12 seats under: Mall to get more benches

"You take your chances," says Buck Dorman, having nabbed a bench across from Timberlake's Drug Store for a leisurely read. "It can be very difficult to find a seat."

A recent scarcity in Downtown Mall benches gives "shop til you drop" a whole new meaning.

As witnessed on a recent midday, locals and tourists alike are hard pressed to find even one of the remaining 12 benches throughout the nine-block pedestrian stretch through downtown.

"Some have been stolen," says Dorman, "but City Council wouldn't do anything so practical as to anchor them." And, Dorman contends, vendors sometimes inhospitably occupy benches themselves.

As he waits to graduate this fall from UVA's program for working adult students, Dorman says he visits the Mall roughly twice a week to walk, people-watch, and read. He insists there used to be many more benches. He's right about that.

Despite rumored thievery of the 50- to 60-pound items, the current low count, according to Pat Plocek, division manager for Parks and Grounds, is due in part to a recent roundup of the Mall's original three-decades-old seats. "There were a total of 25-30 benches two weeks ago, when the refurbishment program began," says Plocek. "Plus, we found about 12 more benches in storage."

The stored benches, removed several years ago to discourage vagrants, according to Plocek, have been ordered returned to service by new Parks and Recreation Director Mike Svetz, whose department began governing the Mall in April, as it had for many years before Public Works' approximately decade-long run. The restoration order, says Plocek, came in response to merchant requests.

Meanwhile, visitors search vainly, like expectant mom Charmaine Hlibok and friends. "They found it for me," Hlibok trills, patting her bench. She and her friends were on their maiden trip to Charlottesville from various Virginia and Maryland towns.

The city's immediate Mall plans also include the fresh coat of paint for all planters and posts applied earlier this month. As for the benches, they'll be disassembled, repaired, and repainted, small-batch assembly-line style for economy.

By mid-June, says Plocek, the acclaimed stretch of 120 shops and 30 restaurants should see as many as 42 benches back in place. Sounds like a lot compared to the current 12, but, as tourist Sue Kosiba notes (perched on the edge of a brick wall outside Foot Locker), "Even Barracks Road has more benches."

Indeed, with its 104 businesses, Barracks Road does offer no-obligation seating for around 80 (counting the al fresco tables at Chesapeake Bagel Bakery, reportedly available to everyone). Fashion Square Mall, which houses roughly 118 businesses, seats about 150. And topping the local list, albeit on the other side of the mountain, the Staunton Mall hosts a mere 58 businesses, yet offers an unbelievable 225 "free" spots.

"If I hadn't had my breakfast already, I may have paid to sit at a restaurant," says Kosiba. Employed by Village Outlets outdoor mall in Milford, Massachusetts, Kosiba says she's accustomed to benches every two storefronts.

While time will tell if Charlottesville's Downtown Mall will ever match such bench density, there is more– new– seating on the horizon. "The WRT plan calls for more," says Jim Tolbert, the city's top planner, "but no number has been decided yet."

A Philadelphia-based planning and design firm, Wallace, Roberts & Todd, as part of a multi-pronged overhaul of downtown, is planning the revitalization of the Mall's east end, including President's Plaza, which includes a 10,000-sq.-ft. transit center, visitors center, and updated amphitheater. The project also calls for the eventual upgrade of the entire Mall, including new lighting, trees, and trash receptacles.

And those new benches.

"We are working on a similar large-chair design," says WRT's Ignacio Bunster, "but more durable, with better wood and steel."

Patrons bide their time. Sprawled, grassy knoll-like, with young cousin Carmella Bickel on the bricks in front of Wachovia, UVA Health System student Melissa Mazzei says, "We don't really mind sitting on the ground."

But some do. They end up inside the chains surrounding herds of unused restaurant tables and chairs. Not recommended, says police Sgt. M. G. Davis. Seems that, even though the affiliated restaurant may be closed, owners don't always appreciate anyone dawdling in their leased space.

Think folding chair.

Pedestrians should soon be able to sit down and take notice of several dozen refurbished Mall benches.


Cousins Carmella Bickel and Melissa Mazzei make themselves comfortable, despite a lack of seats on the Mall.