As many as four new public bathrooms are expected to be built in downtown Kalamazoo, with the locations and designs to be finalized within the next month followed by a 30-day window for contractors to submit proposals to the city.
The general lack of restroom options has been a problem in downtown Kalamazoo exacerbated by concerns from business owners about an increase in public urination blamed on a growing houseless population downtown. Misinformation about a new City of Kalamazoo ordinance regarding public urination made its way to Fox News last month.
Rebekah Kik, the director of Community Planning & Economic Development for the City of Kalamazoo, said four locations owned or managed by the city have been identified for the restrooms. One public restroom, a Portland Loo design, was installed in late 2020 and is available 24 hours a day.
Kik said the city is taking suggestions for the design and other features – including those big enough for families instead of individuals, self-cleaning models, and alternative locations to those already identified near Bronson Park and the east side of the Kalamazoo Mall. Kik said temporary restrooms such as porta johns are not being considered.
Downtown business owners who gathered at the Southwest Michigan First offices for a Q&A session with Kik on Tuesday offered suggestions such as that the bathrooms be locally made, a scaled-down design like a traditional concrete facility, and that the city incentivize businesses to open their restrooms for referrals from other downtown businesses.
The session was hosted by Clarence Lloyd, director of the Southwest Michigan First Chamber, who attempted to focus the nearly 100 attendees on solutions to issues that have long been raised. Lloyd called the townhall event “a step in the process” to ensure the ideas of business are part of the city’s decision-making.
Lloyd’s facilitation was tested at times, with one attendee calling for a zero-tolerance policy for people living outside or asking for money. Such regulations have been deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Others said an investment in public restrooms shouldn’t cater to the needs of houseless people. Instead, the city should reduce the numbers of such people gathering downtown.
Dean Hauck, owner of the 75-year-old Michigan News Agency, said she’s had plenty of experience with people in need in the downtown area, but still urged the city to create more 24-hour public restrooms “for safety and for human dignity.”
Concerns were raised about the lack of police presence as a deterrence to unhoused people. Several business owners raised concerns about female employees being harassed when walking in poorly lit or underutilized locations throughout downtown.
Multiple people said the presence of unhoused people creates a “perception” problem that deters shoppers and diners from coming downtown.
“People don’t feel safe,” said Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety (KDPS) Acting Chief David Boysen. “We actually have low rates of crime downtown. Especially violent crime.”
Boysen said a new initiative teaming up a police sergeant, an officer, and a social worker will soon be deployed to address public safety calls while minimizing police interactions with people who need mental health services. (Kalamazoo, like other communities, suffers from decades of federal and state disinvestment in mental health care.)
“A few people are driving a majority of our problems,” Boysen said. He said KDPS is working with the city attorney to train police on what laws are enforceable and the county sheriff’s department to more aggressively jail repeat offenders.
The City of Kalamazoo is also looking to increase security cameras in public locations and businesses as well as improve lighting.
“Abandoned space doesn’t feel safe,” said Carl Brown, a member of the Downtown Development Authority. He encouraged more businesses to open and attract crowds, especially outside in the pedestrian areas of downtown, making such spaces less attractive to people in need of places to sleep outside or deciding to urinate in public.
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