‘Why Should We Be Public’s Toilet?’ Ask Gas Station Owners : Downey Restroom Requirement Fuels Debate

Times Staff Writer

Homeowner Eleanor Lindenfeld says she sympathizes with motorists who are unable to find a gas station with a bathroom, but that she can’t understand why people insist on using her property as a public toilet.

“I’ve found people urinating on my lawn and my neighbors’ lawns,” said Lindenfeld, who lives down the street from a self-serve Thrifty gas station that does not have restrooms. “In this country we have always relied on gas stations to provide us with bathrooms, but now fewer and fewer gas stations are providing that service. Pretty soon people will have nowhere to go except in the streets.”

It was Lindenfeld’s complaint that prompted the Downey City Council to unanimously pass an ordinance last year requiring gas station owners to provide restrooms, along with free air and water and windshield washing materials. That ordinance, though, gave gas stations without bathrooms 10 years to comply.


But the Planning Commission asked the City Council last week to shorten the time to two years. Council Members Dianne Boggs and Randy Barb agreed, but Mayor James Santangelo and newly elected councilman Roy Paul voted against the two-year proposal. It died in a 2-2 vote with Councilman Robert Cormack absent.

For the past year the council and Planning Commission have been struggling to come up with a time limit for compliance, in what City Clerk Robert Shand calls “one of the biggest tennis matches in the city’s history.”

‘Smack in the Face’

Santangelo, who voted for the 10-year period when the ordinance passed in May, 1985, has become a harsh critic of mandatory bathrooms.

“I would like to see the ordinance rescinded but I don’t think I stand a chance,” Santangelo said after the last week’s council meeting. “It is a smack in the face of the free enterprise system to have government dictating to businesses what they should provide as a free service.”

Barb said he was concerned about imposing restrictions, but he argued that the major issue is the threat to public health and safety.

“This was a very difficult issue for me to vote on because it falls right in between controlling private enterprise and concern for the health and safety of the community,” Barb said. “Bathrooms are something service stations have traditionally provided, but more and more stations do not. Before it goes too far we need to turn that trend around.”

According to a Planning Commission study, 28 of Downey’s 41 gas stations provide public restrooms. Three do not have air and water; eight charge 25 cents for air and water, and the rest offer them free.

Downey Stands Out

Although many other Southeast cities--including South Gate, Lakewood, Norwalk, Bellflower and Cerritos--can require gas station owners to provide restrooms under a conditional use permit, Downey is the only city that has passed a city ordinance requiring it.

In 1984 the City of Los Angeles considered adopting a similar ordinance and is now studying whether or not there is a threat to public health if gas stations do not provide public restrooms, according to Andrew Montealegre, an associate planner for the city.

Last year state Sen. Bill Greene (D-Los Angeles) introduced a measure that would require service station owners that had restrooms to keep them clean, but according to a spokesman for Greene, the bill died in committee.

Gas station owners in Downey argue that the ordinance is unfair because it does not include other businesses like restaurants, supermarkets or shoe stores.

“Why should we become Downey’s public toilet?” said Michael Nagy, who owns a Mobil station. “The city thinks gas station owners make a lot of money, but Mobil does not pay for my bathrooms. It costs me $172 a month to maintain them,” he said.

Gary Hindoyan, manager of a Shell station on Florence Avenue with restrooms, estimates that the cost of building two restrooms at about $15,000.

Gas Crisis Changed Things

The days when a weary traveler could drive into a gas station and expect a bathroom along with a uniformed attendant to pump the gas and check under the hood are over, according to Stan Sackler, owner of the Pacific Service Station on Telegraph Road. Sackler, who has owned his Downey station since 1960, attributes the change in gas stations to the gas crisis of the mid-’70s.

“Since the gas crisis . . . self-serve stations have grown to accommodate the higher volumes of cars going through,” Sackler said. “It’s not like bathrooms and gas stations are synonymous anymore.”

Instead, Sackler said, gas station bathrooms have become synonymous with vandalism. He said he had to lock up one bathroom at his station for repairs after someone stuffed a cherry bomb in the pipes during the Fourth of July weekend.

Steve Shelton, director of the Southern California Service Stations Assn. in Irvine, said gas station bathrooms have become havens for drug dealers and junkies.

“People sell drugs in there, women have abortions in there and pickpockets sort out their loot there,” Shelton said. “You can’t imagine what goes on in gas station bathrooms. The dealers have to keep tight controls over their restrooms and they should not provide free and unlimited access to the public.”

‘It Would Make You Sick’

Larry Tabbaa, an independent owner with a station on Imperial Highway, has one restroom for employees and one for the public, which requires a key. Tabbaa said he tries to make sure that only customers use the restroom, but his station is still plagued with graffiti, the theft of fixtures, broken locks and clogged toilets. Under the ordinance he must now open both restrooms, one for men and one for women for public use.

“If you could see what goes on in that bathroom it would make you sick,” Tabbaa said. “I have enough problems controlling what goes in that one bathroom. I can’t imagine what will happen when I have to open the other one.”

The ordinance requires station owners without restrooms to build them by 1995 or be cited for a municipal code violation, according to Carl Newton, city attorney. Station owners who now have restrooms but are using them for storage or other uses must reopen them immediately or they will also receive a citation. Owners who ignore the ordinance could be fined up to $500 and be jailed for up to six months, Newton said.

But this does not faze station owner Ben Manjre, who said he is tired of cleaning his restrooms and plans to lock them up in spite of the ordinance.

“Let them give me a citation,” Manjre said. “I am just going to lock up these bathrooms and if I get a citation I will fight it. . . . I can’t provide free public bathrooms anymore.”