Lack of public bathrooms in Old Town create conundrum for small businesses

Lack of public bathrooms in Old Town create conundrum for small businesses
The lack of public restrooms in Old Town have created a difficult situation for businesses in Old Town (Photo Credit/James Cullum)

By James Cullum |

Alcohol, drugs and other bathroom-related messes led Dunkin’ Donuts to finally put combination locks on the bathroom doors at its Old Town store last month.

“It became a problem because potheads kept using the bathroom,” said store manager Marvin Chavez. “People wouldn’t buy something. They would walk in and go to the bathroom and then leave straight away. They would smoke weed in the bathroom or they would roll up and just leave tobacco in the toilet.”

Chavez said that it’s common to see people stay all day at the small shop at 1640 King St., charging their phones and using the bathrooms without buying anything.

“It’s gotten a lot better since we installed the lock,” Chavez said. “But it smelled like weed the day after the lock was installed. I had to clean the bathroom because it smelled so nasty.”

Dunkin’ Donuts is one of many Old Town businesses steaming because of Alexandria’s shortage of public restroom facilities. The city has no 24-hour public restrooms, leaving tourists and guests with few options to find relief, especially away from City Hall and West on King Street. Old Town’s Braddock Road and King Street stations also do not have public restrooms.

It’s a tricky issue for businesses and tourists alike, considering Alexandria saw 3.5 million visitors during the 2016 fiscal year, according to Visit Alexandria.

Misha’s Coffeehouse and Roaster, centrally located at 102 S. Patrick St., has two of the arguably busiest toilets in Alexandria. Manager Jesse Voegtle estimates that more than 100 people use the coffeehouse’s two toilets throughout the day. He said that Misha’s originally bought a $1,200 Ascent II Macerating Toilet System to process waste, but that it broke. The coffee shop has since bought another $1,200 unit.

It’s not just about cost, however, for Misha’s.

“Alexandria should have more public restrooms. We do get a whole lot of people using our restrooms without buying anything,” Voegtle said. “We don’t fight it. It’s not worth the embarrassment. We get a lot of homeless people who use our bathrooms like it’s their shower. They don’t have any place to go a lot of the time.”

The impact goes beyond businesses in Old Town. Some tourists, such as Allison Hewitt, who was visiting Alexandria from Winston-Salem, North Carolina last week with her husband and two sons, say the lack of public bathrooms is noticeable.

“This is our first time here. As a tourist attraction, I would expect there to be some sort of public restrooms available,” she said, and looked down at her son. “You think you guys can make it back to the hotel?”

“Yeah, but I kind of have to go now,” said her son, Colin Hewitt.

Sarah Swenson, assistant general manager of Joe Theismann’s Restaurant, which is located across the street from the King Street Metro at 1800 Diagonal Rd., said their location makes them a perfect target for customers with the St. Vidas dance.

“We see a lot of people who come in just to use the bathroom,” Swenson said. “It’s only annoying when they do something destructive to the bathrooms… There’s no reason why this city shouldn’t have more public bathrooms.”

Some King Street restaurants have taken measures to curb the influx of visitors. Pines of Florence, a restaurant serving lunch and dinner located at 1300 King St., has a sign on their front door that reads: “Bathrooms are for customers only.”

“If you want to use the bathroom, you should buy something, or at least have a good attitude,” said restaurant manager Jay Espirito. “People just walk in and go straight to the bathroom. But now, with the sign on the door, they ask and we let them in because we know the city doesn’t have any public bathrooms.”

These Old Town public restrooms are available during normal business hours:

  • Alexandria Black History Museum, 902 Wythe St.
  • Alexandria City Hall, 301 King St.
  • Alexandria Visitors Center (Ramsay House), 221 King St.
  • Barrett Branch Library, 717 Queen St.
  • Charles Houston Recreation Center, 901 Wythe St.
  • City Marina (next to Blackwall Hitch restaurant)
  • The Lyceum, 201 S. Washington St.
  • Market Square Garage, 108 N. Fairfax St.
  • Nannie J. Lee Recreation Center, 1108 Jefferson St.
  • Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum, 105-107 S. Fairfax St.
  • Torpedo Factory Art Center, 105 N. Union St.

State and city code require public and private commercial buildings and businesses to allow customers access to their restrooms. City officials maintain that Alexandria’s bathroom arsenal is slowly building and that efforts have been made by the city to remedy the problem.

Alexandria Vice Mayor Justin Wilson points to the installation of the public bathroom next to restaurant Blackwall Hitch, which is accessible from the outside of the restaurant and serves the waterfront and marina area, as an example of the city’s efforts. The city is responsible for operating and maintaining that facility.

“This has been talked about quite a bit over the years,” Wilson said in an interview prior to the FY2018 budget being approved. “That’s why we added public bathrooms outside Blackwall Hitch when they opened in 2015. There was a desire, and we do hear it from visitors from time to time that there is a lack of public bathrooms… I would be more inclined to consider a more permanent solution. We’re about to pump a lot of money into the waterfront, and so there’s no reason as part of those projects [not] to incorporate some bathroom accessibility into them.”

In addition, city officials say there are plans in the works to build more facilities over the next decade.

“As part of the Waterfront Plan implementation, the city is planning to provide additional restrooms in two locations, coincident with the construction of park pavilion buildings housing pump station equipment. The locations are in Waterfront Park on Strand Street, and at the end of Thompson’s Alley, near where the Seaport Foundation building is today,” said City of Alexandria spokesman Craig Fifer in an email.

“The time frame for installation and the number of stalls is still unknown at this point, but the work is generally funded in the 10-year Capital Improvement Program, and the city is currently working on a construction phasing plan to adjust the funding schedule next cycle.”

The city also installs portable toilets for certain special events, including festivals at its waterfront parks.

Those efforts won’t, however, provide immediate relief for businesses like Dunkin’ Donuts, where Chavez automatically walks over and unlocks the bathroom for a Metro Bus driver.

“I just open it for people because I’m not really trying to pick a fight,” he said. “They’ll pick a fight with me as soon as I say they have to buy something. It’s just tiring to deal with.”