Councilwoman Signe Lindell has heard the frustration of Santa Fe residents and tourists over the lack of public restrooms downtown since she first ran for office in 2014.
The city’s director of tourism, Randy Randall, thinks the frustration goes back long before that.
“It’s been a problem for 410 years,” he said, referring to the Santa Fe foundation. “They used to solve it in a different way.”
In any case, the city solves the problem. He’s heading for the May opening of a $1.1 million, 1,700-square-foot public bathroom about a block from the Plaza in the Water—yes, Water—Street parking lot.
The bathroom, designed to historic Santa Fe guidelines and built by Albuquerque-based FacilityBuild, will contain 10 stalls in the men’s and women’s bathrooms, as well as an adjoining sightseeing booth where visitors can get information, directions and brochures.
The opening is scheduled to coincide with the start of the tourist season, Mayor Alan Webber said during a tour of the facility Wednesday morning.
“The No. 1 question everyone asks when they come to the city center is: Where are the public toilets? ” ” he said.
It’s a problem that came to a head in 2016, when the city council approved a resolution to undertake a toilet project downtown, citing persistent complaints from visitors and residents about the lack of public facilities.
Restrooms, the reasoning goes, would ease pressure on Plaza businesses that have long relieved tourists.
Randall said businesses like La Fonda in the Plaza and the Five and Dime General Store have graciously served as de facto bathroom destinations, but he also noted that most businesses have stepped in to fill the void. However, they are not equipped to accommodate large numbers of visitors during the high tourist season.
Randall estimated that the Plaza receives “thousands” of visitors a day during peak tourism.
Over time, various ideas have been proposed in the past to solve the problem.
Consideration was given to a “Portland Loo” – a self-contained public restroom system that has gained popularity in major metropolitan areas. However, the cost made the project a no-start.
Webber said the city has floated other ideas, including a partnership program that would pay area businesses to open their bathrooms to visitors.
“There have been store owners and business people who have said, ‘Hey, we’ll help you,’ but often it’s at their own expense,” he said. “It’s also embarrassing for people to say, ‘Hey, I don’t shop here, but can I use your bathroom?’ People don’t like to be put in that situation.”
Andy Razatos, general manager of Plaza Cafe, said it’s been a tradition for the 117-year-old restaurant to offer the use of its restrooms, and he expects the courtesy to continue.
“We’re not the kind of place to turn people away because they need to use the restroom,” he said. “We always realized there were no toilets downtown.”
Still, Razatos said he wanted the new facility to be closer to the Plaza, noting that his staff could spend more time offering directions than just letting tourists use the restaurant’s restrooms.
To that end, Randall said there’s still a lot of work to be done on the project. He said the city is designing materials to direct people to bathrooms.
There is also a plan to install public art at the site, Randall said, with plans to improve the landscaping around the large structure.
Five and Dime manager Simon Garcia said that despite the new bathroom, he thinks the store will remain a popular destination for visitors looking for a toilet. He said the store was currently upgrading its facilities in preparation for the tourist season.
“That will solve the problem for that immediate area,” he said, referring to businesses around the new facility. “For the Plaza, I think we’re still going to be the de facto bathroom; La Fonda and the Five and Dime.”
“When you need to go,” he added, “you have to go.”