It's hard to enjoy nature when nature calls and there's no room for relief in sight. No wonder then that 81 percent of respondents to a recent Palo Alto survey rated adding restrooms to local parks as "important or very important," making toilets the most coveted new amenity. The Community Survey, which was conducted to inform the new Parks and Recreation master plan, indicated that local residents favored additional park bathrooms over water fountains (71 percent), seating areas (62 percent) or Wi-Fi access (which, contrary to Silicon Valley stereotypes, was deemed important by fewer than 20 percent of those who took the survey).
Heeding public opinion, the master plan identifies seven parks in which the city will "actively pursue" restrooms: Bol Park, Bowden Park, Eleanor Pardee Park, Johnson Park, Ramos Park, Robles Park and Terman Park.
The Community Services Department chose these parks using certain criteria: park size, level of park use, proximity to other bathrooms and amenities that encourage visitors to stick around. Despite the endorsement from survey respondents, new bathrooms aren't always popular with parks' immediate neighbors. Consider downtown's Johnson Park. In 1994, the city was considering installing a restroom to accommodate basketball players who had taken to relieving themselves on front yards and in stairwells. Instead, after residents argued that the restroom would become a magnet for transients and a neighborhood survey showed nearly twice as many people opposed to rather than supporting the bathroom, the City Council decided to rely on informational flyers and ranger patrols to curb the basketball players' bad habits. (The solution may have addressed neighbors' problems but certainly ignored those of the athletes.)
Vice Mayor Liz Kniss, who served on the council in the 1990s before returning in 2012, alluded to the bathroom-related tensions during a September discussion of new restrooms. Kniss noted that at certain parks, particularly ones that are small and heavily used, "People are concerned that a restroom brings more people and allows them to stay longer."
"Maybe that's unneighborly, but I'm just sharing the kind of things that I heard," Kniss said, noting that several people had sought her out to tell her that.
The council, for its part, generally agreed with staff's proposed bathroom policy. Former Councilman Marc Berman (now a state assemblyman) said last September that he gets "a lot of emails from friends who are apoplectic about the fact that we don't have restrooms in some of these parks." Councilman Cory Wolbach said he hears far more from people who want more bathrooms than from those who want fewer.
City staff plan to do extensive outreach before any restroom is built. But if the outreach fails to sway the neighbors, the new master plan could offer the council a powerful political cudgel against the opposition.
But restroom advocates worry nonetheless. Daren Anderson, the city's division manager for parks, open space and golf, said one question that comes up repeatedly at community meetings is: What happens if just a few people come out and say they don't want restrooms? Will you kill the idea?
Anderson said at the September meeting that the opposition will be heard but within the context of the master plan -- which is exceedingly pro-bathroom.
"When you have 700 people responding to a survey and a very large majority says, 'We want restrooms,' the voices of opposition will be heard in that context. ... We're coming to the table with a greater degree of outreach than we've ever done before."