For years, Berkeley resident Martin Nicolaus has been coming out to César Chávez Park to admire its natural beauty and take photographs — a collection of which he published in a book last December.
But over the past four months, Nicolaus, who is arguably the park’s number one fan, has been engaged in a more earnest mission: to persuade the city to install cleaner, permanent restrooms in Berkeley’s largest park.
A Berkeley resident since 1992, Nicolaus sets up his base-camp by the two portable bathrooms by the park’s entrance on Spinnaker Way to collect signatures and video-interview park users on their experiences using the toilets. He said over the past decade he has often seen the portable toilets in near-unusable condition, and has been frustrated by the lack of action to improve them.
Since its opening in 1991 — it was landfill for decades — César Chávez Park has had portable toilets as its sole restroom facilities. The restrooms are cleaned six times a week, including on Saturdays and Sundays, according to city spokesman Matthai Chakko.
“I was struck by the contrast between the beauty of the park and the shabbiness of the restrooms,” Nicolaus said.
Since beginning his petition drive in January, Nicolaus has amassed more than 500 signatures. He brought them to the attention of the Berkeley City Council during public comments on March 24 (Nicolaus’ comments begin around the 41-minute mark).
Addressing the council, Nicolaus outlined four issues from his petition drive: the lack of sanitation in the toilets; the extra burden on women and people who have to sit down to use them; the damage to the city’s reputation; and the lack of respect the state of the restrooms signals toward civil-rights leader Cesar Chavez, for whom the park is named.
Nicolaus does not have a precise model for the restrooms he would like the city to erect, but he said they should at least be permanent and come with flush- or compost-toilets. During the council meeting, Councilman Laurie Capitelli expressed his preference for compost toilets, a cheaper alternative and one that is prevalent around Europe.
Councilman Jesse Arreguín, who represents downtown Berkeley, also spoke in support of better restrooms in César Chávez Park at the meeting, but said in an interview with Berkeleyside that there has been no progress on this issue from the council since then.
Arreguín said he sees the lack of clean public toilets as not just a César Chávez Park problem but a city-wide problem, including for his constituency in downtown Berkeley.
“This issue is a discredit not only to the users of the park but also to César Chávez himself,” Arreguín said. “We have a real dearth of public restrooms in Berkeley. It’s an issue we have to address on a broader scale.”
Over the past two decades, Berkeley’s parks and waterfronts department has faced an uphill battle financially, and has had to lay off 20-30% of its maintenance staff, according to Jim McGrath, chairman of the Parks and Waterfront Commission.
The deterioration of park facilities due to financial cutbacks prompted city government to push forward Measure F for last year’s elections, which passed with 75% of the vote. With an additional $1.7 million in city coffers every year, the department can now make some of the repairs and renovations it desperately needs, McGrath said.
But building new facilities — including restrooms — at César Chávez Park is not a top priority for McGrath or the Parks and Waterfront Commission, given the other needs within the city’s park system.
“The priority is to look at facilities that are literally falling apart,” McGrath said. “It’s heartbreaking to make choices with so little money.”
A recent thorn in the side for Nicolaus has been the construction of a $600,000 permanent restroom on the Berkeley Marina’s South Basin. The new restroom will be the fifth permanent restroom on the south side of the marina, according to Nicolaus, who wrote an editorial about the issue on the Viva César Chávez Park website that he maintains.
“So don’t talk to us park users about money. There is money. There’s city money and there’s grant money from state agencies,” he writes in the editorial, which is titled ‘Pay to Pee Must End.’ “As a matter of equity, the $600,000 dedicated to building a new bathroom for the windsurfers this summer ought to be moved northward and used to build bathrooms for César Chávez Park users.”
In an email, McGrath refuted some of Nicolaus’ arguments, pointing out that the funding for the South Basin project does not come from the city, but rather from a grant program administered by two state agencies assigned to allocate mitigation funds related to the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill in the San Francisco Bay.
The $600,000 price tag is due to difficulties bringing utilities out to the marina, which is man-made land atop a former landfill, according to California Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman Steve Hampton.
Nicolaus is undeterred. He has begun bringing a digital camera to his petition drives to film park users’ thoughts on the restrooms and will produce a video highlighting their views. He hopes the video will go “viral” within the Berkeley community.
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