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Plumbing the Problem of Equitable Restroom Space

Times Staff Writer

Patricia Oddo called it “awful,” “absurd,” “ridiculous” and “undescribable.” Not to mention the worst case she had ever seen.

There was only a half-hour intermission at last September’s Bruce Springsteen concert at the Los Angeles Coliseum--and the line for the women’s restroom was at least a half-hour long.

But the line for the men’s room was moving along briskly. So Oddo, 39, of Redondo Beach, did what she had never done before. She joined the desperate women who were storming the men’s room--with men friends riding shotgun for protection.

“At that point,” she explained, “I could care less.”

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For the remaining Springsteen concerts, the management converted four of the men’s rooms to women’s rooms and posted security guards to keep the men out.

According to the guards, the situation was rare. But many women like Oddo complain it’s nearly as bad whenever they go to concerts, plays, ball games, operas, amusement parks, car shows, department stores or ski resorts.

“Women wait and wait and wait and men just go in and come out,” said Beth Bonbright, a consultant to state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles). “And it’s not just to comb their hair.”

Torres, who said he was tired of waiting for his wife, Yolanda, to go through the line at events and found similar complaints among other men and women, asked Bonbright to research and draft a bill that would require operators of such public gathering places to provide more toilets for women. Wednesday, the proposed bill received its first approval, a 7-0 vote by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. If the governor signs the bill into law this year, new sports and entertainment areas, stadiums, community and convention halls, specialty event centers, public and amusement parks and ski resorts would be required as of Jan. 1 to comply with the Uniform Plumbing Code, which now recommends more fixtures for women in a 3-to-2 ratio. Operators of existing facilities would have to add portable toilets to meet the standards.

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Women who believe they had to wait too long in lines could file a civil suit against an offending establishment that had not complied.

When Torres first suggested the bill, Bonbright said her reaction was: “Are you serious? Then I thought, why haven’t we done this before?”

Contrary to the recommendations of the plumbing industry’s Uniform Plumbing Code, most public men’s and women’s restrooms have the same number of stalls, she said. The key difference lies in the fact that men’s rooms have extra urinals and sometimes even troughs, she said.

Questions about the problem invariably elicit emotional responses. That was the case in a sampling of opinion at Anaheim Stadium Tuesday night, where Patricia Oddo and others expressed their opinions. (No, they weren’t in line; Anaheim appears to have a well-plumbed facility.)

Nancy Kirschke, 24, of Yorba Linda said a year ago she went to see the group Foreigner at Irvine Meadows Amphitheater and spent half the concert in a line for the women’s room. “It was terrible.”

“Have you ever gone skiing ?” exclaimed Lou Gabriel of Capistrano Beach. “The line at Mammoth is a thousand miles long!” That probably seems short to a woman who called the lines at basketball games “a million miles long.”

When women resort to using the men’s rooms, “it slows us down,” complained a man who asked not to be identified.

“It happens every single place you go. (Women) have to wait at swap meets and movies and even gas stations,” said Kristen Brown, 30, of Yorba Linda as she struggled to dress her 2-year-old daughter, Katie, in the rest room.

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“You know 2-year-olds can’t wait,” she said, “and women without children are not understanding of women who have children. I’ve asked if I could take her in first and have been turned down,” Brown said. When she was pregnant, Brown, the mother of two older boys, said she prayed for a boy so that her husband would be the one to take the child to the restroom.

No constituents pressured Torres for a bill such as the one he has introduced, Bonbright said. Torres had simply become tired of waiting for his wife, Yolanda, at events and found similar complaints among other men and women, she said. Bonbright observed it is ironic that a man came up with a proposed solution while women have suffered in silence. Some women have complained loudly, however--and with results. “It got to the point where these women were almost irate,” said Paula Tomei, the business director at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. Before last summer, the theater had a women’s room with four stalls and a men’s room with three urinals and three stalls. “The main complaint, especially at intermission, was that they (women) were always late getting back into the show. They did say they knew the building must have been designed by a man, and that the bathrooms were definitely designed by a man.”

As a result, the management enlarged the women’s room to eight stalls. Now, “there’s a much higher percentage of smiles (coming from) the lady patrons,” said Cris Gross, SCR’s press director.

A recent renovation at the Squaw Valley ski resort also included more women’s facilities, Bonbright said. “There must (now) be 70 toilets for women. One of the major complaints was that there were never adequate facilities for women. More people need to have that kind of forethought.”

As it stands now, the Uniform Plumbing Code suggests builders provide a certain number of “water closets” (toilets), “lavatories,” (sinks) and urinals according to a formula depending on the number of men and women projected to use the building. One toilet and one urinal is recommended for each 100 men and three toilets for each 100 women, Bonbright said.

More Fixtures for Women

Beyond 400 people, the code recommends one extra fixture for each additional 500 men and two fixtures for each additional 300 women, according to Perry Babcock, a partner in The Blurock Partnership, and project architect for the Orange County Performing Arts Center, now under construction in Costa Mesa.

Based on the Center’s projected 3,000 capacity, the formula ended up suggesting more fixtures for women (25 stalls) than for men (20 stalls and urinals), he said.

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Nevertheless, board members of the privately funded project knew that wasn’t going to be enough, Babcock said. As a result, they more than doubled the code suggestion and directed the architects to make space for 62 stalls for women and 34 stalls and urinals for men.

“We feel we’re in better shape than we might be if we had gone by the code,” Babcock said. “It’s something the center is quite proud of.”

The proposed Torres bill doesn’t go far enough to make any real difference, Babcock predicted. “Anyone who’s ever been to a theater, or for that matter, a restaurant, knows there’s never a line outside the men’s.”

Beyond the principle of equal rights and mere convenience, the bill also addresses a serious health matter, Bonbright added. “Women have a lot of bladder infections,” she explained. “Have you ever had a bladder infection and couldn’t possibly wait in line? And the guy you’re with is in and out, and there you are . . . dying ?”

Moreover, she noted the bill would benefit small children, too, since they are often taken to the bathroom by their mothers.

So far, Bonbright said the bill has received formal support only from the Legislative Conference of Plumbing, Heating and Piping Industry--"it means somebody will build more toilets, which means more work for them"--and no formal opposition.

If any foes surface to fight the “rest room equity” bill, they will probably argue on the grounds of cost, Bonbright said.

Although some men have told her they will ask for interior lounge rooms, couches and huge mirrors in men’s rooms if the bill passes, she said: “I just don’t see how anyone could stand up on principle against this thing.”


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