Downtown businesses oppose plans to put public toilet on or near Old Courthouse Square

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The absence of a public restroom on Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square can pose a dilemma for parents with young kids struggling to hold it, as well as for homeless people who have nowhere else to go.

The Santa Rosa City Council is set to change that — much to the chagrin of downtown property and business owners who fear a restroom on the square would decrease the quality of life for tourists and locals alike. On Tuesday, the council will vote on authorizing the purchase of a specially designed permanent public restroom called a Portland Loo.

If approved, the pricey potty is to be located on or near the downtown square for 24/7 use and could be open for people to do their business within a year.

The council set aside $250,000 for purchasing and installing a downtown toilet — up to $125,000 will go to purchasing the loo — last year during budget hearings.

City staff put the project out to bid and received only one final response, which came from Madden Fabrication, creators of the original Portland Loo.

The sturdy, utilitarian single-stall restroom — the brainchild of a Portland city official — is designed to provide constant service for a universal need while favoring public safety over comfort, according to sales manager Evan Madden. Its walls are treated to reject graffiti; its lighting is blue to foil intravenous drug users searching for veins; and slatted openings near the top and bottom of the facility provide privacy while allowing authorities to check for extra ankles, he said.

“We’re not going to solve drug use or prostitution with the public restroom, but we want to make it harder for that to happen,” Madden said.

Santa Rosa operates public restrooms at the Santa Rosa Transit Mall, Prince Gateway Park on Santa Rosa Avenue and the parking garage at Third and D streets, but none are open full time. Patrons of downtown businesses may be able to use facilities at certain businesses, but the city doesn’t compel them to provide restroom services to the general public, said Jason Nutt, an assistant city manager who oversees public works.

The lack of a full-time downtown public restroom has been a “difficulty for the community,” Nutt said. Weighing the needs of families with children visiting the square and homeless people who may otherwise be forced to defecate on sidewalks has been a goal for city staff members mulling where to place the public toilet, he said.

“They’ve tried to balance what we believe the interests of the community are,” Nutt said. “We know there are some community members who are adamantly opposed to adding (a restroom) into the square.”

Natalie Balfour, who chairs the Downtown Action Organization, said the nonprofit representing downtown property and business owners is “100%” opposed to the installation of a public restroom on the square.

“There’s a few issues that everyone agrees on, and this is one of them,” she said.

Balfour said business and property owners had previously agreed to tax themselves to enhance maintenance and improve aesthetics in the downtown area and said a new public restroom there would be a move in the wrong direction. She said the city should work on making its existing nearby restrooms easier to find and improving those facilities before adding another public stall in the center of the city.

“We don’t think that there shouldn’t be restrooms for indigents,” she said. “We think that there already are.”

Nutt said city staffers have been evaluating potential locations for several months, focusing on well-lit sites in the downtown core located near water, sewer and electrical service.

Potential sites include various places on the perimeter of the square and along Santa Rosa Avenue between Second and Third streets, according to city documents.

A council panel focused on the downtown area will discuss the toilet’s location at a July 10 meeting. A staff recommendation on the final site is expected to come before the City Council in August or September, said Nutt, who expects downtown business and property owners to be “very, very vocal” before then.

“They don’t want to see us put something in the middle of the square that they’ve worked hard to reclaim for the greater community,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207.

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