Benches and chairs along the Third Street Promenade and on a section of two intersecting streets in downtown Santa Monica will be barred as places for soliciting donations under a new ordinance approved by the Santa Monica City Council.

In an effort to ensure shared use of popular public seating areas, which tend to be monopolized by panhandlers and others soliciting donations, the City Council voted Wednesday, July 23rd, to prohibit such activity from chairs and benches on the Promenade and on a stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard and Broadway. The council will vote on a second reading of the ordinance at a later meeting.

The public seating areas on the Promenade and at other parts of downtown have often been used by people asking for money, limiting their use by children, people who may need a break or are disabled, city staff said.

While the soliciting activity has consumed seating areas on the Promenade for long periods, many benches are also taken up for the same purpose in neighboring areas, said police and members of the Bayside District Corporation, which manages downtown. Lt. Marianne Fullove of the police Office of Operations said panhandling from benches has been particularly problematic along the “Transit Mall” on Broadway and Santa Monica Boulevard, between Second and Fourth Streets.

“People that solicit from benches like to use the areas that are very popular for pedestrian traffic,” Fullove said.

City staff noted that as many as 10,000 people visit the Promenade during summer weekends, but seating there and at other parts of downtown is limited, as the Promenade provides seats for only about 100 people.

When staff first presented the ordinance to the City Council for consideration in February, it would have applied only to the Promenade, but some argued that the law would just push the solicitors to other downtown areas. Members of the Bayside District board had said they would support the ordinance only if it applied to all public seating areas in downtown.

“The board felt that in order for the ordinance to be effective it would need to be applied to all seating in the downtown area,” said Kathleen Rawson, Bayside District Corporation executive director.

Resident and activist Jerry Rubin told the council that the ordinance could lead to “more aggressive panhandling” and added that there are better ways to deal with the issue.

While City Council members chose not to expand the law’s coverage to all of downtown, they voted to include the Transit Mall section of Santa Monica Boulevard and Broadway in addition to the Promenade. Rawson said she supports the expansion of the restrictions to the Transit Mall and added that she would inform the council if seating problems continue in other parts of downtown.

“The Promenade and immediately adjacent blocks of the Transit Mall are our highest-volume pedestrian areas and seating opportunities are limited for the elderly, persons with disabilities and those who are just plain tuckered out,” City Councilman Kevin McKeown said. “Time limits on seat use would be unenforceable, so the best way for us to keep public street amenities available for their intended use was to limit solicitation, including panhandling, from those prime seats in our downtown.”

Fullove said a learning process may be involved with the new ordinance and police will work to educate the public.

“I think people will be more mindful about sharing the benches for people who want to use them for rest,” she said.

Referring to the protection of panhandling under the First Amendment of the Constitution, city officials noted that the ordinance in no way obstructs that right. The intent of the law is to regulate the location of solicitation to ensure that public seating is not monopolized, city officials said.

The new law applies to all types of solicitation, regardless of the solicitors’ message.

“I think this is a positive step forward,” Mayor Pro Tem Richard Bloom said of the ordinance.

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