Commentary: Should the Council Address the Downtown Restroom Situation in Isolation?

Mayor Robb Davis talks with Police Chief Darren Pytel (middle) and Chamber CEO Christina Blackman (left) near G Street Plaza about homeless issues last May

It has been pretty obvious for a long time that we have needed public restrooms in the downtown.  Not just because of the homeless population, but also for parents of small kids, as there have been many times where we ended up racing around trying to find a business that will let us use their restroom.

However, yesterday as I popped out of the Vanguard downtown office building, I ran into a downtown property owner who has some interesting ideas about what they can do with their property that would help the entire street face on downtown streets.  The problem is that it might conflict with plans to put up a public restroom.

The city has an item on the agenda tonight in which they are looking at location and implementation options for public restrooms.  It is a longstanding need that has become more urgent with the rising homeless population.

But my brief conversation yesterday got me thinking – maybe we should not attempt to address this issue in isolation.

Think about it, the city council has appointed a task force to plan the future of downtown.  They have appointed a multi-member committee to look into the vision for the future of downtown, everything from building heights to infill projects and transportation.

One thing that was clear to me – the area where the property owner was considering is in need of renovation.  The city doesn’t have redevelopment money to fund the projects, but if the property owners are willing to do it themselves, it would seem like a win-win for all involved.

It is possible that you place a public restroom on that location without interfering with other plans.  But I think my point would be, at this point, why not run the two processes concurrent to each other?  Why do the Core Area Specific Plan and then plop a public restroom into one of the locations, only to have to make changes down the line due to changes in the core area plan?

Right now staff is recommending that a public restroom be installed in the G Street Plaza.  The exact location would be chosen by city engineers and other key staff.

Right now the costs for the restroom are estimated to be at $150,000.

Staff also notes, “A priority for funds remaining in the CIP [Capital Improvement Projects] is enhancements to the G Street Plaza to create an attractive community space.”  But what if the property owner is willing to put money into making that space better?

From our perspective, G Street is the right location for the restroom, however, the planning should be done in concert with larger plans for that property, the street, and the downtown core area itself.

Most of the other locations do not make a lot of sense.  First of all you have 3rd and B Streets at the south end of Central Park.  The disadvantage is that you already have a de facto public restroom a block north of that, at C and 4th Streets in the park itself.

The E Street parking lot makes some sense, although they were suggesting the southwest corner, and I’m not sure where that would be.  It would seem you could locate one in the plaza itself.  The advantage there is that you have a lot of pedestrians and it is a more central location.

The Depot Building on H Street, inside the building, seems too remote, as does the 2nd and H Plaza at the east end.

Some suggested that we make the restroom at City Hall the public restrooms.  It was somewhat of a flippant suggestion, but you end up pushing people outside of the core area and you already have the restrooms available at the park itself, which are closer to the downtown area during business hours.

The bottom line from my perspective is do not address this problem in isolation from other plans and projects coming down the pike.  I know the council wants to fix the problems associated with not having restrooms.  But spending $150,000 only to have to make changes in a few years doesn’t seem like the best use of scarce resources.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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16 thoughts on “Commentary: Should the Council Address the Downtown Restroom Situation in Isolation?”

  1. Tia Will

    I agree with David that this issue should not be addressed in isolation. I also believe that we already have adequate facilities in the the downtown area to accommodate those in need of a restroom unexpectedly be they parents with small children, a visitor from out of town, older women who live near the downtown and are on foot ( not to name anyone in particular of course), or the homeless whether it is a student in a temporarily homeless situation or a member of the chronically homeless. I am referring to existing restrooms located in either public access areas, but which are blocked to the public such as the coded entrance to the restroom in Mansion Square or offices which represent businesses, such as the Chamber of Commerce or other civic groups such as the Odd Fellows. I also would like to see an expansion of the humane practices of those downtown businesses, of which there are several, who currently offer use of their restrooms to those who are not making a purchase. Since this complaint of outdoor urination/delectation seems to primarily be coming from the downtown business community, I would suggest that a very simple and financially feasible solution would be to open your own restrooms to the public.

    1. Alan Miller

      The flip side of that is the widespread use of Starbucks as a shower facility for homeless.  While not a huge thing in Davis, it is a huge problem in the inner-city.  A large percentage of Starbucks in cities – even Sacramento – now have eliminated ALL plugs to try to discourage homeless from charging their portable devices and otherwise coming into the Starbucks at all.  Starbucks is keeping hush on the subject — as hush as they can in the internet age.  The point is, at some point there is a disadvantage to simply opening up the restrooms to all if some homeless do not respect others by cleaning up after themselves.

      I know many business owners who have had to restrict access due to people trashing the restrooms. Downtown Santa Cruz businesses, such as Santa Cruz Coffee, had to eliminate ALL public access — yeah in a coffee house — to restrooms, due to repeated incidents of needles being left in the restrooms. You have to walk several blocks to a very overused public restroom in the park in order to pee after coffee. I stopped going to downtown Santa Cruz and have found nice places on the outskirts of downtown to patronize instead.

      1. Tia Will


        I think that the key to your comment is “while not a huge thing in Davis”. I also think that this action of “opening your restrooms” may be more appropriate for some businesses than others. While probably not feasible for a small coffee shop or restaurant, I see it as less problematic for businesses that do not depend upon a small, intimate setting.

        Yes, the restrooms do need to be cleaned, but so do the Portland loos or any public restroom, or any restroom anywhere for that matter.

        “…now have eliminated ALL plugs to try to discourage homeless from charging their portable devices and otherwise coming into the Starbucks at all.”

        I see this approach as part of the overall problem. We see the homeless as the problem, rather than our society’s failure to meet the needs of all members of our community as the problem. I recognize my privilege. When I walk into some of the businesses that are open to use of their restroom facilities, I recognize that I am a clean, senior, white woman probably not seen as a threat or burden to anyone. When I indicate that I am just there for the restroom, I get a friendly wave and smile. Should this really not be how any member of our community is treated? Do we really want to penalize those who are not fortunate enough to have housing here by means of restriction of their biologic functions?


        1. Keith O

          When I walk into some of the businesses that are open to use of their restroom facilities, I recognize that I am a clean, senior, white woman probably not seen as a threat or burden to anyone. When I indicate that I am just there for the restroom, I get a friendly wave and smile.

          That’s because they know you aren’t going to go in there for a long period of time and take a sink shower or do drugs.

          Drugs are commonplace in the units, as they serve as convenient, private spaces that cannot be unlocked from the outside — ideal for getting a quick fix. In more than a dozen visits to four public restrooms over the last month, a Public Press reporter found two where hypodermic needles were strewn across the floor.

        2. Alan Miller

          >Should this really not be how any member of our community is treated?

          My point is that if the problem is bigger than the ability of an area to handle it, the problem should not be the responsibility of business owners to solve.  As I pointed out, I have completely abandoned downtown Santa Cruz, an area I used to enjoy.  That is the consequence of being “too nice”.  In the end, it bites you in the ass.

  2. Michael Bisch

    David, what’s stopping the property owner from proposing a project right now? Certainly not, the CASP update. There’s no moratorium in place. Other property owners have advanced projects. You say we’ve needed a public restroom for quite some time. How long should the community delay for your property owner?

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      Nothing is stopping that from occurring. But there could be a conflict between the restroom location and the proposed project. Not my property owner, I would just suggest coordination, not necessarily delay.

  3. Alan Miller

    I don’t see delaying a restroom because of a plan that could be years in the future.  Accommodating location so the plan can move forward, of course!  I’m in favor of installing several of these dispersed through downtown.

    P.S.  The depot makes no sense, as the homeless and the public already can and do use the facilities already there inside the building.

  4. Todd Edelman

    Very clearly any legislation, codes etc. for the near future Downtown needs to implement distributed public facilities based on a formula that’s a combination of pedestrian traffic and maximum appropriate distance. The more facilities, the less footprint each one needs. Only existing, city- or similarly-owned facilities that are open 24/7 should be part of the Davis Hygiene Grid. (Any private business that can help is gracious to supplement this, and it’s fair to not make them take on this unseemly by-product of Capitalist plumbing narcissism on their own…)

    Very clearly any legislation, codes etc. for NOW needs to mandate the installation of rented high-quality, portable, shipping-container-ish public facilities into a number of existing city-owned parking lots around town.  Instead of an individual permanent facility that will take months to build (at least, if there are no legal actions to stop it…)

    I interpret the existing symbol of Davis – the anachronistic, anti-egalitarian bicycle-shaped device that reached its heyday 30 years before Davis was founded – to be about our obligation to have bathrooms for all instead of free parking for cars.

  5. Alan Miller

    >unseemly by-product of Capitalist plumbing narcissism

    Say WHAT?

    >rented high-quality, portable, shipping-container-ish public facilities

    Say WHAT?

    >the anachronistic, anti-egalitarian bicycle-shaped device

    Say WHAT?

    >”bathrooms for all instead of free parking for cars”

    The new city slogan?  Or at least a slogan for one of the nine candidates.


      1. Ken A

        No reason we could not find a way to put these on to the bike trailers:

        It would be interesting to see how many people in Davis would allow the homeless to use the bathrooms in their homes and condos if the city set up a program where people willing to help would hang a photo of a toilet on their front door knob when they were home and willing to let someone use their bathroom.


      2. Howard P

        Simple… attach a waterproof basin underneath the trailer seat… cut slit/hole in seat… after ‘use’, empty into an approved dumping place, like some service stations have for RV’s.  Rinse basin (rigid or flexible) and/or thoroughly clean as needed.

        The dumping place could be a holding tank, like porta-potty’s, or dumped into a well-designed septic tank system.  Place a water spigot and hose nearby.


  6. Ken A

    Since it is estimated to cost ~$150K to build a bathroom in town I’m guessing that it will be close to $100K to build a storage facility for the homeless.  Once you add in at least 0.5 FTE to manage the program (to make sure UCD kids don’t use them all summer to get free storage when they sublet their rooms and go home to Hillsborough, Ross and Piedmont) it will probably be cheaper to give the guys vouchers to use a local self storage place (I was surprised that is it over $800/year to rent a 5×5 locker on Olive Drive).,2,3,4,5,6,7,8

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