Public restrooms in downtown San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

As the mom of a toddler, I’m intimately familiar with the human need to pee and poop on a regular basis. One need not be a parent, though, to understand this need: It’s only of the few truly universal experiences everyone on this Earth has in common.

Human civilization, which is often concentrated in cities, has created a few variations on a response to this need. In America, it is toilets.

In San Diego, there are not enough of them. That has been painfully clear for a long time, but it was driven home in the most disgusting and devastating way possible when 20-plus San Diegans died of hepatitis A, which is transmitted by contact with fecal matter and was fueled by a lack of public restrooms.

That, and the increasingly desperate push to alleviate the city’s homelessness problem, is the backdrop for a plan by city staffers to let a developer and UC San Diego off the hook to build a public restroom at the corner for Park and Market downtown, after they agreed to do so in 2017 as a condition of building an office and residential tower on the city-owned block.

The proposal, which was set to be heard by a City Council committee, suggested the bathroom was no longer necessary, because the city hopes that by the end of 2023, it will have completed building a park a few blocks away, and the park will include restrooms.

The item was abruptly pulled from consideration this week. Staff said it would return with a more suitable alternative sometime in the future. But it’s unclear why sticking to the original requirement needs an alternative at all. Nor is it clear why building a restroom nearby years from now would be seen as a suitable alternative to building one blocks away now.

As Lisa Halverstadt wrote in 2017, “the lack of bathrooms is not just a homeless issue. The rush comes two years after the city officially acknowledged criticism about the need for more downtown restrooms. But the past few years, they’ve hit debacle after debacle even in far less urgent attempts to add them.”

So-called Portland Loos like the one the developer in question and UCSD would be required to build were removed in 2017, not very long after they were put in. The San Diego County Grand Jury wrote in a report that the need for more restrooms downtown had been an ongoing issue for more than a decade. That was in 2015.

As San Diego envisions growing and transforming its downtown, that vision needs to include toilets. A lot of them. Err on the side of far too many toilets. Pretend it’s 1996 and you’re putting Starbucks storefronts inside of a mall – every fourth establishment should be a restroom.

Anyone who’s dealt with a toddler knows asking him to “hold it” until you can make it to a bathroom is a dangerous game. Imagine asking someone to hold it for two years until you build one blocks away.

What VOSD Learned This Week

The future is unclear for two big event spaces: The Sports Arena redevelopment has been tripped up by a change to state law that MTS saw coming. And the Convention Center has been buoyed financially by hosting shelter operations over the last year, but it’s not clear how the transition back into an events center will go.


Jesse Marx delved into an overlooked piece of Mayor Todd Gloria’s police reform proposals. An SDSU professor wrote a thoughtful piece pushing back at community members’ calls for cities to seek out external police chief candidates. And in Chula Vista, a police “forum” for residents sure got awkward. We talked about some of the city and state police reforms on the table on this week’s podcast.


Between hazard pay, “thanks” and incentives, even more local school employees are getting money from coronavirus aid funds than previously known.


The Water Authority’s long-running external feud is now fueling an internal feud.

What I’m Reading

Line of the Week

“It really is this weird thing to walk into a CVS or a high school cafeteria or what looks like an Avengers complex theme park ride likely by yourself, EXPERIENCE A TRANSFORMATIVE MOMENT of this century, sit in silence for 15 minutes, then likely leave by yourself, externally unchanged into the unchanged world.” – Getting vaccinated is a big, weird deal.

Sara Libby

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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