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No plans for new restrooms after city decriminalizes relieving oneself in public

The City of Kalamazoo says it has no plans to add more public restrooms downtown. That’s despite the concerns of some business owners that there simply aren’t enough places to “go” in the shopping district.

Downtown Kalamazoo has long been short on public bathrooms. The issue’s been in the news since last week when the city decriminalized relieving oneself in public and some shop owners told the City Commission downtown streets were being used as bathrooms.

The city does have one freestanding restroom known as a Portland Loo. It’s a single cubicle with graffiti-proof wall panels, which was installed on Water Street near the Arcadia festival site in 2020.

Kathleen Widner said the Portland Loo is a great concept - put in the wrong place. For 10-years she’s been the owner of a downtown store, The Spirit of Kalamazoo, on South Kalamazoo Mall.

“It should have been somewhere on the mall or near the mall,” Widener said.

A man walks by The Spirit of Kalamazoo ice cream shop on the Kalamazoo Mall. The outside has colorful paintings of ice cream cones under the flower box below the shop window, that's near the patio tables and chairs.
Leona Larson
A man walks by The Spirit of Kalamazoo ice cream shop and local gift store on July 21, 2022. The owner said the Kalamazoo Mall needs a public restroom, but the city has no plans to build one.

Widner said Kalamazoo’s shopping district needs a public restroom. She said the facilities at the library, City Hall and the Kalamazoo Valley Museum aren’t open late enough to meet the need.

“You go to the lake shore, any town, there's public restrooms,” said Widener. “Kalamazoo is a popular destination, especially in the summer, because, guess what? On cloudy days, all the lakeshore people come to Kalamazoo. There's no place to go to the bathroom. And there hasn't been for years.”

Jeff Chamberlain is Kalamazoo’s Deputy City Manager. He said the city weighed the pros and cons of at least half a dozen or more locations for the Portland Loo, including spots closer to the Kalamazoo Mall. He said the Water Street location was chosen because it was the most visible from the street.

Chamberlain said the city doesn’t keep statistics on how many people use the Portland Loo, but it is getting used.

“We think the Portland Loo is a success,” said Chamberlain. “First of all, it came directly out of public requests for an additional public facility downtown, number one. And then, number two, it does get used throughout the day, daily. We have our downtown Ambassadors Program, which are responsible for doing daily upkeep and maintenance and cleaning of that facility. So, it gets used quite frequently throughout the day and we believe that it is needed downtown and it was the right decision to put it in.”

Chamberlain confirmed that the city has no plans to add additional public restrooms at this time. He said the new Children’s Nature Playscape on Bronson Park will be getting a Portland Loo for people using the playscape. He also said the need isn’t as great in an urban center like Kalamazoo, as it is in a tourist destination on the lake.

“For the vast majority of people, they're conducting some kind of business downtown. And so as far as using a restroom, most of times, it's with whatever business that they're meeting with,” said Chamberlain, “whether it’s a restaurant or a shop or an office building.”

Widener disagrees. She said there are plenty of other reasons why people come downtown.

“On parade days, do you know how many businesses will put up a sign 'no public restroom'? A lot of businesses do that. And I mean, I get it. Downtown needs a restroom, but if people have to go, they have to go,” Widener said. She added she hasn’t had much trouble “with people doing their business at my doorstep, but it has happened a few times.”

Just because there aren’t any plans to put in a public facility anytime soon, Chamberlain said it doesn’t mean there never will be.

“We are always in conversation with our downtown businesses and residents and other community stakeholders, and so nothing's completely off the table,” Chamberlain said. “We just don't have a plan for it at this time.”

And although it’s no longer misdemeanor to “go” in public, people who do so are still breaking the law and could face a fine.

Leona Larson (Gould-McElhone) was a complaint investigator with the Detroit Consumer Affairs Department when she started producing and co-hosting Consumer Conversation with Esther Shapiro for WXYT-Radio in Detroit while freelancing at The Detroit News and other local newspapers. Leona joined WDIV-TV in Detroit as a special project's producer and later, as an investigative producer. Today, she splits her time as a general assignment reporter at WMUK and a part-time journalism instructor for the School of Communications at Western Michigan University. Leona prefers to use her middle name on air because it's shorter and easier to pronounce.