Across Boulder’s downtown, many restrooms built for the public have been locked shut for months on end, largely due to vandalism — busted doors, clogged toilets and toppled stalls.
Of the city’s approximately 45 public restrooms, fewer than a half dozen are in the downtown area, including the Boulder Public Library. Those that are not closed for repairs are closed at night because of vandalism concerns.
As a result, a broad spectrum of Boulderites — from business owners on the Pearl Street Mall to families with young children and unhoused people sleeping in Central Park — are clamoring for more publicly accessible restrooms. But keeping them clean and safe has long eluded Boulder and cities across the country.
A new restroom built on the 16th Street Mall in Denver was closed shortly after its celebrated opening. In an effort to prevent vandalism and keep more restrooms open, some cities are considering investing more in security and building what amount to steel bunkers, such as the Portland Loo.
In Boulder, some businesses have opened their stalls without charging. But it can be expensive to restock paper and keep them clean. It can also be challenging to monitor them. RTD’s downtown Boulder bus station, like others across the region, is regularly closed due to methamphetamine use.
“That’s a public function that’s taken on by private businesses,” Chip, the CEO of the Downtown Boulder Partnership, which advocates on the behalf of downtown businesses, said in an interview. He said he wants the city to keep more bathrooms open longer to create an “accessible downtown.”
Homeless people bear perhaps the greatest burden from the lack of public toilets. They risk criminal charges for doing what is essentially legal inside a home. According to the Boulder Municipal Court, 38 charges were filed in 2021 for public urination.
“I’m probably getting a kidney infection because there is nowhere to pee,” Jessica, 38, who declined to be identified by her last name due to arrest warrants, said. “I have a dog. So that makes it even harder.”
Several people who sleep along the Boulder Creek said they would like to see more portalets in Central Park. When the Boulder Public Library is closed, several said they resort to using the dumpster along 13th Street.
“Any public space should have one,” Will Sparks, 38, who has slept outside in places across the country, including Los Angeles, said. “People have to use the bathroom. It’s a human right.”
A new approach to encampments
Adding more toilets to Boulder’s downtown — and keeping existing ones open longer — has been discussed for years. It has drawn pushback from city councilmembers in recent years who worried the amenities would encourage people to sleep near them. Similar concerns from residents prompted the city to nix a water fountain from its development plan for a Wonderland Lake trailhead.
But some current councilmembers have taken a renewed interest in adding more toilets to the downtown as part of their desire to shift the city’s strategy on homeless encampments.
Under the $513 million recommended budget for next year, the city manager has requested $1.3 million to continue a pilot program aimed largely at clearing out encampments and picking up trash and belongings.
“We’re spending money on cleaning that up. But we can also … make some investments into providing ways for people to keep that trash right there in the first place, with things like additional trash containers, additional bathrooms and additional sharps containers,” said Mayor Aaron Brockett during a city council study session earlier this month.
Councilmembers Rachel Friend, Nicole Speer and Lauren Folkerts said they, too, want more bathrooms in the downtown area. They see more toilets as a necessary step to alleviate the impacts of rising homelessness across the Denver metro area.
“There’s an interest on council to try different things and meet people where they are,” Councilmember Friend said in an interview.
In addition to unhoused people, Councilmember Speer said adding more restrooms could serve the needs of the broader community. At Eben G. Fine, doors to the restroom have been locked as early as 6 p.m. this past summer, prompting park goers to relieve themselves around the corner of the building. Residents have also voiced frustrations on social media about people who, unable to find a restroom, defecate near the Boulder Creek. One Nextdoor user dubbed the creek the “Boulder bidet.”
“When you’re meeting the needs of those with the least, you’re actually helping everybody,” Speer said.
She and other councilmembers said they were not sure how to prevent vandalism and keep restrooms open. Speer suggested forming a working group to discuss ideas.
“This sounds a little bit silly to think about getting a few people together to try to solve that problem,” she said. “I think that’s kind of what we need.”
‘It’s a hard, intractable issue’
Speer said the city could start by adding more portable toilets near Central Park, as the city does for special events, such as the weekend farmers’ market.
The temporary solution would cost less than building new bathrooms. According to Dennis Warrington, the city’s manager of urban parks who oversees restroom maintenance, it costs the city about $600,000 to build a bathroom. He said it costs another annual $40,000 for janitorial services and $8,000 for security to lock and unlock it.
By comparison, in 2017, the city studied how much it would cost to place portable toilets along Boulder Creek. According to a staff memo, it cost an estimated $46,800 per year for four portable restrooms and $204,0000 per year for a trailer with two larger restrooms.
Warrington said the city does not have a truck to pump out the portable toilets, and may face challenges hiring companies to service them. It also would not solve the issue of vandalism.
It’s unclear why so many people are defacing the city’s bathrooms. A recent TikTok challenge encouraged people to destroy school bathrooms, tearing soap dispensers from the walls. The restroom on 9th and Canyon has been practically closed since it opened in 2019, most recently after the sewer was clogged with clothing and needles, according to Warrington. That toilet has a sewer pump designed to grind human waste that is about 20 times larger than a typical sink disposal, Warrington said. The bathroom is still locked.
“When I start to think about what a bathroom could be like to withstand all that, I have no idea,” Warrington said in an interview.
For months, the restroom on Pearl Street, the center of the city’s downtown, has been closed as the city installed stainless steel toilets designed to withstand thrashing. The bathroom reopened last weekend. On Tuesday afternoon, one of the new toilets was clogged.
Chip, the CEO of the Downtown Boulder Partnership, said toilets in the downtown area might have to be designed differently. He said cities have been using single stall toilets with sinks on the outside, in part so that when one breaks, others stay operating. He said cities are also paying people to monitor restrooms for vandalism and drug use.
“It’s a hard, intractable issue,” he said of public restrooms. “We just need to change our approach to it.”
Councilmember Lauren Folkerts, an architect, said the design of a bathroom can help reduce damage and graffiti only to a point. “If people can make something, people can break it,” Folkerts said in an interview.
But she said designing and locating the bathroom to encourages more people to use it “provides a level of community oversight.” This includes lighting that makes people feel safe, a location where people need it, and regular maintenance so that it stays clean and respected.
“I think having well-designed bathrooms is about creating dignified spaces for people,” she said. “It’s a sign of the city treating everyone in the community with respect. I think when you do that, you encourage a reciprocity of that respect.”
The Boulder City Council is planning to discuss the city manager’s 2023 recommended budget during its Oct. 6, 2022 meeting.
Update: This story was updated at 1:12 p.m. on Sept. 28, 2022 with an additional comment from Councilmember Lauren Folkerts and context regarding impacts on the Boulder Creek.