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  1. Opinion

If Tampa's Lykes Gaslight Square has no benches, is it still a park?

Fiberglass planters remain in place at Lykes Gaslight Square Park, months after city workers removed all of its benches for refurbishing, there is still no sign of them returning. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jul. 11

This is going to be controversial, but here goes: City parks need benches. There, I said it.

But for months, a park in downtown Tampa — perfectly positioned near City Hall, the police station, a slew of restaurants and a bunch of tall offices — has been left without benches.

Which makes Lykes Gaslight Square Park a microcosm of cities across America, with their own stubbornly entrenched populations of homeless people living on the streets. And frequenting their parks.

This particular park, a pleasant square of green and shade in a downtown with too little of both, has had its share of controversy involving the homeless. Two years ago, volunteers were arrested on trespassing charges after they began serving a meal to the homeless without the required permit, a shocking crime quickly dropped by the state attorney. Still, not a positive PR moment.

So you will forgive suspicions when earlier this year the benches that dotted the park disappeared, replaced by large rectangular planters upon which one cannot sit. This displaced not just homeless people who took regular respite there with great gusto, but also downtown workers who brought lunches, met up with friends and took breaks in the blessed shade.

The city says this was not about the homeless, that the benches would be back once refurbished. ("Disgusting," is how then-mayor Bob Buckhorn described them to me.) When a reporter recently asked why the benches were still a no-show, the city said they could not be saved.

Okay, so I'll raise my hand and ask: Couldn't we have bought some durable new benches instead of replacing the old ones with those planters? Benches that could be more easily cleaned?

Is there no solution besides no benches for anyone?

Power has also been shut off from city electrical outlets where you would see homeless people charging their phones or wheelchairs. The city says these were intended for public events and often vandalized.

And lo and behold, homeless people are no longer in the park in the numbers they once were. But neither are downtown workers taking a break on a bench. At least the park makes a nifty pass-through for people speeding along on those new electric scooters.

It bears repeating that Tampa is hardly the only city dealing with the chronically homeless who stubbornly survive outside, who will not accept help.

Williams Park in downtown St. Peterburg changed dramatically a few years ago after it stopped being a Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority bus hub, with the crowded bus shelters gone.

The purpose, city officials say, was not to run off the homeless who frequented (some would say inundated) the park, though there's no question the look and use of Williams Park has changed since.

And yes, there are benches.

At Gaslight Square, there is a plan for bistro tables and chairs at some vague future date. For now, it's pretty much a pedestrian pass-through. It no longer feels like a proper city park, a place to sit on a bench in the shade, a place for everyone, even those with nowhere else to go.

Contact Sue Carlton at scarlton@tampabay.com.

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