Tom Saunders believes downtown Minneapolis would be a more inviting place if it had more public seating, where people can take a load off and watch the world pass by–and he’s definitely not alone. That’s why he launched the Minneapolis Public Seating Authority, an unofficial group with an official-sounding name, whose mission is to spark conversation about seating and accessibility on downtown’s busiest streets.

Saunders is a Seward resident who worked downtown for years and still enjoys going on walks with his dog there. He remembers a time when there was much more seating, especially along Nicollet Mall. Inspired by discussions he’s seen online and similar projects done in major cities, Saunders decided to take matters into his own hands, with a lot of help from his woodworking skills.

“The main idea is just to bring awareness to the lack of friendly space downtown, specifically seating, but also restrooms. Obviously, I can’t change that by myself, but I can put out a few benches to start discussion around the topic,” said Saunders, who started with two benches in February, added a third in March, and plans to put out at least one more in April.

Each bench was made by Saunders at home with salvaged wood and features its own design and tagline. There’s also a tracking device embedded into each bench so Saunders can keep tabs on them through an app.

The "sit down with me for a moment" bench was placed outside the Dayton's Project in February. Photo by Tom Saunders

These are the details of each bench:

  • Sit down for a bit and remember something good” – started outside of the Dayton’s Project near the corner of Nicollet Mall and South Eighth Street; moved to a community garden in North Minneapolis
  • Sit with me for a moment” – started across Hennepin from the Pantages Theatre near the corner of Hennepin Avenue and North Seventh Street; taken over by The Depot Tavern/First Avenue
  • Everybody deserves a place to rest” – started in front of the vacant former Walgreens store near the corner of Nicollet Mall and South Ninth Street; still there as of late March

Saunders has talked to some people who he’s seen using the benches and virtually connected with others who want to get involved. He encourages others who feel passionately about the issue to reach out to the Minneapolis City Council.

Fixed public seating is taken into account–but isn’t always prioritized–when improvements are made to the City’s streets and parks. Benches were notably absent from the $23 million reconstruction of Hennepin Avenue, and a local pedestrian advocate told the Star Tribune in early 2020 that the omission directly affects downtown's homeless population and others who used benches that were removed from the street when construction began.

A half-mile stretch of First Avenue North will be reconstructed in the next few years, and the City is just beginning the community input process. There’s an online survey circulating that specifically asks about public seating and other streetscape features in an effort to learn what’s most important to the pedestrians, bikers and motorists who use the corridor.

The "sit down for a bit and remember something good" bench was placed on Hennepin Avenue across from the Pantages Theatre in February. Photo by Tom Saunders

The Downtown Improvement District (DID) is responsible for moveable public seating and other enhanced streetscape features on Nicollet Mall, including plastic chairs outside of the Meet Minneapolis Visitor Center, which were out seasonally last year. The DID does the same in several other downtown corridors.

A lot of seating has been added downtown over the past decade or so; it’s just more spread out than it used to be, according to DID Chief of Staff Ben Shardlow. That includes fixed seating in Water Works Park and RBC Gateway’s plaza and moveable seating in The Commons and the Hennepin County Government Center’s plaza.

“Most of the public seating was out–before the pandemic–very successfully, and then in 2020, everything changed and it got a lot more complex and a lot harder to manage,” Shardlow said. “And now, we're figuring out new ways to approach the issue.

“We know that people care about this issue, and we do, too.”

Still, as Saunders points out, there isn’t any seating aside from benches in some bus shelters along Hennepin Avenue between Fifth and 12th Streets and on Nicollet Mall from Sixth Street until Peavey Plaza, two important pedestrian corridors.

The "everybody deserves a place to rest" bench was placed outside of the still-vacant Walgreens store on Nicollet Mall in March. Photo by Tom Saunders

Minneapolis resident Amity Foster relies on public transportation to get to most places and uses Nicollet Mall as a hub for transfers between bus lines. She shared her view from the bus stop as Downtown Voices was just getting off the ground.

Foster agrees there’s not enough public seating downtown, especially on Nicollet Mall and Hennepin Avenue, and thinks more should be added.

If we want more people to come downtown, and not just stay inside in shops or in the skyway, we need “seating that is available for everyone,” she said.

As always, there’s another side to this issue, those who want to discourage loitering since it can lead to illegal activity, including drug dealing or drug use. Shardlow said the DID hears from both camps, so it’s a matter of “trying to find solutions that work for the community overall.”

“It's really good for people who care about this issue to make themselves heard on it, because it helps the process,” Shardlow said.