‘Civic responsibility’ or crime magnet? Historic Sacramento park likely to get public bathroom

Will Cesar Chavez Park get public restrooms?

Christopher Lamb, 45, a homeless man, says he thinks bathrooms for homeless are good but more issues need to be addressed at Cesar Chavez Park on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019.
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Christopher Lamb, 45, a homeless man, says he thinks bathrooms for homeless are good but more issues need to be addressed at Cesar Chavez Park on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019.

The Sacramento City Council is poised to grant an amenity homeless activists have requested for years — a restroom in downtown’s Cesar Chavez Plaza. But some in the influential business community oppose the plan, arguing it will lead to an increase of drugs and crime in the city’s historic public square.

The City Council will soon consider whether to approve the design and construction of a restroom in the park for $360,000. The “Portland Loo” style freestanding restroom would not just serve the homeless who congregate there but also the general public, said Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents downtown.

There was a public bathroom in the 3-acre park, but it was closed to the public in 2015, according to city spokeswoman Marycon Young.

“The biggest issue is we took the bathroom out of the park,” Hansen said. “There was a commitment by me and the council to replace it and this is fulfilling that pledge to replace the bathroom for the public.”

The Downtown Sacramento Partnership strongly opposes the restroom, fearing its addition would attract more drugs, assaults and low-level crime. Michael Ault, executive director of the business organization, said people causing those issues are not all homeless.

What is now Cesar Chavez Plaza is one of the oldest park spaces in the state, established in 1849 by John Sutter, the city’s founding father. It has long been a gathering spot, a hosting ground for farmer’s markets, outdoor concerts, lunching state workers and protests. The city has spent thousands of dollars over the years on landscaping and other renovations.

But there is a constant push-and-pull to the park. While business interests have tried to make it a destination for downtown residents, tourists and workers, the park also attracts a large homeless population.

“It’s the city’s front porch, right in front of City Hall,” Ault said. “We deserve a better management structure in that park.”

City officials have not determined whether the bathroom facility would be open 24/7, or just from sunrise to sundown, Hansen said.

Either way, the downtown group opposes the idea unless there is an attendant present, Ault said. He wrote a letter to the City Council in March of last year sharing concerns.

“If you talk to law enforcement and tenants around the park, they’d tell you it’s a problem and it’s only going to get worse with an unmanaged facility,” Ault said.

Ault said he is not convinced more public restrooms are needed downtown — there are already bathrooms in the nearby Sacramento Central Library, City Hall and the Amtrak train depot. He is waiting on data from the city to help determine whether there remains a need for more bathrooms.

Hansen said the city recently conducted a study of public restrooms that found restrooms were most needed in the River District and downtown — areas with the most calls to the city’s 311 line reporting human waste. A 2018 study by the city determined there were 85 public restrooms in Sacramento, 28 of which were open 24 hours a day.

The city and county in October opened a restroom in the River District at North A and 14th streets, Young said.

That restroom has been getting more than 200 uses per day, said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. Erlenbusch is pleased the city will consider the Cesar Chavez Plaza restroom.

“I’m glad they’re moving forward on it. It’s about time,” Erlenbusch said. “The more bathrooms they open, the less public health risk there is.”

Since the bathroom was closed at the park, homeless people have mostly used the library, Erlenbusch said.

Sacramento Public Library Director Rivkah Sass said she was also glad to hear the restroom idea was moving forward.

“If we’re going to be a full-service city, we have to offer places for people to go,” Sass said. “Public restrooms are really a civic responsibility.”

The library spends tens of thousands of dollars each year to clean urine and excrement outside the building, likely left by people when the library was closed, Sass told The Sacramento Bee last year.

If the council approves the restroom later this month, it would likely open in spring of 2020, Young said.

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Theresa Clift covers Sacramento City Hall. Before joining The Bee in 2018, she worked as a local government reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Daily Press in Virginia and the Wausau Daily Herald in Wisconsin. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from Central Michigan University.