Boxes may get boot from sidewalks

Published 1:08 am Thursday, July 28, 2011

Distribution boxes like these and newspaper racks would be banned from public sidewalks in downtown Washington if a proposal being considered by city officials is approved. (WDN Photo/Sara Cowell)

A proposal to ban all outdoor boxes or racks used to distribute newspapers, magazines and other similar publications from public sidewalks in the business-historic zoning district continues to be reviewed by Washington’s Planning Board.

The board is expected to resume its deliberation on the proposed ban at its August meeting. The board also is looking at possible changes to regulations governing free-standing signs and tables with merchandise on them on public sidewalks. The board is expected to make a recommendation to the City Council concerning the proposal. The council has final say on the matter.

The business-historic zoning district is basically defined as the downtown area of the city. The proposal would not ban the boxes in other zoning districts in the city.

“We’re not trying to get rid of them. We want them off the public sidewalk,” said Jane Alligood, a board member. “These things are obstructing the public sidewalk.”

One person spoke in opposition to the proposal during the board’s meeting Tuesday night.

Wes Nicholson, representing Bella magazine, questioned whether the city can ban such distribution boxes from public property, citing the First Amendment. Nicholson also said banning the boxes in the business-historic zoning district would harm the city’s efforts to promote the city and attract tourists. Publications such as Bella and the Washington Daily News distribute their publications, in part, to promote the city and those businesses that advertise in the publications, he said.

“We have to be in these places. We have to be where our advertisers are,” Nicholson said. “We are here because they want us here. If they did not want us, if they did not value us, we would not be here.”

If the proposal is approved, Alligood suggested that owners of the boxes work with a merchant or property owner to place such a box in that merchant’s business or on that property owner’s property.

“If they’ve got their own little spot — not on the sidewalk — if you can negotiate to locate your box on their property, that’s fine,” Alligood said.

Nicholson believes the proposed ban flies in the face of the city’s effort to improve its economy and help its merchants by attracting more people to visit the city and spend money while in the city.

“To me, if you’re trying to encourage business, why would you make it any harder? To reach people is hard enough, as you all know. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to reach those people. Why make it any harder to have people find something?” Nicholson said.

The board has been looking at the issue for a little more than two years.

In April 2009, the board appointed a subcommittee to study what to do with obstructions on city property such as sidewalks.

During its April 2009 meeting, board member Steve Moler suggested the possibility of banning newsracks and display boxes from public sidewalks and streets, with the newsrack and display box owners placing them inside restaurants, shops and businesses — with permission of the property owner or business owner.

About Mike Voss

Mike Voss is the contributing editor at the Washington Daily News. He has a daughter and four grandchildren. Except for nearly six years he worked at the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., in the early to mid-1990s, he has been at the Daily News since April 1986.
Journalism awards:
• Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service, 1990.
• Society of Professional Journalists: Sigma Delta Chi Award, Bronze Medallion.
• Associated Press Managing Editors’ Public Service Award.
• Investigative Reporters & Editors’ Award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Public Service Award, 1989.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Investigative Reporting, 1990.
All those were for the articles he and Betty Gray wrote about the city’s contaminated water system in 1989-1990.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Investigative Reporting, 1991.
• North Carolina Press Association, Third Place, General News Reporting, 2005.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Lighter Columns, 2006.
Recently learned he will receive another award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Lighter Columns, 2010.
4. Lectured at or served on seminar panels at journalism schools at UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Maryland, Columbia University, Mary Washington University and Francis Marion University.

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