Update below: Dennis Ryerson lives near 24th and Broadway, a vibrant and lively part of Denver that he's grown to love. But there are some drawbacks.
"In my neighborhood, people use the back door to the building I live in to defecate and urinate," he says. "And women will just squat between cars and pee. I've seen this. It's crazy."
It's also understandable, because in Ryerson's view, central Denver has a significant shortage of public restrooms. And with fewer and fewer businesses allowing the average person to use their facilities, the relief options are even more limited.
"When you talk to shoppers along the 16th Street Mall and other people who come to town, it's a big frustration for them," Ryerson says. "If you look at the directories on the mall, they say there are public toilets at Skyline Park and Confluence Park. But the ones at Skyline are closed, and Confluence is near the Platte River — and those restrooms are not open year-round.
"There's just no place to go."
Councilwoman Robin Kniech agrees that the lack of public restrooms in central Denver needs addressing, which is why she's among the city officials who'll be participating in a listening session on the topic scheduled for April 11; get details at the bottom of this post. There, she'll share a map featuring city data that underscores the scope of the issue in a particularly vivid way — by showing the locations of urination citations and complaints about human waste. And there have been a lot of them.
The map, on view below in its entirety, depicts 2014 incidents, with the yellow circles designating human-waste-complaint sites; the bigger the circles, the more calls about that particular spot. Urination citations, meanwhile, are denoted by parentheses. Larger parentheses with red marks behind them stand for locations at which multiple citations have been issued, up to eight. (See the key below.)
"The map is citywide, but there's definitely a concentrated zone," Kniech says. "They're heavily concentrated in central Denver."
Here's an example — a section of the map encompassing portions of the central business district (CBD), Civic Center and Capitol Hill areas, plus Police District 6:
The map would be even more cluttered if all of the data on human waste and urination citations that's been gathered to date had been included.
"We looked at 2012 through December of 2014," Kniech says. "During that time, we had 1,544 citations for public urination, as well as 201 public-indecency complaints. We don't know of all the public-indecency complaints were bathroom-related, but we believe many, if not most, of them were."
The amount of human waste that's been found is probably only a small portion of the total, too, Kniech believes. The data is based on Denver's 311 call center, which deals with a wide number of matters — "everything from barking dogs to potholes that need filling," Kniech points out.
There were "somewhat less than 100 calls" about human waste in 2014, she adds, and even though numbers from the final months of the year aren't in yet, "we know more people used the outdoors as a restroom than that."
Ryerson, a retired editor for the Indianapolis Star newspaper, became involved with the issue through his participation in a community group that offered advice to Denver police in District 6 about how to deal with the homeless population in the LoDo and the Ballpark neighborhoods.
"We met with the mayor's office and touched on several areas," Ryerson recalls. "One of them was panhandling, and another was public toilets — and they asked me to take a leading role in that."
In conjunction with the Denver Parks and Recreation Department, Ryerson began doing research, and he soon learned that cities in North America and across the world have increasingly viewed public restrooms as a way to "deal with bad behavior associated with a lot of things, including prostitution and drug use. They don't eliminate those behaviors, but they help control it."
There are also environmental benefits, he argues. "Public Works has gotten involved, too," he says, "because this is a significant groundwater issue. It's not just about convenience."
Another argument in favor of more public restrooms, in Ryerson's view, involves improvements in their design, as epitomized by the Portland Loo, developed by the City of Portland, Oregon, and products manufactured by Exeloo, a company based in New Zealand that operates globally.
"People think of public toilets as port-a-potties," he acknowledges. "They're ugly, they stink, women don't like using them. But there are more and more public toilets that are architecturally attractive."
Here's a look at the exterior of a Portland Loo.
And here's a collage of images depicting Exeloo products:
These items aren't cheap. Kniech estimates the cost of a Porland Loo as being "in the $150,000 range when you count the construction pad and the sewer hookups for an actual flushing bathroom."
Nonetheless, Kniech gets a sense that more and more locals would get behind such an investment.
"I've heard from business and commercial property owners who've been dealing with waste, particularly in their alleys, but also sometimes at their front doors," she says. "We've had complaints from neighbors in densely populated areas like Capitol Hill who have the experience of seeing the people, and smelling the smells. And we've heard from some individuals who are homeless. They say that especially at night, when the parks are closed because of curfew, they're not able to find a place to go to the bathroom."
Then there's the impact of downtown entertainment.
"Think about the Broncos and Rockies games when they let out, or the Fillmore and some other concert venues," Kniech notes. "Those places dump out large numbers of people at the same time. And there's also bar-close time in LoDo."
Such patrons actually cause more public-waste problems than do the homeless, Kniech believes. "The majority of citations go to people with a permanent address," she says. "So my presumption is that they're on an entertainment or sports-type outing and they have nowhere to go."
That's definitely the case at Coors Field, Ryerson allows: "I got a tour of all the places around the stadium that people use. They have these brick archways where you can't be seen from the street — or the entrance to the brewpub on the north side of the stadium."
Kniech hopes for a good turnout at the aforementioned April 11 meeting, even though the topic of public restrooms isn't the sort of thing typically debated in such a forum.
"This is about a healthier city and a better quality of life," she says. "The success of our city as a destination, and the success of our entertainment districts and business areas, is self-evident. Public restrooms are really just the next step in Denver's evolution as a major city."
For his part, Ryerson concedes that "we Americans are just uncomfortable talking about bodily functions. But I know it matters to people. I was on a ski lift at Winter Park a few weeks ago and I started talking about this with a couple of women from Golden who were in their early fifties. They said they love coming to Denver and going to the 16th Street Mall, but it drives them nuts that there's nowhere to go to the bathroom.
"Whenever I bring this up to people, they say, 'Of course we've got to do something. We've got to have some solutions.'"
Update: After the original publication of this item, we received a note from Pamela McGinnis Hanstein, a senior GIS analyst with the City of Denver, who told us that the map we originally featured wasn't displaying properly.
The parentheses-like symbols used to denote locations of urination citations were supposed to appear as red circles, she revealed.
Thanks to Hanstein, we have now added an expandable image of the map's red-circle version.
See it below the previously shared downloadable PDF and accompanying key, as well as details about the April 11 listening session.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.