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Sitting Is Anything But Pretty : Critics of Illegally Placed Bus Benches Cite Graffiti, Lost Fees

Times Staff Writer

Privately owned bus benches have been around for 40 years in the Los Angeles area. And they are getting on the nerves of more and more people.

There are well over 6,700 of the green benches with concrete legs on sidewalks and street corners across the city, and thousands more line bus routes in the county.

Such wooden benches, with signs hawking everything from hamburgers to real estate, long ago were banished in many major cities. But in the Los Angeles area, the benches have remained fixtures for bus riders and have become sitting targets for vandals.

To boot, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the benches have been plunked down illegally, costing the city and county of Los Angeles untold thousands of dollars. Owners are supposed to apply for permits before installing benches.

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Critics maintain that the windfall in uncollected fees could be used to hire more bench inspectors.

An informal survey of four Valley streets--Tampa Avenue, Lassen Street and Balboa and Ventura boulevards--showed that 37% of the benches were illegally placed. Those 146 benches would have generated $15,184 in initial fees. Hypothetically, if 37% of all city benches were illegal, the city could be owed at least $257,816.

The city requires a company to pay $104 for a permit and application each time it allows a bench to be placed on public property. The fees cover the cost of processing paper work and determining if the site will be acceptable. Benches are restricted to bus stops, and only two can be at each site. After the initial payment, the annual renewal is $9. In the county, the initial permit is $7 and $5 thereafter.

“If they were able to capture that money, then they would be able to afford more personnel to police the benches” contended Carolyn Loria, an aide to City Councilman Ernani Bernardi.

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A check of an RTD route in the Las Virgenes area also showed the county wasn’t aware of all the benches within its jurisdiction. Of 43 benches surveyed in the unincorporated portion of the short route, 34 had permits.

John Hodge--the county’s only bench inspector, who is in charge of about 4,000 benches--didn’t blink at the figures.

“I know I have problems. I’ve been down streets where I see four or five benches at a location where we only allow two,” said Hodge, head construction inspector in the county’s Department of Public Works.

“I don’t do a real good job on this. It’s not that I don’t want to. I don’t have

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Lack of Staff

The manpower problem isn’t as critical at Los Angeles City Hall, but officials say they would need another four inspectors and extra clerical help to get a handle on the problem. Twenty-three inspectors, assigned to different geographic areas, oversee bench placement as well as a variety of other duties.

“With so many street miles to oversee, it is a very time-consuming process,” said Jim Washington, a chief city inspector.

But city inspectors said the city would not receive a financial windfall from finding illegal benches. The $104 in fees, they explained, only covers the expenses of processing bench applications.

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Another frustration for city and county inspectors is that they lack the power to require private companies to keep benches free of spray paint.

A city survey last year found that 75% of about 1,675 benches picked at random were disfigured with graffiti. In some neighborhoods, gang members use the benches as storefronts to sell drugs--scrawling on them the prices and types of drugs for sale.

Proposing Changes

The graffiti problem has irritated police and community groups and has led to calls for reform by some San Fernando Valley city councilmen. Later this month, the city’s Public Works Department will present the city’s Board of Public Works with a list of proposed changes in regulating the benches.

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The city is exploring ways to obtain a share of the benches’ advertising proceeds and reduce graffiti simultaneously. One option is to raise the requirements for placing benches and maintaining them, as well as requiring the companies to share a portion of their ad profits.

Two other alternatives to be proposed are prohibiting bus benches in the city--covered bus shelters would be exempt--and replacing private benches with city-owned ones.

The covered bus shelters also are privately owned, but are more strictly regulated by the city. Under a contract agreement, the city receives a share of the advertising revenue for allowing the company, Shelter Media Associates, to place its metal and tinted glass structures across Los Angeles.

Forty years ago, there were lots of bench companies in the city. Only two remain, Norman Bench Advertising and Coast United Advertising, which was bought last September by a British firm.

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Graffiti Problem

Arlan Renfro, Coast United’s new president, acknowledges that the industry needs to clean up its act. Renfro said he took over a company that had 500 to 700 unlicensed benches in the city alone. He said 40% of its 4,400 benches in the city are scarred by graffiti.

In a “cleanup blitz,” the company has hired six more employees to maintain the benches and will coat every one with clear graffiti-resistant paint. “Our intention is to operate this 100% legally. . . . That’s the only way,” said Renfro, who noted that the company intends to seek permits for all illegally placed benches.

The other bench company owner, Norman Switzer of Norman Bench Advertising, did not return phone messages.

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Graffiti Busters

A group called the Sylmar Graffiti Busters has declared war on Norman Bench. For more than a year, the group has been scrubbing graffiti off bus benches owned by the company. After the group’s leaders started making inquiries, they discovered that only nine of 68 benches in Sylmar had permits, said Hannah Dyke, the organization’s president.

They alerted the city, which requested earlier this year that Norman remove the illegal benches. Since then, the company has pushed many of the benches back onto private property and in some cases, into planters or shrubs, said Charlotte Bedard, the other co-founder.


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