By Spencer Philps
Spend enough time on the Downtown Mall late at night and you’re bound to see it happen: someone hunched over against a wall “relieving” himself.
Downtown business operators are acutely aware of this issue: One says he’s seen people urinating late at night, by the bus station and beside the unfinished Landmark hotel.
Such incidents appear to be connected to a larger issue: a shortage of public bathrooms on the Downtown Mall.
This isn’t for lack of trying. Another Downtown Mall proprietor, who also wishes to remain anonymous, says the businesses and shops downtown have been advocating for a public restroom facility for over 10 years.
“Many municipalities have devised safe, clean, public restrooms; surely Charlottesville can figure this out, too,” she says.
Yet a solution to the problem has long eluded the city’s planners and developers. Given the lack of utility availability and space, and the fact that the city owns very little land on the mall, it’s unclear where public restrooms could even be built.
Currently, there are public bathrooms outside the Downtown Transit Station, facing the Sprint Pavilion, but they are only open during events. There are also bathrooms inside the station, but the building closes at 8pm Monday to Saturday, and at 5pm on Sundays.
Paul Oberdorfer, the interim deputy city manager of operations, said in an email that city staff recommended the installation of port-a-johns at the City Market site to City Council in August. However, downtown businesses have been hesitant about port-a-johns, and City Council was similarly unreceptive. As of now, there aren’t any other plans for public restroom facilities.
Downtown Business Association Vice President Blair Williamson acknowledges the obstacles: “It’s hard to find a place to put them that satisfies folks, and what they might look like, and how they might be cleaned, if they’re safe, and to put them in a place that would serve people.” she says.
And not everyone sees a public bathroom as a cure-all for downtown’s public urination woes.
“I don’t know an easy answer as it were, because I kind of wonder if the people who are prone to do that would even bother to walk to where the bathroom is, or if they’re in the right frame of mind to do that,” says one downtown shopkeeper.
Williamson sees bringing more public restrooms to the Downtown Mall as one key element of a broader improvement project.
“A public restroom is definitely a high priority, but I think that it is in conjunction with all of the lighting and security issues that we have downtown. Lighting and security is at the top of our list,” she says.
Last year, the DBA wrote a letter to the city manager and City Council asking for budget appropriations for public restrooms, among other improvements. The letter noted that over the previous four years, city expenditures increased by 17 percent, while expenditures on the mall dropped almost 20 percent. In the fiscal year 2018-19 budget, $94,000 was ultimately appropriated for downtown pedestrian lighting improvements.
“We want people to want to come downtown because it’s a wonderful place to be,” says Williamson. “And we want them to just have the basic services they need.”
Restrooms outside the Downtown Transit Center are only open during events, and those inside the station are closed at night.