Minneapolis Leaders Call for Expanded Restroom Access in Downtown
Photo courtesy of the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District.

Minneapolis Leaders Call for Expanded Restroom Access in Downtown

A new initiative launched by the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District aims to get 100 bathrooms opened to the public.

The Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District [DID], in partnership with the City of Minneapolis, introduced last week a new initiative to increase access to public restrooms across downtown Minneapolis.

Dubbed 100 Restrooms, the project relies on a collaboration between the city and private businesses in the downtown area. The initiative calls for installing portable restrooms around Minneapolis, crafting signage directing people to restroom options, and encouraging downtown businesses to allow non-customers to use their restrooms.

Ben Shardlow, director of urban design for the Downtown Improvement District and Downtown Council, says the project has been in development for about five years. It’s a reaction to a recent annual downtown cleanliness and safety perception survey, where respondents ranked “public urination” as a top issue.   

“We have fairly large areas in downtown… [where] you are a good seven- to-10-minute walk from a restroom. People aren’t going to walk 10 minutes to find a restroom—they’re going to be desperate and find a different solution, whether that’s on the street or a private business that doesn’t want them to use their restroom,” says Shardlow. “So, we need quite a few more [restrooms] than we have now if we’re going to be serious about solving this issue.”

He says the issue is largely seen as an offshoot of homelessness, as homeless individuals are considered frequent perpetrators of public urination. But Shardlow says the lack of access is a problem for everyone who lives, works, or visits downtown Minneapolis.

There are currently 29 public restrooms downtown, opened varying hours. The DID first tested a potential solution to add more by introducing porta-potties in Peavey Plaza in 2013. Shardlow says the program was a success. When Peavey Plaza was redone, it received a permanent restroom structure instead.

But now it’s about solving the problem at scale throughout the entire downtown area.

Shardlow says 100 Restrooms is based on examples from cities around the world. One example is Austin, Texas, which is working on introducing a permanent public restroom. Jonathan Weinhagen, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber, cites Paris as another example. The French capital has installed multiple permanent public restrooms throughout the city.

But that route is costly. Shardlow says just one such restroom could be as much as a six-figure investment and will only serve a small geographic area. He cites London as a better example of what Minneapolis is aspiring to do, since London has extensive formal signage mapping out public restrooms. The U.K. city also has gotten substantial numbers of private business on board. But that, too, comes at a cost: London has offered incentives for businesses to get with the program.

“That would [involve] effectively creating a new pass-through of funds, so collecting tax revenue and then having it go back to the business for doing this. It’s a level of complexity and administration that we’re hoping to avoid if we can,” says Shardlow.

That’s why the program is starting with a few portable restrooms on a months-long basis, and why it’s not mandating businesses join the 100 Restrooms movement. It’s starting with a budget of $40,000. One of the main goals? Simply getting a conversation going rather than presenting any absolute solutions, says Shardlow.

Still, businesses have some reservations about opening up their restrooms to anyone and everyone.

“There are some concerns around how this gets operationalized,” says Weinhagen. He adds that businesses have asked questions like, “What liability am I opening myself up to? What kind of additional maintenance? What does this mean for the experience that my patrons, my employees, people in my space experience?”

Weinhagen admits some Chamber businesses have outright rejected 100 Restrooms.

“[They’ve] said it’s a great program, we hope it’s successful and lots of people subscribe to it, but it’s not the right fit for us,” he says.

One business that isn’t on board with the program is Zelo, an Italian restaurant on the Nicollet Mall.

“We’ve already had difficulties [when we left our back door unlocked] with non-guests coming in to use the restroom… whether it’s a question of they’re too intoxicated or there’s another issue going on,” says general manger Patty Pate.

She says it comes down to a safety concern, which Weinhagen notes is one of the biggest concerns many businesses have. (Though Shardlow points to the success of the Peavey Plaza project, and the positive experience with a pop-up storefront public restroom at Gaviidae Common that the DID managed the last two summers.)

Despite reservations, though, some businesses do see the upside of it, says Weinhagen.

“There’s a universal agreement that we do have a livability issue around the issue of bathrooms due to lack of access,” says Weinhagen. “Any time we’re talking about a private solution to an issue, my stakeholders tend to respond pretty favorably.”

Many Chamber businesses are considering opening up their restroom doors, says Weinhagen, and he believes if enough do, others will follow suit.

For its part, the Chamber supports 100 Restrooms.

“We think it’s a really smart, pragmatic private-sector approach to what is both an economic issue for downtown Minneapolis, but also a humanitarian issue—we’ve got people living with substandard access to some of our most basic needs,” says Weinhagen. “So certainly, we’re champions for it and hopeful it is every bit as successful as the [city and DID] believe it will be.”