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In Ventura, Issue Comes to a Head

April 03, 2004|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

Like many other downtowns, Ventura's has plenty of places for strollers to stop but hardly any places for them to go.

That is why the city has started a pilot program of paying stores and restaurants several hundred dollars a month to open their restrooms for anyone in need.

The unusual marriage of public tab and private toilet is aimed at solving one of the more urgent problems faced by boosters of downtowns everywhere: Shoppers who are frantic for a bathroom fail to note the historic charm of neighborhoods where there aren't any. Malls might not offer the same quaint shops, but at least relief is only as far as the food court.

"It's been a vexing issue over the last couple of years," said Sid White, Ventura's economic development director. "We get letters from folks who come into town and can't find a restroom."

Under the city's three-month experiment, three businesses -- the Head Shop hair salon, the Bank of Books bookstore and the Busy Bee cafe -- will post "Visitor Facilities" signs in their windows. In return, the city will bear the cost of their higher bills for water and maintenance. While $500 a month has been set aside for each business, White said the actual expenses probably would be lower.

"It just seemed like a simple solution," he said.

Up the coast in Santa Barbara, the city pays three downtown businesses $200 monthly for bathroom privileges. The practice, initiated by the local Chamber of Commerce, dates to 1992.

"It's a quick fix," said redevelopment supervisor Brian Bosse. "We're trying to build downtown restrooms, but you run into tough land prices. And then you don't want inappropriate activity going on in whatever you build."

Whether a free-standing public loo would fit with the elegant Spanish look of Santa Barbara's downtown is yet another question, Bosse said. "It should be on a main street," he said, "but, on the other hand, you don't want it on a main street."

Around the U.S., a number of cities have responded to nature's call with cold, hard cash, according to the Public Restroom Initiative, an Alexandria, Va.-based group that beats the drum for more and better bathrooms.

But generally, merchants aren't crazy about the increased wear and tear on their facilities, said Robert Brubaker, the initiative's spokesman.

The group is particularly concerned about people whose medical conditions force them to use bathrooms frequently, but also speaks for pregnant women, parents of small children and the public at large. On its website, it paints a sad picture of the " 'For Customers Only' spiral:"

"In towns without public facilities, restaurants often get non-customer traffic using their bathrooms. Soon one establishment hangs the dreaded 'Customers Only' sign. This worsens the problem for the remaining restaurants. Few weeks pass before every business in town, including service stations, sports the warning."

Such restrictions run afoul of most building codes, Brubaker contends, and are legally "kind of borderline." But seekers of immediate relief are in no position to argue the law.

Clarey Rudd, owner of the Bank of Books, has seen plenty of them. Other merchants on Ventura's Main Street often steer shoppers in distress his way.

"Nobody wants to hear: 'No, we don't have a bathroom; no, we don't know where one is, and good luck!' " Rudd said. "We want to make people want to come back to Ventura."

Homeless people use the bookstore's bathroom from time to time without incident. "They've shown us respect and have treated the bathroom properly," Rudd said.

But down the street at the Busy Bee cafe, that hasn't always been the case, said Gabrielle Esquibias, one of the restaurant's owners. "Some of them have spent 20 minutes in there, showering at the sink," he said. "The way they left the room was just disgusting."

For that reason, the bathrooms at the Busy Bee now require tokens for entry. The tokens are free and available from any waitress, but "unless it's an absolute emergency," most homeless people won't ask for them, Esquibias said.

Ventura has a public bathroom in Plaza Park a block off Main Street, but that is far enough to keep most tourists away. Downtown business leaders hope the city can build another one more centrally located, but, to some people, the private sector's privies will still be preferable.

"I've always found any public facility is a mess," Esquibias said. "How often can they come by and clean it?"

On top of that, offering a clean, well-lighted place to do one's business might just be a boon for one's business. "We think this is great exposure," Esquibias said. "A tourist walking around not knowing where to pee might also want to know where to eat."

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