A divided City Council may have washed its hands of the great Davis restroom debate Tuesday night.
The council voted 3-2 to pursue an end to years of debate about saving the Central Park restrooms, built by a Great Depression-era work program, by asking to partner with historical preservationists in saving the building. The partnership will come back for a final vote in January, after details are worked out with city staff.
Councilman Brett Lee made the broad brush of the agreement clear Tuesday when he engineered a motion to seize a compromise proposal and use $14,000 in city money slated for use in demolishing the building to go toward its rehabilitation.
Under the deal, the building would be brought up to code, which includes disability access, and the offer put forward to preservationists at the Hattie Weber Museum, next door to the restrooms.
“I don’t know how you could ask for a better public-private partnership,” Lee said, adding that the preservationists would be tasked with coming up with the rest of the money needed to make the building code-compliant.
The restrooms were built in 1937 by the Works Progress Administration, part of an overall plan by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to implement then newly developed economic ideas about using government money to stimulate job growth.
The WPA built many buildings around Northern California, including art deco post offices, parks, bridges, schools and, in Davis’ case, a single, small restroom building. Originally created in 1935, by its peak in 1938 the WPA created almost 8 million jobs for mostly laborers, but also a minority of artists, musicians, actors, writers and directors in various projects.
What to do with the restrooms is part of two-phase city plan of improvements to Central Park, the overall park master plan. City staff’s recommendation was to demolish the restrooms and move forward with building a history plaza with a timeline of historic Davis events.
The demolition was to be part of a $585,000 effort to build an uncontroversial universal-access centerpiece playground that would be paid for with money from Community Development Block Grant Funds, Quimby fees and park impact fees. A unanimous council voted to move forward with that project Tuesday.
Councilman Lucas Frerichs supported Lee’s compromise proposal to save the restrooms, regretting that “the issue has been hanging out there a long time” and talking about the need to shore up a final agreement in January before contract deadlines expire.
But Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk and Councilwoman Rochelle Swanson stayed true to their May 2012 dissenting votes on a council request to analyze what it would take to save the building.
Wolk questioned the cost of rehabilitation versus the much cheaper cost of demolishing the building and asked police to provide information of public safety issues surrounding the current configuration of the restroom building. A police representative said there had been incidents involving alcohol, juveniles caught having sex in the bathrooms and one sexual assault nearby.
Part of the rehabilitation project would be removal of an addition made in the 1940s that would shrink the size of the building, which preservationists said would allow police and the public greater visibility.
Wolk took issue with the seeming entanglements that the preservationist partnership might provide.
“I think this motion adds some real complexity, adds some real expense,” he said. “I would like to see the council make a decision on keeping the building there … or just remove it and make it part of the history plaza.”
Councilwoman Swanson, via a conference call link, said the issue was one of the role of representative democracy. She said the council had received numerous comments and it was up to elected representatives to act.
“(The partnership option) puts us in a tough space at the 11th-and-a-half hour,” she said. “I think we need to make a decision. We keep bringing it back and bringing it back, and I think that’s because we are in a tough spot.”
In the end, Mayor Joe Krovoza cast the third and deciding yes vote, staying true to past votes that indicated his support for the preservation of the building.
“To me this is terribly significant and I want to keep this structure,” he said. “…We are going to find a way to make this work.”
— Reach Dave Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8057. Follow him on Twitter at @davewritesnews