Public urination is so common in one area of downtown Minneapolis that some refer to it as the “pee corner." Photo by Eric Best

Public urination is so common in one area of downtown Minneapolis that some refer to it as the “pee corner." Photo by Eric Best

Nowhere to go

Updated: April 21, 2018 - 1:29 pm

Downtown is growing, but are public bathrooms lost in the mix?

It’s a predicament many in downtown Minneapolis have found themselves in.

You’re walking through the Central Business District and need to use the bathroom, but there’s none in sight. While banks, restaurants and parks have bathrooms, one might not be nearby, open or accessible to the non-paying public.

Even as a resident of Loring Park, Nick Magrino has found himself in the scramble.

“It’s such a basic thing to be walking around downtown. There are 50-story buildings and it’s very dense and in theory there’s a lot of stuff. But to be there on a random Sunday as a tourist, there aren’t a ton of places to go,” Magrino said.

Given that downtown Minneapolis has seen record levels of real estate investment in recent years, including more than $3.4 billion in the past two years, the situation raises the question if restrooms have been lost in the growth.

Ben Shardlow, the director of urban design at the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District and Downtown Council, said a lack of bathrooms and public urination downtown have been common concerns of downtown stakeholders who’ve participated in the organization’s annual perception survey.

To get the ball rolling on the issue, DID funded a month-long pilot of a Little Free Lavatory in Peavey Plaza in 2015. Since then, the organization has partnered with Green Minneapolis to bring restrooms to the Commons in Downtown East.

The projects help correct an issue of mismatched facilities downtown: There are many facilities in downtown Minneapolis, just not near where people need them, Shardlow said. On top of that, several recent high-profile closings of longstanding businesses like Macy’s and Barnes & Noble may have regular customers or skyway users in a scramble for other facilities.

Not only do the projects allow for more public bathrooms, they may also get people to talk about the issue, a major roadblock to possible solutions, Shardlow said.

“It does feel like the logistics are challenging, but the dialogue is more challenging at this point,” he said.


Public urination citations at an all-time low

On the west side of downtown, Joan Vorderbruggen sees this issue firsthand. As the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Cultural District arts coordinator, she brings port-a-potties to the south side of the road for the non-profit art organization’s weekly 5 to 10 on Hennepin initiative.

Vorderbruggen said she hears in listening sessions with property and business owners that increasing the number of public bathrooms is necessary to combat public urination. Public urination is so common in one alley just off Hennepin Avenue, she said, that the street name for it is the “pee corner.”

Vorderbruggen said Hennepin Avenue is carrying the brunt of the issue thanks to reconstruction projects on Nicollet and Third avenues that push buses, pedestrians and other activity westward.

“There’s a 10-pound bag sitting on Hennepin and it only has capacity for five, and people are feeling that — not only commuters or real-time users, but also the people who are waiting for services. Everybody is kind of having a negative experience on Hennepin right now, for the most part,” she said. “This is a cataclysmic moment where we have infrastructure transformation. We have a serious issue that is at the top of everybody’s [list].”

The concern over a lack of publicly available bathrooms downtown, and related issues like public urination, comes at a time when citations for the crime are plummeting in downtown Minneapolis.

Public urination citations in the 1st Precinct, which includes the Downtown West, Downtown East, North Loop, Elliot Park, Cedar Riverside and part of the University of Minnesota neighborhoods, were down about 80 percent between 2007 and 2016, according to Minneapolis Police Department data obtained by The Journal. Over the past decade, the precinct accounted for about 60 percent of the city’s public urination citations.

A decade ago, a peak month for citations — typically in the mid or late summer — saw about the same number of citations as the entirety of 2015 or 2014, during which Precinct 1 saw 93 and 101 citations, respectively. As of April 27, this year has seen 28 citations in the precinct.

Shardlow said public urination creates problems for the DID and the city’s ability to market itself to visitors. Any additional mess draws on the time and funding for the DID’s ambassador program, whose ambassadors power wash urine and debris off downtown’s sidewalks.

“There are a lot of intuitive issues. It affects how people perceive the cleanliness of downtown,” he said.


A place to go

Shardlow has looked to several municipalities across the world that are tackling the same issue, including a program in Germany to grant access to private facilities and a West Coast initiative to build more freestanding public bathrooms.

The solution of more public restrooms isn’t as cut and dry as building more facilities, which could cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars and would require a dedicated budget and staff to maintain. Shardlow said the high cost of operating public bathrooms is what leads building owners and developers to engineer them out in the first place.

Magrino, who serves on the City Planning Commission, said a possible solution could be better leveraging existing facilities through consistent signage and wayfinding. For visitors or people in downtown outside of business hours, keeping some bathrooms open could be another option.

“There’s really not a lot of public bathrooms for people to use, especially if they’re visiting. I know I get that question when it’s a ghost town walking around at 6 o’clock on a Friday,” he said.

Patrick Higgins, a building official with the city’s Community Planning & Economic Development Department, said people could use bathrooms at facilities they may not traditionally think to go to when they’re scrambling to find one. If someone banks downtown, they could head there even if access to a bathroom may not be obvious.

“[Businesses] have the authority to control that access, but that access is available to you as a customer. They really can’t deny you the right to use the facility,” he said.

Several bathrooms are in the works across downtown, including new facilities at the Nicollet Mall Target where the company is putting in $10 million in renovations. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board plans to add several bathrooms to the area near Mill Ruins Park where it plans to build a new destination park and restaurant pavilion.

Shardlow said the DID hopes to do something to “advance the conversation” around the lack of facilities this year.

“It’s a funny little cultural thing. It’s a little bit challenging to even talk about because we live in a polite society and we don’t talk about that aspect of livable communities very often,” he said.