City: No Place to Go

Restroom relief cannot come soon enough to downtown Honolulu.

Chinatown and downtown are enjoying a renaissance of arts, restaurants and hip stores, but all that foot traffic has revealed a problem—there are virtually no public restrooms in the area.

“You can’t blame private businesses for shutting down the bathrooms,” says Lynne Matusow, chairperson of the Downtown Neighborhood Board. “Things were getting trashed.”

“I don’t like to turn people away, but we have to for liability reasons,” explains Dee Hicks, operations manager at the Bishop Street branch of 24 Hour Fitness. Hicks notes a need in front of her business’s location, too: a major bus stop on the corner of Bishop and King Streets. “Everyone is waiting for the bus and they have nowhere to go to the bathroom.”

Hey, City Council: Some public restrooms—like this model by Exeloo—look sleek and are easy to maintain. photo: courtesy of Exeloo East

Automated public toilets (APT), which are largely unattended and self-cleaning, are standard in many European and Asian cities, but American cities are only slowly warming to them. City officials struggle with how to retrofit bathrooms in a crowded, urban environment; deal with the stigma associated with public toilets; find ways to conform to ADA standards; and, most of all, keep bathrooms clean, safe and well maintained.

Still, some locales have hit on the right formula. According to Robert Brubaker, of the American Restroom Association, success stories include La Jolla, Calif., Arlington, Va. and Atlanta. He says, “When cities do surveys on walkable or livable cities, public restrooms rank high.”

That’s better than just plain rank: There have been complaints made to the Downtown Neighborhood board regarding public urination and defecation. “You have people urinating in the street, and even in the trash bins,” says city Councilman Rod Tam.

The City Council has appropriated money to plan and design public restrooms in downtown/Chinatown. The first is an $80,000 item for a comfort station at Kamali‘i Mini Park. Whether this will be a APT, standard brick-and-mortar or portable-toilet style remains to be seen. Tam says he’s hoping for small, unisex restrooms with washbasins on the outside.

Regardless of the design, he points out, “Downtown needs bathrooms. This is a public health issue.”