Union Roofing bench at East Girard Ave. and Palmer St with graffiti and a missing board. May, 2013.
Cheapo concrete and wood benches sporting curbside ads for plumbers, roofers, strip clubs, and hoagie shops are common sights on sidewalks from Point Breeze to Tacony, Northern Liberties to Kingsessing. You see them at lonely bus stops, outside of businesses, and dropped on odd patches of grass where no one would ever sit. Even though they’re illegal these “bandit benches,” like bandit signs (their smaller, insidious brethren), have been allowed to proliferate for years.
In May the Streets Department announced it would start a new campaign to rid city streets of these benches: Streets crews will round them up and owners will be fined $75 per bench, per citation. Some owners have already cleared their benches at their own expense. This month the city started actually collecting bandit benches, and has picked up 62 benches so far.
Bandit benches are typically made with concrete supports (sides/legs), lumber slat seats, and a bolted-on bench back advertisement.
While these benches provide a place to rest in parts of the city where street furniture is rare, they're seen by the city as a scourge of the street. City staffers I spoke with over the last year railed against these benches, saying that they blight neighborhoods and could jeopardize public safety.
Unlike official street furniture with ad space (like bus shelters), the city isn't regulating the construction or location of these benches. They also pollute the public environment with commercialism without the city collecting a dime of ad revenue in exchange. Hardly a fair bargain.
These "courtesy" benches (as their owners prefer to call them) aren’t about pedestrian comfort. They’re advertising vehicles, which helps explain why so many of these benches are located too close to curb lines or plopped in no-mans-lands along wide streets like Aramingo Avenue or Columbus Boulevard.
The majority of bandit benches I saw citywide bear ads for building trades, but I’ve also seen benches for The Penthouse Club, Frusco’s Steaks, and Big Brother Little Brother Moving, to name a few. Here's a sampling of benches I saw over the last year:
Interest piqued, I called two of the most visible advertisers on benches citywide, Buzz Duzz Plumbing and Union Roofing, last year to inquire about the construction of their benches and how they chose their locations.
A woman answering the Buzz Duzz’s office number explained that they ordered the bench-back ads from Aztec Signs in bulk. After assembling the benches, she said, Buzz himself would place them wherever he pleased.
The story was similar for Union Roofing, who also builds and drop benches on behalf of other companies. They pick up lumber at Home Depot for the slats, Bell Vault fabricates the concrete supports, and ads are ordered in bulk, said Union Roofing’s Kristen Hettich over the phone.
“We just pick anywhere that we know is a high traffic area,” Hettich said of their site selections, noting that the benches have been effective advertising. “Technically they are illegal,” she added, lowering her voice.
Nonetheless Hettich estimated that Union Roofing had more than 100 benches on the street, and said they had been installing benches for decades with little protest from the city.
In recent years more and more benches have cropped up on major corners and crept closer in toward Center City. In the last year I spotted benches on half of Washington Avenue's blocks west of Broad and at big intersections along Spring Garden Street, including one within sight of City Hall.
Pushed by the increasing boldness of these companies and a swell in neighborhood complaints, staff from the Law Department, Streets Department and Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities worked through the winter to understand the scope of the problem and developed a plan to curb bench blight.
“They didn’t try to get permits, pay license fees, pay the tax. It appears they didn’t even ask the abutting property owner for permission,” said Acting Streets Commissioner David Perri of the offenders. “They should be happy they got away with it for so long. In theory they owe the city a heck of a lot of money.”
In February the city sent notices of violation via certified mail to 19 companies, citing four sections of city code that relate to advertising and sidewalk right of way.
“It was all fine and dandy, but someone must have got a stick up their butt,” Hettich said not a bit indelicately when I called her last month to inquire about Union Roofing’s response to the city’s efforts to remove the benches. “We never heard anything until now.”
Buzz Duzz went into voluntary compliance quickly after the city’s letter. Why? The presence of their benches were jeopardizing a contract between Buzz Duzz and the city for sewer lateral replacements, Perri explained. A call requesting comment from Buzz Duzz on that subject was not returned.
Other companies were less eager to comply.
In March several companies, including Union Roofing, appealed the city’s violations before the Board of L&I Review. The city’s position was upheld and the companies were given 45 days to remove their benches. The city subsequently granted an extension of that deadline, hoping to incentivize companies to do their own roundup. That leeway, plus May’s rainy days, and the Memorial Day holiday gave companies even more time to comply.
Despite the tough talk about bench blight, the city's position has been tempered a bit by reality: Voluntary compliance is cheaper that sending streets crews out to cruise the city collecting several hundred benches. The latter is resource- and time-intensive. Plus, the fines are so small that they may not provide the city with great enforcement incentive.
But citations are an important tool in the city’s kit: They allow the city to monitor repeat offenders.
“Eventually if they become chronic violators then we have a case built for revocation of their business licenses,” Perri said. No license? No permits.
Starting this month, crews have made two sweeps: 28 benches were cleared in Northeast Philly two weeks ago – mostly beloinging to Union Roofing, though there were others advertising for Rocco Jujitsu, O’Donahue General Contractors and Chickie’s and Pete’s – and another 34 were collected last Thursday.
Confiscated benches are kept at a Streets Department Highway Yard and owners have 30 days to claim them, paying the fines and costs for storage and confiscation.
The Streets Department will ask the public to report the locations of new or overlooked benches once the city has completed a sweep of those on its inventory, removing any that remain. (Stay tuned.)
Sure they can be splintery pieces of junk marred with graffiti, cheapening our streets, but are bandit benches all bad? I confess, I have been thankful to rest on the occasional bandit bench while waiting for a bus. And I’m not the only one.
Don’t these benches actually point to the need for more street furniture in more places? And wouldn't that be an opportunity for the city to generate reveune?
“I think there is a demand for seating and there’s going to be an RFP for street furniture,” Perri said, acknowledging that advertising could become part of the design considerations. It's not unthinkable then for city-owned furniture to be part of a regulated muncipal advertising system, priced according to how many people might pass a given location. Sounds like a more sensible approach than wherever a roofer chooses to drop a bench off the back of a truck.
Ashley Hahn has written and edited Eyes on the Street since 2011. Since September 2015 she has served as PlanPhilly's managing editor. She has a special interest in preservation, neighborhoods, and all things public – from policy to art. She holds masters degrees in City and Regional Planning and Historic Preservation from PennDesign. Ashley has lived in 12 zip codes that she can think of, including neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, New York and Philadelphia. She is proud to call 19147 home.