Photo by Keith MayIf you were thinking that fecal coliform and syringes washing ashore would be followed in Huntington Beach by toads, boils, locusts and rivers of blood, you'd be close: on busy weekends, HB's state-of-the-art restrooms at the city's crown-jewel Pier Plaza stink like an open grave.
On a recent Sunday, as a crowd gathered to listen to Lisa Haley and the Zydekats jam at the Pier Plaza, long lines formed outside nine unisex cubicles. The door of bathroom No. 4 swung open to reveal strips of soggy toilet tissue stuck on the floor. A dirty diaper was dumped in No. 7, and a used sanitary napkin was left in No. 8.
Aundrea Lopez, 17, opened the door of one of the toilets, glanced in, registered a look of disgust, and waited for the next vacant stall. It wasn't much better, so she gave up and decided to go in.
"The floors are pretty nasty," Lopez said with a grimace as she tiptoed over the trash.
"They're disgusting," said beach regular Glenn Hartman, 50. "They really are."
"They're awful! They're gross," added Renee Smith, 45. "What's so hard about keeping the restrooms clean?"
Larry Neishi, Huntington Beach beach-maintenance supervisor, said the problem is that the Pier Plaza restrooms are overused and cleanup crews—employees of a private company under contract with the city—are understaffed. Neishi estimated that the stalls next to the amphitheater are used hundreds of times per day when it's cool and cloudy. On a sunny weekend, he figured, a large crowd may mean the toilets are flushed thousands of times.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. To keep Surf City's "$12 million baby" sparkling, city officials in July hired Costa Cleaning Services (CCS) to steam-clean the plaza, pick up trash, and maintain the restrooms. Salvadore Huerta, 23, is one of the contract workers who busts his butt for $6.50 per hour: he scrubs the Pier Plaza toilets with disinfectant at 5 a.m. and said he spends the rest of his day doing his best to keep the plaza and its restrooms clean.
It's a losing battle on weekends, when Huerta is covered with sweat as he empties a 55-gallon drum filled with trash. He scoops sand from the beach-side showers, unclogs the bathroom sink, and puts fresh rolls of toilet paper in each cubicle. Huerta had an extra helper on the concert weekend, but the crowd got restless when a momentary closure caused the line to back up.
"Too much people in line," Huerta said in heavily accented English. "Too many times cleaning."
Richard Esslinger, a construction and maintenance worker, defended Huerta and CCS, saying the contract workers do an excellent job. He blamed the putrid potties on "irresponsible users."
"We just seem to get more than our share of the misusers," Esslinger insisted. "They don't use the bathrooms in public facilities like they use them at home."
Esslinger has 30 years of horror stories about people who pee on the seats, vandals who plug toilets with rolls of paper, and those who steal anything that's not nailed-down. This dismal history explains the absence of toilet seats, sanitary disposal bins and paper towels. "For public use, you need penal facilities where the only thing they have to control is a button they push and not something else they can destroy," Esslinger said.
Many beachgoers acknowledge the downside of human nature: they accept trashed toilets as inevitable.
John Marshal, 31, of Glendora shrugged off the mushy mess of wet toilet tissue on the floor. "It's a public restroom," he said. "What are you gonna do?"
Karin Wagner, 26, of Fountain Valley added, "It was pretty dirty, but you expect it at the beach."
Some visitors have suggestions for improvement. Nancy Rasmussen of Huntington Beach said she thinks the toilets would be cleaner if women didn't have to share compartments with men. If they must be unisex, Rasmussen said, "Every two hours, open it up, and hose it down!"
Michael Avrick of La Canada said a European-style attendant is the way to go. "Put someone out here, and have people leave tips," he suggested. "Let people pay, and then use the money to keep it clean."
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Neishi agreed that posting someone outside every plaza restroom would be ideal, but the budget is insufficient to pay the extra salaries. This summer, he had to chose between asking CCS to put an extra worker on weekends or an additional shift on Saturdays and Sundays. The constant flow of beachgoers led to the second option, with a CCS employee posted at Pier Plaza until 11 p.m.
Jim Engle, deputy director of community services, said dirty Plaza restrooms on a concert weekend need to be addressed by the city's special-events committee. The committee determines the staffing needs for any event expected to attract large crowds. Ingle said the committee can add extra lifeguards, security personnel and maintenance workers and then bill the cost to event promoters.
Esslinger said he believes a more fundamental problem exits. The city needs more restrooms at Pier Plaza to lower the "people-to-toilet ratio," he said. Seven stalls are under construction on the Huntington Beach Pier to replace the temporary trailer. There's also talk of converting a portion of the junior-lifeguard headquarters to another permanent bathroom facility just south of the pier.
In the meantime, Esslinger said the only permanent solution to untidy toilets is to reeducate the public, but, he admitted, "that would take centuries."