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If you build it, they will come. If one local woodworker builds a bench, they will … sit?

Frustrated by what he sees as a lack of places to sit and rest in downtown Minneapolis, part-time woodworker and city resident Tom Saunders has taken taking a seat into his own hands.

Saunders, 41, used to work downtown, which he recalled as feeling more welcoming before the pandemic. Now, finding a spot to sit that isn't a restaurant patio for paying customers or the small metal seats within Metro Transit bus shelters is next to impossible, he said.

"I do a lot of woodworking in my spare time, and ended up making more stuff than I ended up needing," Saunders said. "So I thought it'd be a good chance to practice making benches and share them with the city."

Saunders' creations can be found near several downtown intersections in the same area: 8th Street at both Nicollet and Hennepin avenues, as well as at 9th and Nicollet. They are made of salvaged Douglas fir, silver maple and Minneapolis ash. Each takes about five to six hours to build, he said, and each has a distinct theme, adorned with phrases such as "Bless the great wind for carrying you today" or "Everyone deserves a place to rest." Also on the benches: QR codes that direct visitors to send a note to Mayor Jacob Frey or their City Council member, advocating for more seating options downtown.

"It's not a very appealing place at the moment," Saunders said. "There was more life, more people on the streets. It was more welcoming to people, and right now it's not."

It's not the first time people have decried the lack of seating or welcoming architecture in downtown Minneapolis. When seating was removed from plans for the Hennepin Avenue reconstruction, groups including the Minneapolis Pedestrian Advisory Committee expressed concern that the lack of places to sit down often contributes to the marginalization of people with nowhere else to go.

While there are parts of downtown with more seating choices, Saunders said he's felt a particular lack along Hennepin and Nicollet, traditionally two of downtown's busiest pedestrian arteries. For people just out strolling, waiting for a bus or visiting Minneapolis for the first time, there are few places for respite. Saunders said he's seen many travelers sitting atop their luggage when no bench is in sight.

Saunders said he scouted the location on downtown walks, his dog in tow.

Downtown Improvement District chief of staff Ben Shardlow said his team noticed the benches popping up over the winter. They stuck out in particular because most movable benches or chairs are taken in seasonally, he said. Though items do occasionally show up downtown, DID is not in charge of encroachment permits, he said.

Typically, DID's movable seating is put out in May. Warming winters could affect that timeline in the future, he said.

The organization supports public seating options, Shardlow said.

"Our approach to public seating including on Nicollet was working pretty darn well in 2019, and then the pandemic kind of complicated everything," Shardlow said. "It has been more of a challenge to successfully deploy movable seating in the center of the downtown core than it was before."

The neon green and blue-emblazoned crew of DID helpers who casually patrol downtown's streets are often looked to for help mediating disputes around public seating — whether it's someone monopolizing a seat for too long, or potentially even more antisocial or illegal behavior.

Still, DID sees the social environment improving, Shardlow said. And Saunders' impromptu benches will soon have competition — blue Adirondack and yellow metal chairs that have come and gone in recent years will return to Nicollet Mall this summer.

A wooden bench built and placed by a group called Minneapolis Public Seating Authority is available on Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis on Thursday.
A wooden bench built and placed by a group called Minneapolis Public Seating Authority is available on Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis on Thursday.

Shari L. Gross, Star Tribune

Saunders enlisted his partner for brainstorming help for each bench's theme, he said. He's been heartened by help from a loose affiliation of friends and acquaintances he's unofficially officially dubbed the Minneapolis Public Seating Authority.

But the benches have proven to be somewhat more mobile than expected. Saunders uses an Apple AirTag to track their location as they seem to sometimes shift locations. One bench is currently inside a building on Hennepin. Another has somehow made it as far as a community garden on the city's North Side, he said.

The Pedestrian Advisory Committee, which advises the mayor and City Council on policies or programs that improve safety, mobility, accessibility and comfort for pedestrians, applauded Saunders' effort. Seating is insufficient across the city and is far from meeting climate action goals that seek to increase the numbers of pedestrians traveling by sidewalk or bike lanes, said Peter Vader, the committee chair.

"We see seating as a crucial component to meeting these mode-shift goals because we want people to feel comfortable walking," Vader said. "And that also includes being comfortable not walking, comfortable that they can take a walking trip and have a place to stop to rest, relax … to just be."

A Minneapolis spokesperson said Friday that the city has no comment on Saunders' project.

So, is Saunders working on another bench? There are always new designs to try, he said, and plenty of spots in need of a place to sit.

"People are gonna sit, you know?" Saunders said. "We can't be standing all of our lives."