A storefront is shown with the words "Shops York Place" over a door.
The York Place shopping center on the Downtown Mall is the future home of public bathrooms. Credit: Kori Price/Dexter Auction

Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall is finally getting the public restrooms people have requested for decades.

Beginning Tuesday, Nov. 1, those visiting the Mall for any reason will have access to two bathrooms in the York Place shopping arcade, between First Street South and Second Street Southwest. York Place has entrances on both the Downtown Mall and Water Street.

“Oh honey! We need them desperately!” said John, a community member waiting for a bus on Market Street on Wednesday afternoon. He has a medical condition that requires him to be near a bathroom, and after talking about how he frequently has to run to the public library on Market Street to use the facilities, he didn’t want to share his last name.

“We needed them, like, yesterday,” he said about the new bathrooms. “I’m ecstatic for them.”

Located along the building’s main zig-zagging hallway, between Kim’s Alterations and Cocoa & Spice, the two loos will be open when York Place is open, from 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Saturday through Thursday, and 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays. They’ve been behind a locked door marked “sprinkler valve,” but in just a couple of weeks, the door will be unlocked and marked as restrooms.

A hallway with a door to the right is pictured.
The public restrooms will be located in a room now labeled “sprinkler valve.” Kori Price/Dexter Auction

It’s a solution to a long-term problem, said Chris Engel, Charlottesville’s Director of Economic Development. To his knowledge, the Downtown Mall has not offered any sort of official public restroom since it opened in 1974 — nearly 50 years ago.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were bathrooms available on the first floor of the Downtown Transit Center, but a lot of people don’t consider those to be on the Mall, said Engel. They’ve been closed throughout the pandemic.

The clearly-marked restrooms near the Ting Pavilion are open only during venue events.

Currently, the only bathrooms available on the Downtown Mall are the ones located inside restaurants, cafes, and stores, all reserved for paying customers and employees. “You have to buy something, and that’s pathetic,” said John.

Oh honey! We need them desperately! We needed them, like, yesterday.

—John, who waits for the bus on Market Street

For the next year, the city will pay $5,000 per month to lease two separate restrooms from York Place, an amount that includes all necessary cleaning and maintenance costs. If it goes well this first year, the city will seek to renew the lease, said Engel.

This isn’t the first time the city has tried to answer pleas for a place to pee on the Mall.

A few years ago, the city considered “fancy port-a-potties,” as Engel described them, ones raised off the ground and featuring sinks. That never happened, because no one could decide on an appropriate spot for them.

Washington, D.C.-based company Throne Labs tried out one of its high-tech portable toilet prototypes in a parking lot on Water Street. Throne’s toilets promise a sink with running water, a flushing toilet, lights, and more. But the pilot didn’t go as planned, said Engel — something about cold weather.

People hope the York Place bathrooms work out, for a number of reasons.

“We’re so happy about it,” said Julie Vu, who owns vegan Vietnamese restaurant Vu Noodles on Water Street. Vu’s restaurant is one of the tiniest in town, located in a one-window brick building behind the Jefferson Theater. She and her employees use the bathrooms inside the Jefferson Theater, but only when there’s not a band setting up or playing. Vu has to direct customers, particularly tourists, elsewhere, when they ask about using the facilities or washing their hands.

As a taxpayer, she said she’s happy the city is putting money toward this.

A couple blocks from Vu’s shop, at the bus stop, John brought up the need for bathrooms not just for restaurant-goers and shoppers, but for everyone: Adults with medical conditions, small children in the midst of potty training, people who’ve just given birth, seniors struggling with bladder control related to old age, the list went on. He also mentioned community members who are unhoused — they need bathrooms, too, he said.

(The Haven, a day shelter on Market Street, has facilities for its guests, but they close when The Haven closes, at 5 p.m.)

“People need bathrooms. Everyone needs bathrooms,” said a man who’d just walked out of the Haven and headed toward the bus stop with a black trash bag slung over his shoulder.

CVS Pharmacy frequently opens its bathrooms to the public, but both John and Chris, another community member waiting for the bus who did not wish to give his last name, say that they’re frequently closed for major cleaning. “The vandalism is really bad,” John said as Chris nodded in agreement.

Vandalism is a problem in the CVS bathrooms, said an employee who asked to remain anonymous. People do “all kinds of things in there,” she said, and the worst was a few years ago, when someone smeared blood all over the walls. She hopes that people treat the York Place bathrooms with respect so that they won’t have to constantly close for cleaning — or close permanently.

“If you’re going to help the public out, do it and don’t destroy it,” said Chris.

There is no reopening date for the Downtown Transit Center bathrooms, but when they do open, they’ll be available Monday through Saturday 7am to 6pm and Sundays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. This will give people public bathroom options on both ends of the Mall, but none of the facilities will be open 24 hours.

“We’re excited to give it a try. Hopefully it works, and people use the facilities appropriately, and it can be a nice resource and amenity to all,” said Engel.

Public restrooms are part of a renewed focus on the Downtown Mall in advance of its 50th anniversary in 2024, said City Councilor Michael Payne. City officials are also discussing replacing dying trees with new ones, increasing the Mall’s accessibility for folks with physical disabilities, and adding more seating to make the Mall more about community than commerce.

“How do we move towards enacting the original vision, which was a more publicly-focused Mall? We have more work to do on it,” Payne said. But bathrooms are a start.

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