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City floats plan for public restroom near Plaza

January 9, 2018 GMT

In what would come as an enormous relief to hordes of bladder-pinched tourists, the city’s Public Works Department has fleshed (or is that flushed?) out a preliminary plan to install a public toilet downtown near the Santa Fe Plaza.

A so-called Santa Fe Loo could be situated on what is now a curbside parking spot at the southeast corner of Sheridan Street and Palace Avenue, according to a memo from the city’s facilities division. That’s a block west of the Plaza’s northwest corner, a distance a pedestrian could cover in about a minute.

The lack of a convenient public place to relieve oneself in the historic city center has long been a glaring deficiency in an area flooded by hordes of tourists each year, who come to shop, dine, drink and sightsee at scores of galleries, shops and restaurants.

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For all that, no place to go.

The result is a sort of ad hoc network of recommendations made by hotel concierges and downtown businesses, some of whom will grant clemency to a noncustomer in an emergency.

“I think they have realized offering their facilities brings them into the store and results in a beneficial return,” said Randy Randall, head of Tourism Santa Fe. “Clearly that doesn’t shed responsibility from the city.”

A commode for the commons is a longstanding high-priority need for the downtown area, said Simon Brackley, head of the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce.

“To make visitors feel welcome is priority number one,” Brackley said.

“But we should also remember we have tremendous events downtown — the bandstand series, Pancakes on the Plaza — which are very much geared toward locals, who have the same needs,” Brackley added. “This is not just about visitors.”

A 2014 survey conducted by the city found visitors and residents alike flagged the absence of bathrooms on the Plaza as their top concern.

“Tourist trap without restrooms,” grumbles a 2014 two-star TripAdvisor review of the Plaza.

The proposal, which appeared Monday before the Public Works Committee, entails a sort of kiosk, within which there would be a single seat.

The loo would come from a Portland, Ore., company, The Portland Loo, which manufactures the stainless steel restrooms and could ship one to Santa Fe intact, the city memo states.

The loo is lightweight and “open,” according to a schematic from the manufacturer. Louvers, or open slats, ring the 10-foot-tall unit at the top and bottom. The lower slats are angled, the schematic says, to allow law enforcement to observe how many are within the stall without infringing on a user’s privacy.

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City councilors, while applauding the initiative, expressed various concerns, including whether the design of the restroom would pass muster with the city’s fastidious Historic Districts Review Board. Seated Wednesday night in the front row of the chamber, David Rasch, supervising planner in the Historic Preservation division, vigorously shook his head as if to say no chance.

Councilor Joseph Maestas, referencing a planned revamp of the city’s Sheridan Street transit terminal, said, “I know we need restrooms. But this area is the main area we’re going to revitalize. I realize we’re trying to find an out-of-the-way place, but, yikes. Is this the place we want to place it?”

Curt Temple, a project administrator in the facilities division, said other locations on streets off the Plaza hadn’t been ruled out and added that more loos could be placed on Sheridan, where portable toilets have been installed during big events.

Staff estimated the cost of the installation at $130,000, with a funding source still to be determined. A hand-washing spigot would be mounted outside.

One of the few available restrooms adjacent to the Plaza that is regularly made available to passersby sits within the Five & Dime, where Lorraine Chavez, a supervisor, said visitors wreak havoc.

“They stuff it with papers; they put T-shirts down it; there’s a major plumbing problem,” said Chavez, who runs the snack bar. “We do offer it, but they do some damage. [A city-installed public restroom] would level it out here for us.”

Randall said he hoped to see more than the single seat and emphasized upkeep would be essential.

“I think anything would be an improvement,” he said. “But clearly we can’t put one restroom down on Sheridan and think we’ve solved the problem.”

Brackley said the need for a public restroom in the heart of the city stretches back decades.

“It’s become a bit of a community joke,” he said. “I think businesses have stepped up and provided this expensive service for years and years, and people took it for granted. No one has stood and peed in the middle of the Plaza.

“In some ways, that’s what you want — a demonstration of radical discomfort to make the change,” Brackley added. “Downtown merchants have all dealt with people walking in who have said, ‘I’ve got to go. Right now.’ ”

Contact Tripp Stelnicki at 505-428-7626 or tstelnicki@sfnewmexican.com.