Racks take last stand

Published 4:25 pm Wednesday, April 22, 2009

By Staff
Newsracks under scrutiny by city of Washington
Contributing Editor
Those newsracks and display boxes containing publications on public sidewalks in downtown Washington and other public places may not be so prevalent in the future.
The city is taking a preliminary look at what to do with those racks or boxes that display newspapers, real estate magazines and other publications free or charged. The issue will be discussed at the Washington Planning Board meeting Tuesday, said John Rodman, a city planner.
Currently, the city doesn’t require permits for newsracks.
The Planning Board will explore if the racks and boxes are creating problems, said Rodman, who’s been researching the issue.
Evidently, some of them are.
The racks and boxes can hamper pedestrian traffic on public sidewalks, Rodman said. Some, too, detract from the character of certain areas of the city such as its historic district, he added.
During a recent tour of the city’s central business district, Rodman said he counted 32 newspaper racks and magazine boxes in that area.
One solution, Rodman said, may be locating modular newsrack systems at strategic sites throughout the city. Such systems are often found at transportation centers such as train stations or bus depots in metropolitan areas, shopping centers and government centers.
Some newsrack providers such as Rak Systems Inc. in Theodore, Ala., have newsrack-enhancement programs to help cities, towns and private interests transition from individual newspaper racks and boxes to modular newsrack systems.
Kitzmann said more cities and towns are turning to modular newsrack systems for safety and aesthetic reasons.
Multiple individual newsracks in congested areas such as downtowns can create access and traffic-flow problems for people with handicaps and hamper stormwater runoff in the aftermath of heavy rains, Kitzmann said.
Rodman said that as the city explores the matter, it must keep publications’ First Amendment rights in mind. The city doesn’t want to infringe on those rights, he said.
Kitzmann said his company also works with newspapers to protect their First Amendment rights when governments are considering regulations regarding newsracks.
Kitzmann explained that governments seeking to regulate newsracks and publications usually work together to find a “compromise” that protects the interests of both parties.
Rodman said he closely watched the racks and boxes this past weekend during the Cycle North Carolina and Music in the Streets events to see what would happen to them with many extra people in the city.
He said many of the boxes that provide free publications (empty when he observed them) either had trash placed in them or on top of them.
That wasn’t the case with coin-operated boxes, probably because they require coins to open them, he said.
Rodman said the city also may look at regulating other items, such as outdoor-restaurant seating and free-standing signs that could impede pedestrian traffic on sidewalks and city rights of way.
Cutline for corresponding photo: These magazine display racks on Market Street and other public areas in Washington could face new restrictions as the city examines what effects they have on pedestrians and on the look of the city. (WDN Photo/Paul Dunn)