Downtown Minneapolis’ booster group has a message for building owners: Open your restrooms to everyone.
On Thursday, the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District (DID) started plastering heavily strolled sidewalks with signs directing people to the closest restroom. It’s part of the district’s mission to more than triple the number of public toilets, from 29 to 100. To do so, they will have to persuade hotels, restaurants, stores and other property owners to ditch the “restrooms for customers only” signs.
With its 100 Restrooms Project, the group hopes to solve a problem that has bedeviled cities for decades: Preventing people from relieving themselves wherever, for lack of an available toilet.
“Access to high-quality restrooms downtown is a universal concern,” Steve Cramer, the DID’s president and CEO, said in a statement.
The new sidewalk signs on 1st Avenue, Hennepin Avenue, Nicollet Mall, 5th Street and 7th Street point out the nearest restroom, operating hours and estimated walking time. The district is also encouraging businesses to put up signs saying their toilets are for anyone.
Daniel Gumnit, the CEO of People Serving People, a shelter for homeless families, sees multiple benefits.
Access to a bathroom “is a human dignity issue for members of our community who are experiencing homelessness,” Gumnit said. “And it makes downtown a more welcoming place, [and] you will have people entering businesses who wouldn’t otherwise, so it’s good for visibility.”
Gumnit sees expanding public-bathroom access as akin to the shared effort of private owners to maintain the skyways, calling it “a livability issue ... an extension of that same spirit of Minneapolis making itself open by blurring the line between private space and public space.”
American cities have been searching for ways to meet the most private of needs of the homeless, as many of them cope with the rising cost of housing, addiction and other challenges.
In St. Cloud, a couple operate a “Shower the People” van in which homeless adults can wash in privacy. Portland, Ore., has its “Portland Loo” portable toilet stalls on city sidewalks, and Denver has bathrooms that shuttle about the city for anyone’s use.
More than 200,000 people work in downtown Minneapolis every day, while nearly 50,000 live there, according to the Downtown Council. In June, the DID and the city brought in a team of fellows from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs to size up public restroom strategies in Denver, Toronto, Washington, D.C., and London before rolling out the 100 Restrooms Project.
Many of the current 29 public restrooms are in government buildings, such as the Central Library and the Hennepin County Government Center, transportation facilities or public parks.
Others are in newly placed portable restrooms on S. 9th Street and Hawthorne Avenue, S. 7th Street and N. 2nd Avenue, and 10th Street and S. 4th Avenue. These are in addition to the three-season restroom that was installed at Peavey Plaza this summer as well as facilities located at the Commons.
Ben Shardlow, director of urban design for the DID, acknowledged it will be a challenge to get businesses to participate.
“It’s a lot more common to see a sign that says no public restroom than the alternative,” Shardlow said. “The status quo of everybody saying no is that [people] get desperate and go outside. This creates a maintenance challenge.”
Shardlow said it’s already “an open secret” about which downtown businesses already let anyone — residents, workers, the homeless — use their bathrooms.
Shardlow said he believes the benefits to a business signing on will be limiting “all the maintenance challenges outside your building” when people resort to relieving themselves outside, as well as easing “the discomfort of your staff have telling people no” when asked about an available bathroom.
John Sweeney, owner of the Brave New Workshop theater on Hennepin Avenue, said, “The 100 Restrooms Project is really about our community meeting our own basic human needs. The portable restroom on our block and signage on surrounding blocks letting people know it’s there are small investments. But they’re a big step towards making the public realm in our neighborhood clean and welcoming.”
For more information about the project, visit mplsdid.com/100restrooms.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482