CINCINNATI -- Thirty-four emails in just a matter of a few days flooded City Hall inboxes early last week, all concerning a single topic: Residents across the city are seeing benches -- specifically, their bus stop benches -- disappearing.
And they're not happy about it, for a wide range of reasons.
The benches' removal is part of a plan, approved in 2009 and initiated in 2013, to ban all advertising on city benches and begin removing them, as the city also has received multiple reports of benches aging and deteriorating, or creating an obstruction along the sidewalk.
The majority of last week's emails -- sent to Mayor John Cranley and members of City Council -- expressed concern that the benches' removal will have a disproportionately negative impact on young and elderly Cincinnati Metro bus riders and riders with disabilities.
Northside homeowner, Adonica Jones-Parks, for example, wrote, "This move indicates that the city is not concerned with ALL (people). A lot of citizens utilize the Metro... I don't ride the bus, but if I did, not having a place to sit would pose a problem because I am in a cast."
"Very concerned" Cincinnati resident, Allie Graff said she does ride the bus. She wrote to council: "I cannot explain to you how important adequate rest and shelter are for a human being in the 21st century... Benches, whether they have advertising or not, are a donation to all people, especially the weary, injured, old and young."
Mount Washington resident Christine Wands wrote to council about how bench removal could inhibit ridership and add congestion to city streets: "When it becomes inconvenient, or uncomfortable, to use public transportation, city streets become more clogged with traffic than before. Please do whatever it takes to restore benches at bus stops, with or without ads."
As it turns out, the city's relationship with its benches is... complicated.
Benches: Benefit or blight?
In response to the outcry, at the Oct. 19 council meeting, members approved 8-1 a motion that called for halting bench removal "until there is one legal replacement bench at each location," (but not without a colorful back-and-forth between Cranley and Councilman Chris Seelbach about who actually submitted the motion).
The motion stipulated that removal would continue for benches deemed "unsafe or non-ADA compliant."
Benches placed along city streets -- both those located near Metro bus stops or otherwise -- have posed an issue for the city for two decades now, when in 1996 the city reached an agreement with advertisers Bench Billboard Co., stipulating that the firm can install and maintain as many as two benches per bus stop, with advertisements affixed to them.
Fast-forward 10 years, city leaders reversed the ordinance allowing Bench Billboard the use of benches in the right-of-way to advertise, a move that was later blocked by a federal judge on First Amendment grounds. After all, Bench Billboard -- not the city -- paid for, owned and maintained the benches at no cost to taxpayers.
But in 2009, City Council approved an ordinance banning all advertising on benches located on city sidewalks, even at bus shelters -- an ordinance still in place today. The logic: The benches used for advertising were aging, obtrusive to pedestrian traffic and visually unappealing in numerous neighborhoods.
Enforcement began in 2013, when the city's Department of Transportation and Engineering began citing what were now illegal benches. Fifty-five benches in Westwood were among the first batch removed, according to an Oct. 18 memo from City Manager Harry Black. After the city removed eight more in Pleasant Ridge two years later -- and following a failed Bench Billboard lawsuit against the city -- the advertising firm voluntarily began removing benches from Westwood. DOTE also removed benches from Camp Washington, Mount Lookout and Clifton Heights in 2015 and 2016.
To date, 68 benches have been removed, in response to what Black called "persistent community-driven complaints," adding that "the majority of these benches were no longer usable." That's less than 10 percent of the total city benches, Black said.
Ads back on board for transit
And such was the landscape for Cincinnati's aging stock of benches, until April 2016, when council approved an ordinance that revised the city's municipal code, allowing for advertising on benches and shelters along Cincinnati Metro's bus routes and the Cincinnati streetcar route (a move that opened up new revenue streams for the controversial transit project).
Thus began the still in-progress discussion among lawmakers over how best to go about re-introducing advertising to transit benches all while managing bench removal and exploring how best to implement their replacements.
In other words, every moving part imaginable.
The language of the ordinance stipulates only transit agencies -- locally, that's the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, or SORTA, which operates Cincinnati Metro and oversees streetcar operations -- can manage transit shelter advertising.
But during last week's council meeting, Cranley expressed some worry over leaving the advertising in the transit authority's hands: "Do we want to give SORTA the authority to say where benches go? We don't want to wake up with 1,000 benches. This gives the agency the incentive to put out as many benches as possible."
It was a worry echoed by Councilman Kevin Flynn, who cited the concern when casting the one nay vote against the motion to halt existing bus bench removal.
But SORTA spokeswoman Sallie Hilvers said the agency's return to advertising on benches and shelters would allow the transit authority enhance city neighborhoods for Metro riders and the city at large without costing the taxpayer.
Avoiding the use of taxpayer dollars was a point Hilvers emphasized multiple times.
"There's no immediate plan to install new benches ourselves," Hilvers told WCPO. "What we are going to do is see if there are any vendors, most likely national, that would be interested in doing this with us.
"We see this as an opportunity to add an amenity to the city while also generating some revenue," she said. The transit authority oversees around 200 bus shelters in the city of Cincinnati, she said.
"Some of them are in really bad shape and need to be replaced," she said. "So we're eager for the opportunity to work out a way to do so."
Cincinnati Metro is facing a funding shortfall of roughly half a million dollars to date in 2016 alone. The agency has engaged in a number of outreach programs in efforts to address what they've identified as a looming $20 million total funding gap for the bus system.
Hilvers said the transit agency will have issued by the end of 2016 a request for proposals from vendors interested in helping launch SORTA back into the bench and shelter advertising games.
What will the new benches look like?
Hilvers said the transit authority hopes the selected vendor will install and maintain metal benches -- as opposed to the more easily degradable concrete and wood benches mostly seen around town -- that will contain one or two "modest" advertisements, in order to avoid the use of taxpayer money to fund their installation and maintenance.
"Ultimately, we have to run everything through the city," she said.
The transit authority reports roughly 17 million individual rides taken on Cincinnati Metro buses each year.