Looking for signs of public restrooms

When Johnny Sharp and Janna Reid decided to go for a walk in Charleston on a recent afternoon, a half-mile hike to find a bathroom really wasn't what they had in mind.

The Georgetown natives had a pressing need to find a restroom when they parked their car along The Battery at midday. Without a single public toilet South of Broad, however, they found themselves on a circuitous search through side streets before finally finding relief in a parking garage bathroom on Prioleau Street.

"Finding a bathroom was our first priority, and it was definitely a little difficult to find," Sharp said.

The city has some 15 public toilets sprinkled about the peninsula, but locating one can seem a bit like a scavenger hunt at times. Some are marked by signs; some are not. Some close at 5 p.m., others at 8. One isn't open on Mondays. Another is frequently locked. Municipal parking garages have public toilets, but many privates ones do not. But how does the average person tell them apart?

Charleston officials insist the Holy City has an ample supply of public potties, but they acknowledge more can probably be done to help people find a restroom when nature calls.

To that end, Mayor Joe Riley said he has appointed a task force of city staffers to "aggressively and creatively" look into ways to more effectively educate people on restroom options in the city. This toilet task force will study things like improving signs, maps and other informational tools to guide visitors who have to go. "We need to work on this some more," he said.

Riley made the move after a recent Post and Courier article detailed visitors' frustration and confusion with finding a public toilet in times of need. More people have since contacted the newspaper to share complaints about locked or dirty bathrooms and long searches for a loo.

Lynn Eichhorn, a Goose Creek mother of six, said she curtailed trips downtown after one nerve-wracking episode trying to find a bathroom for her kids. "Going to the bathroom is a public need -- and it seems unless you have a house downtown, or go to college our needs don't matter," she wrote in an e-mail.

Bob Scribner, owner of Charleston Harbor Tours, said he has encountered public bathrooms in the city that are closed, filthy or lacking in basic supplies. When he recently attempted to use a men's room in the Concord Street garage, he found it locked and sporting an "out-of-order" sign that had been there so long it was "yellow and dog-eared," he said.

The Post and Courier visited each of the public toilets in Charleston on a recent afternoon and found most -- including Concord Street -- to be relatively clean, in working order and open for use.

Entrance was denied to just one toilet, a unisex restroom located in a Mary Street parking garage. A sign on the door indicated that the bathroom remains locked and referred visitors to the parking attendant for a key. The attendant, however, refused to give the key to a reporter, saying the restroom had just been cleaned.

Edward Burn is president of Hughes Lumber, located across the street from the garage, which abuts a heavily-used CARTA bus stop. He said the Mary Street bathroom always seems to be locked and off-limits. Burn said drivers and riders alike end up using his business' bathroom, which creates mess and extra work for his staff. He complained to City Hall and CARTA last year but nothing happened, he said.

"It's been an ongoing problem for years and nobody seems worried about it," he said.

Riley said the bathroom was locked after several problems with its abuse, including homeless people using it to bathe. The key, however, should be attainable from the attendant and the bathroom open to the public, he said.

More often, getting into the city's bathrooms is less challenging than simply figuring out where they are. Several other public restrooms in the city also are tucked in out-of-the-way spots with little advertising to announce their presence.

Just consider what is arguably the Cadillac of Charleston's bathroom fleet -- the restrooms beneath City Hall itself. It's a charming space replete with arched ceilings; soft, recessed lighting and sleek, stainless steel fixtures. On their way in, visitors are treated to historical markers, a display of artifacts and a video of Charleston -- not to mention a drinking fountain ensconced in a marble alcove. But a street sign pointing to the john? Good lucking finding one.

Rex Russell, a visitor from Fort Worth, Texas, gave the spot a hearty thumbs up after a local told him exactly where to find the bathroom. Would he have ever found it on his own? "Heck no," Russell said.

Portland, Ore., considered by many to be a trend-setter in public toilets, had its own signage issues when an advocacy group called PHLUSH formed in 2006 to promote restroom availability.The city now has distinctive blue bike-rack signs marking toilet locations. Toilet icons also are featured in advertising-supported, fold-out maps that are produced annually and distributed free of charge in hotels, restaurants and retail locations, according to PHLUSH.

Riley sees opportunity for Charleston to more actively promote its public restrooms as well, and staffers are looking at other cities' practices for possible ideas. He wants to involve hotel concierges and the local visitors bureau to find ways to inform tourists about restroom locations and stress the need to plan ahead when visiting areas with no facilities, like the South of Broad neighborhood.

"This is for the benefit of our residents, as well as the visitors who come here, to make their stay more enjoyable," he said. "I think there is a lot of additional things we can do."

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or gsmith@postandcourier.com.