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No place to 'go': Most Anchorage parks lack bathrooms

Sean Doogan
With the closure of many park bathrooms in Anchorage, park visitors are left with fewer options, including portable toilets in some, like Valley of the Moon park, pictured here on July 9, 2014. Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News

The Municipality of Anchorage boasts more than 200 parks and hundreds of miles of trails. But more than half of Anchorage parks and almost all the trail systems are lacking in one important area: a proper place to go when nature calls.

And there are almost no public restrooms in the city's downtown core -- especially after businesses and government offices close each day.

According to the city's Department of Parks and Recreation, Anchorage has 223 public parks, but only about 100 of those have a public bathroom nearby. The city said it spends between $100,000 and $120,000 a year on chemical toilets (commonly known as port-a-potties) for local parks, ballfields and green spaces. And they are only available seasonally. To avoid freezing, and to keep costs down, the toilets are placed around Anchorage in May, and are all removed by the end of September.

Parks with the most use get the toilets, which are contracted by the city from several local companies.

Many local parks used to have permanent structures to house restrooms. But they were expensive to operate and repair, according to Holly Spoth-Torres, maintenance superintendent for the Anchorage Parks and Recreation Department.

"As they broke or became unsafe, we closed them," Spoth-Torres said. "It has been gradual over time."

The public restroom on the Delaney Park Strip in downtown Anchorage was hit by a car two years ago and another at Valley of the Moon Park was vandalized. Standard green port-a-potties are now at both parks.

But some parks busy enough to warrant getting a portable toilet don't get one.

Why? Because of the things people do in, and to, the plastic, enclosed port-a-potties.

"Some of these parks, we try to put them in there and they get heavily vandalized or are filled with drug needles, and other illegal stuff," said C.B. Stewart, a permit coordinator for the Parks and Recreation Department.

Stewart said the companies that the city contracts for the port-a-potties take a loss if their chemical toilets are damaged or destroyed.

Stewart said his office used to put chemical toilets at Taku Campbell Lake and DeLong Lake -- popular Anchorage ponds for fishing, dog walking and bike riding -- but had to pull them out after the toilets were damaged or destroyed. The one at DeLong Lake was repeatedly burned to the ground, and city workers discovered a gun inside the port-a-potty at Taku Campbell Lake before it was pulled out for good, according to Stewart.

No place else to go

Lisa Sauder, executive director of Bean's Cafe, said the lack of public bathrooms is certainly a problem for the city's homeless, but not just for that demographic. Bean's Cafe serves as a local shelter and soup kitchen serving more than 500 meals per day, and its two bathrooms are almost constantly in use.

"It is important, not only for the populations we work with but even for tourists and visitors: If you don’t want to go into an establishment and purchase something, where are you supposed to go?" Sauder asked.

The lack of public bathrooms may be partially responsible for a particularly smelly mess inside a public breezeway on Fourth Avenue in downtown Anchorage, where people were relieving themselves until the city and two neighboring businesses worked together to block it off on July 10.

Angelique Miller, the development and outreach director for the Downtown Soup Kitchen -- which also serves hundreds of meals each day to the city's poor and homeless -- said the lack of loos is one reason her organization decided to leave its port-a-potty unlocked and open to the public 24 hours a day. Miller said the toilet, which was put outside so clients waiting in line for food could use it, used to be locked up at night. But, each morning, according to Miller, workers would have to clean up a big mess -- left behind by people who tried, but failed, to get inside to the toilet.

"We don't have to clean up as much human waste outside since leaving the port-a-potty unlocked," Miller said.

A conspicuous problem

The lack of public facilities isn't going unnoticed, especially for people who use local parks.

"When I have to go to the bathroom, I have to leave," said Tonya Porcher, who was fishing for trout at Taku Campbell Lake, in South Anchorage, on Wednesday afternoon. Tonya kept casting as men fishing nearby could be seen ducking into the nearby woods, ostensibly to relieve themselves.

"That problem, unfortunately, is everywhere," Stewart said of members of the public using the woods as a toilet. "People are doing that everywhere, if you walk 15 or 20 feet into the woods on the Coastal Trail, you will see it."

Stewart said his office gets a handful of complaint calls each year about the lack of restroom facilities at local parks.

"Once you educate them a little bit (about the cost and vandalism problems) they say, 'that totally makes sense,' " Stewart said.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean@alaskadispatch.com.