When a public toilet is also about turning around a troubled park in Bellingham

Bellingham is trying to entice more people to visit this downtown park

Bellingham officials are making some upgrades to Maritime Heritage Park in downtown Bellingham, including lighting and a 24-hour restroom, to try to entice more residents to visit.
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Bellingham officials are making some upgrades to Maritime Heritage Park in downtown Bellingham, including lighting and a 24-hour restroom, to try to entice more residents to visit.

If you avoid Maritime Heritage Park because you remember it as a run-down seedy spot, you might want to give this urban green space another visit.

At least, that's what Bellingham Parks employees hope you'll do, because the city has been working to make the park at 500 W. Holly St. more welcoming for families and others who have been staying away because they felt unsafe there. Maritime had become known, in recent years, as a hangout for homeless and transient adults and a place for drug and alcohol consumption.

Ideas for the improvements came via a task force and are detailed in a 2013 report that focused on revitalizing the park and using environmental design to deter crime.

That has translated into more lighting at the park, more trash cans and more activities to get people there, including free summer theater starting in June, free Music at Maritime on Saturday nights in July, and oversized games for people who like to play their chess, Jenga and Connect Four on the big side.

There's also more of a police and staff presence to keep an eye on things, including park ambassadors whose job it is to meet the public and hand out cards for the Homeless Outreach Team to those who may need its services.

Parks staff said the number of homeless at Maritime has dropped since the Drop-In Center, located down the street on West Holly, opened as a temporary emergency shelter in October 2016.

Now, a restroom is being built at the park that will be open to the public 24-7. When completed this month, it will replace a blue portable toilet near the bridge over Whatcom Creek, which is on one side of the park.

The idea is to have a safe and sturdy restroom that's permanent and blends into the park, said Nicole Oliver, parks development manager for the Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department.

It will serve a number of needs.

0518 Public Toilet 1
A new toilet, which will be open 24 hours a day, is under construction Thursday at Maritime Heritage Park in Bellingham. Evan Abell evan.abell@bellinghamherald.com

"A lack of an all-hours restroom has been a common complaint for some time now, and we're excited the city is adding 24-hour facilities to Maritime Heritage Park. Day or night, downtown is active at all hours, and it's vital to have facilities that match," said Mason Luvera, spokesman for the Downtown Bellingham Partnership.

The restroom is on the outside corner of the park's Environmental Learning Center. It will be gender neutral. It will have space for one person and will be visible from the street. It won't be heated to prevent people from sleeping in it.

The restroom will offer an available toilet, no matter the hour. It won't require you to buy something in order to use a bathroom, as could be the case at a private business.

"It's for all people to use, anyone and everyone," Oliver said.

It also is part of the ongoing effort to keep human waste out of Maritime and away from Whatcom Creek and ease pressure on area businesses.

"Without public restrooms available, people often turn to neighboring businesses," Luvera said. "Regardless if it's someone spending the day shopping downtown or someone who's unsheltered, we need to have public facilities available at all times so merchants aren't serving as the only option."

And it will be needed with more people expected in the area.

"With several new businesses now open around Maritime Heritage, the waterfront expansion coming online, and the usual influx of people heading downtown for summertime events, there's increased activity around the park," Luvera said. "Having an all-hours restroom available is an important addition for the area."

The restroom cost $104,000 to build, in part because the park is an old landfill site and that made the construction more complicated.

Next up, the Parks Department is looking into building a big slide at Maritime — big enough for adults and older kids, according to Oliver.

With the projects at Maritime nearing completion, the city will turn its attention to problems at Cornwall Park that include vandalism, drug activity, camping and dumping of items that were likely stolen.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea