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Should restrooms stay open so homeless can use them during Lions Park construction?

As civic construction projects have moved forward in Costa Mesa and Newport Beach over the years, there’s always controversies regarding design, cost, inconvenience to residents, etc.

But Costa Mesa’s current Lions Park project is facing a rather unique wrinkle: Where do the homeless there go to the bathroom during construction?

To give you some background, the $36.5-million park project is being constructed in phases and broke ground in July.

The first phase is tearing down the old community center, making way for a two-story, 22,860-square-foot library.

The current library will remain open and be converted into meeting space. The whole thing is slated to open in 2020.

Because of the homeless problem in the park, the decision to leave bathrooms open or closed during construction remains controversial.

Talking to Costa Mesa Councilman John Stephens this week, it seems the council and City Manager Tom Hatch were on the same page to close the restrooms during construction.

Yet recently the bathrooms reopened.

That caused an outcry from some residents on the Costa Mesa Public Square Facebook page who shared comments trying to figure out who gave the order. Conspiracy theories flew.

Julie Fowler, a poster on Costa Mesa Public Square, wrote me saying, “Our issue is electeds who mislead the public on their true intentions with respect to concerning policy that safeguards resident safety. Saying one thing to public and blaming "staff" when, behind closed doors, they are actually the ones directing staff to act against staff recommendations and their better judgment.”

Now it’s no secret looking at Costa Mesa Public Square that many proponents aren’t fans of the likes of Mayor Katrina Foley, Councilwoman Sandy Genis and Stephens, who form the City Council majority, thus I doubt any explanation coming from City Hall would appease them.

But the fact is that in life, as in government, solutions sometimes come through trial and error, without anything nefarious behind it. It was Hatch who made the decision.

In a written statement Hatch sent to the City Council, city staff and read to the Parks and Recreation Commission, it’s pretty clear he was trying to find his way through “potty-gate” by doing just that.

“The restrooms at the south end of Lions Park have been closed for several years due to drug use and criminal activity,” he wrote. “Originally, the plan was to fence the entire southeast area of Lions Park, due to the upcoming construction, to help ensure a safe environment.

“Due to requests and concerns that were expressed related to the availability of restrooms and open space, I made the decision to try to provide some space and reopen the restrooms at Lions Park. The construction fence went up approximately two weeks ago and provided access to the restrooms which were reopened at the same time.”

He went on to write that, “over the last two weeks several problems have occurred,” and that there had been an “increase in drug users openly using drugs and gathering together,” as well as criminal activity related to this.

Hatch explained that the south part of Lions Park has become a gathering point for drug users, even though the Police Department has increased enforcement efforts.

It’s “clearly an unsafe environment,” he says.

Hatch ordered the restrooms permanently closed during construction on Friday.

He assured there will be a “Police Department staff member in this area during park hours,” and the construction fence will be changed to close off restroom access.

But the park’s homeless population isn’t going away, and neither is its need to use the bathroom.

Stephens says balancing the toilet issue with construction poses potential problems, as the fear is the homeless will now just use the park’s open areas as outdoor toilets.

“How do you reconcile these two things?” he told me, “when there’s no magic bullet?”

Looking at this issue back in January, Costa Mesa Sanitary District board members floated the idea of buying public toilets for the homeless.

I asked Stephens what’s become of the idea. He says nothing so far.

But taking the issue one step further, when the Lions Park project is completed, won’t there still be the homeless bathroom issue coupled with crime and drug use?

Stephens explained that for the most part the old building had no windows and was greatly underutilized by the public — the perfect storm for these situations to flourish.

Hope is with the new building having more windows, as well as programs creating higher usage of facilities, the increased viability and community traffic will decrease the problematic issues previously faced.

Pretty optimistic view, because I don't see the homeless issue disappearing any time soon.

BARBARA VENEZIA lives in Newport Beach. She can be reached at bvontv1@gmail.com.

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