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© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2001
It is a sad sign of our times that a proposal to build a restroom in a public park raises fear of crime among the park's neighbors.
Their fear isn't without some foundation. In some parks in Pinellas County, restrooms have become havens for transients or for sexual activity. Police and sheriff's deputies routinely patrol and conduct undercover investigations in parks that have problems.
The question is, should fear of something that might or might not happen dictate public policy?
The city of Seminole invested some $400,000 in turning 11-acre Blossom Lake Park into a place the public would use and enjoy. What had been a desolate, unimproved tract of land bordering Blossom Lake now has a fitness trail, softball and basketball facilities, playground equipment, picnic tables, grills, trees and lights.
"What we've been able to do is transform a vacant field into -- take a look -- a beautiful park," Mitch Bobowski, Seminole's general services director, said last October as the city prepared to open the park.
In December, the park was one of the sites for activities associated with the 10th anniversary celebration of the Pinellas Trail. Blossom Lake Park borders the trail near 62nd Terrace N in Seminole, and people flocked there for a children's carnival, bike rodeo, petting zoo and sidewalk art festival.
But the new park has no restrooms, even though the park's design and facilities clearly beckon children and picnicking families. Neighbors reported that they saw people urinating in the park or in Blossom Lake -- a not-unexpected result of having no restrooms.
This week, the city staff asked the City Council for permission to apply for a state grant that would cover 80 percent of the cost of building a restroom. The facility would be located near the Pinellas Trail, where it could serve both park users and trail users.
But after a Times story previewed that discussion, the park's neighbors began calling the city and objecting to the idea, saying they feared the restroom would attract an unsavory element to the park. At Tuesday's council meeting, council members responded by voting 6-1 against applying for the grant, which has a March 15 application deadline. Instead, they said a couple of portable toilets would be placed in the park for now.
In other words, all of the users of the park and trail will be denied access to comfortable, permanent bathroom facilities because of fear of something that might happen -- or might not.
Public restrooms in shopping malls from time to time attract vagrants or people seeking privacy for sexual activity. Should they be closed? Pinellas County's beautiful parks, Honeymoon Island State Park, Caladesi Island, Clearwater Beach -- all have public restrooms. Who would suggest that the restrooms in those places should be shut down because of the possibility of trouble? Part of what makes those attractions comfortable and popular is that they have clean restrooms.
In parks where the "unsavory element" has shown up, regular police patrols, lights, posting of park hours and good reporting by observant park users have helped to solve the problem.
Blossom Lake Park users as well as Pinellas Trail users would benefit from access to a permanent public restroom in the park. That should be the consideration that guides the Seminole City Council.