners, City Manager Carlos Gimenez and Assistant City Manager Frank Rollason, as matter of course. (Click here for Resolution.) Soon after its passage, the benches began to appear in residential Brickell, complete with large panels with not so attractively designed ads.

Backlash Against the Advertisers?

The latest black mark in the bench debacle is just that, black marks. Graffiti has found new canvasses in the 24 square feet of surface space the advertising panels provide. Advertisers’ messages were obliterated by black paint on two of the panels in early August. But somehow, it didn’t seem like the work of typical taggers. There are no symbols or attempts at artistry in these select sprayings, making one speculate that it’s the work of frustrated residents rather than graffiti gangs. City officials removed the graffiti about a week after it appeared, on the second day of Herald headlines covering the topic again when City Manager Carlos Gimenez announced his resignation.

Frustrated by City officials who don’t protect the rights of homeowners, residents have rumbled about boycotting the advertisers as a way to send a strong message. The advertisers are primarily local businesses with which residents have no beef otherwise. It’s interesting to note that the record shows the advertisers were to be major, national companies bringing big bucks to the city according to what BHA Directors were told by city staffers and Sarmiento at the BHA Directors’ January meeting.

From BHA News, Summer 2002, Vol. XII, No. 2