The new benches in Rittenhouse Square are 2 feet longer than the old ones

The crowds that flock to Rittenhouse Square will find brand new benches lining the Center City park. They’re larger to account for the square’s growing popularity, per the group that paid for them, but still have a central armrest, a feature that’s been called out as “hostile architecture.”

People experiencing homelessness told Billy Penn they feel targeted, but designers and decision makers said keeping the middle bar was necessary to increase accessibility.

The nonprofit Friends of Rittenhouse Square, which maintains the park’s grounds, installed more than 160 of the new benches over May and June. June Armstrong, the friends group’s director of operations, said the middle armrest was put in place for added support for “folks who have mobility concerns or have trouble standing up from a seated position.”

Central bars were first installed as add-ons by the friends group in 2008, when former spokesperson Jennifer Reynolds said the goal of the centerpiece was “to discourage the use of the bench as a bed.”

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With the new design, the length of the benches expanded from 6 to 8 feet. The frame and armrests are now one continuous, welded-together piece of metal. They’re paid for by the friends group’s Adopt-a-Bench program, which is a major fundraiser for the organization and asks individuals to “sponsor” a bench for $10,000.

Outside Open Hearts Cafe — a twice-weekly free food and clothing handout run by the Church of the Holy Trinity on the northwest corner of the square — people experiencing homelessness struggled to justify the new furniture.

“Why spend the money on the new benches instead of helping people on the street?” said a person named Suzanne, who said she’s part of the homeless community and connected with people sleeping on the benches.

“The new benches suck,” said a person who goes by Redz, who said they sometimes sleep in the park. “They’re too close together and they put the middle bar so the homeless can’t sleep. If it’s $10,000 per bench, imagine what they could do for the homeless with that money.”

A person catches some rest on half of one of the new benches Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

Armstrong, who said she’s been working on the project for over two years, called the center armrests a “crucial design feature.”

“We’ve heard a lot of positive feedback from people who actually really appreciate that we added something for folks with mobility issues to utilize,” said Armstrong, who told Billy Penn she doesn’t believe the benches can be classified as hostile architecture. “It’s not my job to evaluate who is or who is not homeless in the park. It’s our job to provide a great park for all Philadelphians.”

Representatives from OLIN Studio, which designed the benches, echoed Armstrong’s mobility concerns, saying the benches’ 2-foot length increase put designers in a tough position.

“I resist doing that usually,” Laurie Olin, the project’s lead designer, told Billy Penn. “And we’ve resisted doing that on other projects successfully. But when an owner says ‘I must have it. All or nothing,’ you say well, ‘How do I do the best version of it?’ So that’s what we tried to do.”

Per the Office of Homelessness, about 5,700 people are considered to be experiencing homeless in Philadelphia, which includes 950 who are unsheltered. Shelters may not always be an option for people experiencing homelessness due to overcrowding or safety concerns, so people often opt to rest in public spaces like Rittenhouse Square. It’s not explicitly illegal to sleep in public parks, but park groups have been known to make doing so uncomfortable or nearly impossible.

“I’d heard terrible rumors about people sleeping with their shoes under their pillows at the shelters so that they wouldn’t get their shoes stolen,” said a person who asked to remain anonymous because they used to sleep in the park. “I preferred sleeping on the benches in the square. They were at least better than the ground because the rodents wouldn’t get you as much.”

Moving forward, the Friends of Rittenhouse plans to donate an undisclosed portion of the proceeds from its $1 million Ball on the Square fundraiser to the local housing nonprofit Project HOME.

The benches, however, will remain.

New benches in Rittenhouse Square Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY