When you gotta go, you gotta go.
But if you’re in Minneapolis’ popular Nicollet Island Park, you’re out of luck.
The closest public flushable restrooms are about a half-mile away, so park visitors are left to sneak into the storied Nicollet Island Inn or cross a bridge and use a bathroom shared by several St. Anthony Main businesses.
“We are not a public restroom,” said inn owner Larry Abdo. “If we got 30 people coming in and we have a full hotel and restaurant, yes, we turn them away.”
Abdo said he asked the city two summers ago to install portable toilets to keep non-patrons out of his inn. Now there is a beige, dark and cold satellite toilet — in direct view of the people sitting at his bar.
He wants the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, which owns most of the island, to build an attractive and permanent restroom that is “architecturally correct” and in keeping with the historical value of the island and inn.
“There’s a lot of people who visit the island, and we don’t have enough facilities for them,” he said.
The Park Board leases out parts of the island but runs the amphitheater, picnic area and trails near the inn, all of which are on the south end. A quiet residential area covers much of the north end, with DeLa Salle High School in the middle, just off Hennepin Avenue.
Most visitors to the island stroll past the inn to get to the riverfront and pavilion, a popular spot for private events. Pracna on Main and the Aster Cafe are among the restaurants on Main Street, a short walk across a bridge.
Even with a bright blue sign pasted to the front door of the inn saying “No public restrooms,” people still try to sneak past the reception desk to get to the bathroom, reception clerks say.
Asked about the need for a restroom, Park Board Commissioner-at-Large Meg Forney said in an e-mail that the area is “increasing in tourism and appropriate infrastructure is critical.”
Most park properties have flushable toilets at rec centers, at eateries and some warming houses. Depending on the need, portable toilets are available at most parks. Park Board spokeswoman Dawn Sommers said portable toilets are cost-effective and don’t depend on running water. The Park Board rents about 150 portable toilets each year, at a cost of about $1,500 per unit that includes all servicing, such as pumping.
A cost for a public restroom near the pavilion and inn has not been discussed, but Sommers said it is not now part of any capital improvement program.
Sommers said a single-stall seasonal bathroom at Cedar Lake South Beach is now being constructed and will cost about $350,000, which includes utilities. A multi-stall facility is estimated to cost anywhere from $750,000 to $1 million.
Park Board Commissioner Chris Meyer, who represents the area, said he spoke with Abdo and passed his request to the project manager overseeing the East of the River Park Master Plan, which is being discussed by community advisers. Meyer said Abdo isn’t the only one asking for more amenities on the riverfront. Park users have asked for more water fountains, benches and restrooms.
A community advisory committee was formed to tackle a new plan for all neighborhood parks in the Northeast and Southeast areas. The request could be discussed in these meetings and be included in the new master plan for the area.
“As funds become available for it, we could implement it,” Meyer said.
Bill Neuenschwander, owner of Human on a Stick Segway Tours based on Main Street, has been showing locals and visitors the Minneapolis riverfront area for years and has seen the area attract more visitors daily.
“It’s a kind gesture,” he said, “to have a bathroom that anybody has access to.”
The nearest public restrooms that are not portable are about a 7-minute walk. You either beeline it to Boom Island or the St. Anthony Falls visitor center (which is open three days a week) or try to find your way into the shared bathroom on Main Street.
Dan Siers and Kylie Inda, who walk from the North Loop to the Nicollet Island area several times a week, said they avoid the portable toilet at all costs, especially during the winter.
“An actual structure on Nicollet Island or St. Anthony would be great and be of tremendous service to the public because of all the foot traffic,” Siers said.
Abdo said the Park Board is working hard to develop the riverfront area. As visitors grow, amenities must keep pace, he said.
“We have to give them something when they’re there besides a view of the river,” he said. “It’s a basic human need.”