This is a public safety announcement for those touring the Battery: The waves lapping against the seawall may remind you of how badly you need to urinate, but there are no public restrooms for blocks and you’d best think twice before ducking into the azaleas and relieving yourself.
Later this month, the Charleston City Council is expected to give final approval to an ordinance making it “unlawful for any person to urinate or defecate on or in any public property or private property within the City except in a restroom or other toilet facility designated for the sanitary disposal of human waste.” Up to this point, public pee-ers have historically been charged with offenses such as disorderly conduct and creating a public nuisance.
But the new ordinance underscores a problem tourists and business owners have complained about for years. South of Broad Street, there are no public restroom facilities available. Visitors who enjoy a glass of sweet tea or two with their lunch at a downtown restaurant and then decide to stroll down the Battery toward White Point Gardens will likely end up walking briskly back toward Broad Street an hour later, when they feel the urge and realize there’s just nowhere to go.
“As soon as you pass Broad Street, that’s it,” says Gary White, the district’s City Councilman. “Ninety-nine percent of all tourists travel to the Battery, yet we don’t have a facility anywhere within, call it 10 blocks, that they can use.”
White says constituents have reported frequent knocks upon their doors from tourists in “emergencies” during the peak season. “It happens constantly,” says the security guard manning the door at the Fort Sumter House, a private residence directly adjacent to White Point Gardens.
Beyond the inconvenience and discomfort to our visitors, business owners in the vicinity claim the lack of bathrooms costs them money. Public facilities exist along Broad Street at the parking garage on Prioleau Street and at City Hall (whose swanky johns are among the nicest public thrones around). But to get to them, tourists in discomfort end up bee-lining it past stores they might otherwise visit.
“If among a group of people, one has to go to the can, they all run past and don’t come back,” says Gary Dow, the owner of The Tavern liquor store at the corner of Exchange and East Bay streets. “There’s nowhere to take a whiz, and it’s come to a point where our businesses are getting hurt.”
Dow claims that about 30-or-so people stop in each summer day asking to use his bathroom. And that’s despite a sign in his window stating “No Outhouse Here” which directs them two blocks north to the parking garage. He has let tourists use his tiny bathroom in the past, but he says the risk of stinkers is too high and not worth his own discomfort.
Jake’s Specialty Store on Broad Street and the Curran Gallery of Fine Art on Exchange Street echo Dow’s tales of bloated bladders. The icon for the parking garage restroom on the city’s tourist map overlaps Kevin Curran’s gallery, and people frequently duck in asking for directions there. He’ll occasionally lend them his restroom if they look especially bad-off or if they stop to look at his art.
“This neighborhood is a tourist attraction, even if the houses themselves aren’t businesses,” says Curran, reiterating the need to provide public amenities.
The City’s Visitor’s Center on Meeting Street frankly tells tourists there’s nowhere to “go” around the Battery, and to plan their visit with rest stops before and after. Councilman White sees that as enough of a problem that he’s initiated discussions about placing facilities in the neighborhood.
“We’re not far enough down the road, in my opinion, to say with any substance that, ‘Yes, it’s happening,’ but in conversations we’ve identified potential sites,” says White, adding that one of the difficulties is a lack of city property and the need to negotiate with private landowners. But council members seem supportive, he says. “It’s just simply a question of how and when we get it done.”
Years ago, the bandstand at White Point Gardens had bathrooms underneath it, but vandalism, flooding, and people sleeping in them caused the city to shut them down over two decades ago. Hazel Parker Playground on East Bay currently has a building with a restroom in it, but it’s locked up more often than it’s open.
City officials are planning revitalization work at White Point Gardens in the near future, but they say that construction of a new bathroom there is “not appropriate” for the park.
“It has to be something that’s discrete enough that it doesn’t take away from the architectural beauty of the area,” says White. “The challenge is for it to be safe, clean, and having no weird things happen in it and nobody turns it into a home after midnight. Sometimes you look at issues that seem so simple, and they have all this baggage.”
White says the intent is to find two or three appropriate locations in the area, and the best-case scenario would be to have something in place by the start of peak tourist season in the spring.
Hopefully that will mean more leisurely strolls (and more purchases) amongst the neighborhoods stores and fewer upset visitors.
“I hear a lot of people say, ‘This is horrible. I’m never coming back here again,'” says Dow, who claims he’s seen people hurry by who looked close to passing out. “I just want the city to open up something from seven in the morning to seven in the evening. And we’re not asking for the Taj Mahal.”