When I was serving as chair of the City of Beacon’s Main Street Access Committee, one of the longest discussions we had — after issues related to pedestrian safety, parking and dangerous intersections — was the problem of public toilets.
We heard complaints from homeowners that visitors used their backyards and public spaces to pee. We’d also heard from Main Street businesses about visitors demanding to use employee restrooms, despite posted policies.
The Main Street Committee looked into public-restroom solutions such as the Portland Loo, a single-user toilet pod designed to be vandal-proof. However, the expense can be considerable: single units cost nearly $200,000 each, and they must be connected to electric and water lines, which costs a great deal more.
The problems are not limited to Beacon. Take a walk down any Main Street USA and you will likely see “No Public Restroom” or “Restrooms for Customers Only” signs in many storefronts. Aside from being inhospitable, the policies behind these signs, at least in New York state, appear to be illegal.
The New York State Plumbing Code, Section 403.3, appears to my reading fairly clear about access to restrooms in buildings open to the public, such as stores and restaurants. It reads:
“Customers, patrons and visitors shall be provided with public toilet facilities in structures and tenant spaces intended for public utilization.”
You might think that a regulation like that would keep merchants from putting signs in the window. But it does not, in large part because the state cedes regulation to municipalities.
In Beacon and Cold Spring, clearly, the interpretation has been that non-customers can be shut out.
New York isn’t the only state with limited public toilets. Elizabeth Yuko, a Bloomberg reporter, investigated in 2021, and noted that 10 years earlier, the United Nations had appointed a “special rapporteur” to access the “human right of clean drinking water and sanitation” in the U.S. She reported being shocked by the lack of public toilets in one of the richest economies in the world.
Compared to Europe and Asia, there aren’t many government-funded public restrooms. According to a report issued three years ago by a U.K. bathroom supply company and the online toilet-finding tool PeePlace, the U.S. has eight toilets per 100,000 people — on par with Botswana. (Iceland was No. 1, with 56 per 100,000.)
Tied with Botswana in 2021, and I bet it hasn’t gotten much better.
The Highlands are extremely short on public restrooms, aside from those that should be provided by merchants. There are no public toilets in the area listed at PeePlace. While there has been City Council discussion about the lack of public toilets in parks, and various announcements about improvements and increased hours, there does not seem to be any information on the city website that someone might use to find a public restroom or portable toilet.
I grew up in Boston, and as a child I had access to coin-operated public restrooms. By one report, there were more than 50,000 of them across the U.S. in 1970. Some viewed charging someone when nature calls as unjust and by 1980 there were next to none. But cities and towns did not pick up the slack.
If our cities and town can’t afford to build public restrooms, and the coin-operated model can’t be resurrected, elected officials should pass ordinances requiring that the state regulations be enforced as written. Many restaurants, bars and groceries already provide customer access; it is built into their business model to maintain them and clean them. Similarly, other businesses provide employees with access.
While mandating that all businesses provide visitor access to restrooms will be a break with convention, there is a public interest in stricter interpretation of the state code. Local governments should do so, perhaps giving businesses a few months to prepare.
The majority of businesses on Beacon’s Main Street are renters, paying top dollar for antiquated spaces. Our tiny, non-ADA compliant bathrooms also function as stock room, break room, and sometimes office space. The rental market is such that not only do landlords offer zero concessions for build-out, they have been known to solicit proposals from prospective tenants outlining how they, the tenant, will improve the space. So tell me, do you have a plan for getting the owners to upgrade the facilities for public use? Or is that also something retailers should “build into their business plan?”
Contrary to popular opinion, the small businesses on Main Street are not raking in piles of cash. Plenty of us are still barely squeaking by. But sure, why ask the local government to act for the public good when you can push it off on business?
For the record, my bathroom is always available to my customers and I will never say no to a child or pregnant person. But after too many people breezing in without so much as a “May I?” and leaving super nasty messes for us (see above, “substandard plumbing”), I’ve given myself permission and my staff discretion to say “no.”