DOWNTOWN Barbara Nagel was browsing the racks in American Eagle Outfitters when she felt the urge.
“I need a restroom right away and I don’t know where to go,” Nagel said as she exited the Third Street Promenade store on Thursday.
The world-famous promenade, with its brand-name stores, high-end restaurants and street performers, is also known for a less than laudable reputation — a lack of publicly-accessible bathroom facilities.
The scant supply of wash closets in one of the biggest draws Downtown has to offer has long been a problem as there are only a handful of restrooms operated by City Hall, and few stores allow their customers to use their own. Aggrandizing the problem in recent months is the closure of Santa Monica Place where there were a number of restrooms available.
The Bayside District Corp., a public-private management organization that oversees Downtown for City Hall, is expected to analyze what steps could be taken to encourage some of the larger business owners on the promenade, such as Borders, Barnes & Noble and Banana Republic, to make their bathrooms available for patrons. All three retailers have shut down their bathrooms in the last few years, the most recent being Banana Republic, which is located at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard.
Carolyn Brown, a spokeswoman for Barnes & Noble, said that the bathroom was closed a few years back because of security issues.
“We have no immediate plans to provide one,” she said.
The issue recently came before the Bayside Board of Directors meeting when member Rob Rader raised concerns about the number of public bathrooms that have been lost over the past few years, especially from the retail sector.
“As someone who has a wife and young family, it has become more and more difficult to find clean and available bathroom facilities,” Rader said. “When Barnes & Noble and Borders closed their bathrooms, it was an enormous loss and put more pressure on other bathrooms that remained open.”
For Viraj Didwania, a tourist on vacation from New York City, the bathroom situation on the promenade reminds him of his home town.
Most New Yorkers will go to Starbucks and buy a latte just to use the bathroom, he said.
“Taxi drivers have a horrible time,” Didwania said. “They usually have hook ups with restaurants where they pay around $10 a month [to use the restroom].”
The lack of facilities have put operators like Yankees Doodles — a sports bar located across from Borders and near Santa Monica Place — in a tight situation where there are more and more passers by seeking urinary respite.
When the restaurant is busy, anyone who is not a customer is turned away from using the bathroom. The restaurant has also experienced problems with homeless individuals who use the sink as makeshift showers, according to manager Jairo Hernandez.
The number of requests to use the bathroom have increased considerably since the mall shut down earlier this year, Hernandez said. The responsibility of providing public bathrooms should be borne on City Hall, considering the promenade is a high traffic area that brings in a lot of money, Hernandez said.
“Restrooms seem like a mandatory thing to have to accommodate people coming into the area,” he said.
A new central public bathroom facility is expected to open by the end of the year at a City Hall-owned parking garage on the 1300 block of Second Street. The estimated $4.7 million project includes seismic upgrade to Parking Structure 4, a new central area for trash bins, and bathrooms that will include more than 20 stalls between the men and women’s rooms.
The opening is expect to take the pressure off of some of the businesses.
Miriam Mack, the economic development manager for City Hall, said there have been discussions about whether City Hall could impose any kind of requirement on the larger existing or new businesses to have a bathroom that is open for their customers.
“There are arguments on both sides of that equation in that businesses that have restrooms open to the public can enjoy additional customers,” Mack said. “On the other hand one can argue that the business incurs additional cost with maintenance.”
Such regulations might be difficult to impose on the promenade, which is a public street made up of individual buildings, as opposed to a private shopping center like Santa Monica Place, which is operated by one developer.
There are public bathrooms currently available in five of the six bathrooms along Second and Fourth streets. Parking Structure 3, which is located on the 1300 block of Fourth Street, is occasionally staffed by a bathroom attendant.
The attendant is provided by the continuation of a 2006 pilot program in which City Hall hired several employees from Chrysalis — an organization that helps homeless individuals find jobs — to staff the restrooms in the parking garages to ensure a safer and cleaner environment. Another attendant — which will be paid through revenue from the new Bayside assessment district — is expected to be placed at the new bathroom after it opens in a few months.
Bayside consultant Rob York said the bathrooms in the parking structures are very hidden and not comfortable.
“They were very old facilities, off the alley and not well-signed,” he said.
Rader said he believes that the lack of restrooms could eventually hurt the promenade.
“Parking and bathrooms are sort of the bread and butter for a district like ours,” he said. “People will remember a negative experience and that will stay with them when they say they want to go shopping at the promenade but can’t go to the bathroom.”
firstname.lastname@example.org. Christina Walker contributed to this report