Nowhere to go

Privatize a potty, piss off a pedestrian


Max Clark wants to get a potty lady from over the pond.

"In Europe, to use the restroom, you give your spare change to the nice old lady at the door. She waits there just to make sure that nothing bad happens to the facilities. It's private and noninvasive, and she makes sure that the facilities stay clean and safe, and the spare change in your pocket keeps them maintained," said Max Clark, parking and facilities director at Capital City Development Corporation.

Clark thinks this is an ideal setup for a public restroom, but one that Boise probably won't adopt anytime soon. Given the paucity of propitiously placed potties downtown, a couple of "nice old lady"-guarded loos could help Boise residents out quite a bit. Even as more and more downtown businesses put locks on the bathroom doors to keep out vandals and potty scavengers, larger and larger crowds are congregating downtown to catch the bus, hit the markets and bars and stroll along the downtown streets, creating an unfortunate predicament for anyone in need of a can when nature calls.

Mike Mikesell, owner of Guido's Pizzeria in downtown Boise, doesn't relish the now-locked door on the restroom his establishment shares with Flying M Coffeehouse and the rest of the smallish building, but recognizes the necessity.

"It's not a business-friendly or a public-friendly way to do things," asserted Mikesell. "It's unfriendly. Nobody likes to put up more locks."'

Unfortunately for toilet-seekers downtown, locked doors on restrooms are increasingly commonplace. For every customer grateful to relieve his or her bladder after pizza or coffee, there is that unscrupulous someone who won't hesitate to trash the place, given the opportunity. In places like Guido's and Flying M, this problem has grown to epidemic proportions—it's no coincidence that the janitor's closet even has a lock of its own. Apart from vandals, problems also come from passersby stopping in without supporting the business, encouraging even more crapper-locking in downtown buildings.

Indeed, nobody likes to be left outside banging on a locked door, but chances are that anyone who spends time in downtown Boise sooner or later encounters the problem of just where to answer the call of nature. Apart from one lone prison-like facility near the Grove, public restrooms are entirely absent from the downtown area, leaving business owners the responsibility of coping with throngs of toilet-seekers.

At Flying M Coffeehouse, and in many downtown buildings, the shared restrooms suffer from a lack of oversight.

"We've had lots of issues," agreed owner Kevin Meyers. "Locks have helped, but the problem remains that we have no way to monitor the facilities."

Frequently, people slip in without buying a cup of coffee, leaving owners like Meyers and Mikesell to front the utility bills, as well as face potential vandalism. Because there is no way to ensure that bathroom goers will support the business or even respect the facilities, issuing a key has been the only method to keep the commode accessible to responsible patrons, yet protected from the unscrupulous.

Max Clark recognizes that the current setup is not the most efficient. CCDC has been on the frontlines of many downtown projects, from designing urban housing to harnessing geothermal power, and could become a leader in developing public potty facilities downtown.

Clark asserts that a large part of the problem with developing public facilities is that it remains unclear which city organization should take responsibility for the creation, maintenance and policing duties. These three variables are why Boise has few such public lavatories in the first place. With no associated business to monitor them, any stand-alone restroom is at even more risk for vandalism than those shared between establishments. While most people don't vandalize/shoot up/have sex or otherwise abuse the loos, some people inevitably do, and this ruins it for everyone else.

"Public bathrooms are a challenge, and many cities have had poor luck. Seattle, for example, recently auctioned off all their vandalized Porta Potties on eBay after vandalism became too rampant," Clark said. "I believe they sold them to a Speedway."

Still, Clark asserts that Porta Potties—when carefully managed—can be an excellent solution, especially for larger crowds and events. Keeping portables up longer term may be a good intermittent step to developing a permanent solution since they have come a long way, boasting efficiency and sanitation to belie their old reputation of filth and pestilence. Having more such temporary facilities available is a step Clark believes may help deter passersby from using privately owned restrooms and reduce the strain on older facilities with deteriorating pipes.

While portable potties occasionally appear at events such as parades and car shows, the average daily toilet-seeker is left squirming. Since no ordinance prohibits the construction of additional bathroom facilities, the lack of progress toward a solution may just be a lack of audible demand.

Jerry Todd, public information manager for the city's planning department, asserts that there simply hasn't been much public outcry from Boiseans.

"If CCDC chooses to do so, they are free to build stand-alone public restrooms. There is no ordinance against it,." Todd said.

Additional pressure exists from commuters using the Valley Regional Transit buses who are left without anywhere to go. On a typical day last fall, more than 5,000 commuters rode the bus, and as downtown Boise is the transit center hub for the valley bus routes, a large number of commuters find themselves downtown waiting to connect. While bus drivers are free to use a stall in one of the downtown parking garages, bus riders are left to their own devices to seek out a can elsewhere.

As a result, businesses located near bus stops, such as Guido's and Flying M, are sometimes hit up by commuters who do not pay for services or in some cases, even use the restrooms to get ready in the morning.

However, because of the growing number of bus riders, downtown Boise may not be without public restrooms facilities for much longer. An elaborate, multimodal transit center is planned, complete with indoor areas, bike lockers and, perhaps most importantly, restrooms accessible to the commuter and pedestrian who just need to pee.

The multimodal center is slated for construction in 2010, so till then, the best bet is to cross your legs or buy a cup of coffee.

Morache was a BW intern. Now the brother's gettin' paid.