September 13, 2011

No bench design a perfect sit for city

Portlanders offer their input on artist-designed seating for the new Bayside Trail.

By Jason Singer
Assistant City Editor / Online

PORTLAND -- Buy local, or keep looking.

click image to enlarge

Some attendees at the public forum expressed support for Bayside resident Aaron Stephan's bench concept.

Top: SkyeDesign’s concept calls for two curved and undulating forms of wood slats, fastened to galvanized steel. Middle: Gary Haven Smith of Northwood, N.H., has proposed a plaza of five carved granite benches. Bottom: Aaron Stephan’s design for a bench resembles a pile of packing crates, paying homage to the area’s industrial heritage.

That's the advice that many of the 35 residents who attended a public hearing Monday gave Portland's Public Art Committee regarding artist-designed benches for the city's new Bayside Trail.

The committee presented three final designs -- from a New Hampshire artist, a Portland artist and SkyeDesign, a Washington. D.C.-based studio. Of the residents who said they preferred one over the others, all but one spoke in favor of the design by the Portland artist, Aaron Stephan.

"It has humor and it has reference to Portland's history," said Andy Graham of Macy Street. "The other two could be in any city park or anyplace in the world."

Stephan, who lives in the Bayside neighborhood, has proposed a bench built from concrete packing crates and aluminum cinderblocks, a reference to Bayside's industrial heritage.

Mark Miller of Shepley Street called the design "innovative," and Jay York of Wilmot Street said, "We need to see more public art by Maine artists."

Many said they didn't like any of the choices. "I'm a little disappointed by what the process has produced," said Colette Bouchard. "I was looking for something more colorful or more whimsical . . . not as austere."

Although choosing a bench seems like a small decision, it touches on a couple of major issues in the city.

The benches will be placed along the Bayside Trail, a $5 million project that connects the Back Cove and Eastern Promenade trails to Elm Street with a 1.2-mile path.

They also come with potential for controversy. The benches are the first public art decision the city will make since pulling the plug on "Tracing the Fore," a landscape sculpture that will soon be removed from Boothby Square. That sculpture drew criticism from residents and business owners who said it was too abstract, that the grass incorporated in it was overgrown and that it didn't first win community approval.

Although Jodie Lapchick, a mayoral candidate, said she likes Stephan's design, she fears residents would have a similar response to his bench as they did to "Tracing the Fore."

"I'm afraid we're not ready for this," she said.

Stephan's bench, which would cost $13,000 to $14,000, would be in a plaza at the east end of Marginal Way. The citizen panel that chose the finalists ranked Stephan's design last.

SkyeDesign's proposal, which would cost $42,500, calls for three benches. Two curved benches made of wood and steel would face each other in the Elm Street plaza near Trader Joe's. The benches, made up of many slats, would have a "zipper" look, as one resident described it, only curvy. The third bench would undulate like a wave, with a backing at some parts of the bench and not at others.

The other finalist is Gary Haven Smith, an artist from New Hampshire whose design calls for five granite benches along the trail. Some of the benches would look like found rocks, and a few would have unique designs. Smith's proposal would cost about $22,000.

The Public Art Committee will likely pay for the benches with $42,500 it received from the city. The benches will likely be installed next spring. The city is also installing regular benches along the trail.

Staff Writer Jason Singer can be contacted at 791-6437 or at:


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