Time to bring public washrooms to Winnipeg's Exchange District: architect

An architect with offices in the Exchange District is trying to do something about Winnipeg’s lack of public toilets, saying it's about providing dignity to people who don't have access to washroom facilities.

Up to all Winnipeggers to address systemic lack of public washrooms, says Wins Bridgman

Winnipeg architect Wins Bridgman says public toilets are needed in the Exchange District, where many of the city's homeless population don't have access to washroom facilities. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

An architect with offices in the Exchange District is once again trying to do something about Winnipeg's lack of public toilets, saying it's about providing dignity to people who don't have access to washroom facilities.

Wins Bridgman, whose offices are located at the corner of Higgins Avenue and Main Street, said there is a critical need for this kind of infrastructure.

"I think we all as Winnipeggers are invested in really creating clean streets, but more importantly creating dignity for all of our citizens," Bridgman told CBC's Information Radio.

"It's up to all of us as Winnipeggers to really confront the issue that is systemic in Winnipeg."

Many homeless people in Winnipeg live around the area where Bridgman's offices are located.

He isn't alone in hoping that something will be done to provide the city's homeless population with adequate facilities.

Rea Kavanagh also works in the Exchange District, as the general manager of Theatre Projects Manitoba. She said she's confronted almost daily by the smell of urine and feces on her way to work.

"This has been kind of the ongoing state of things in the Exchange for some time," Kavanagh said, adding she has often complained to friends and family members about the lack of proper facilities in the area.

"It's a place for celebration and families and businesses, and we all have to share the space," she said. "I just wish that there was a way for us to tackle this issue, because I think it probably turns a lot of people off."

A long-standing problem

In a Facebook post, Kavanagh called on the city and the Exchange District BIZ to take care of the problem, adding that money spent on tourism ads will go to waste if the area is covered in urine and feces.

Brian Timmerman, executive director of the BIZ, said public urination and defecation is a year-round issue for the Exchange, adding that the summer heat tends to worsen the smell.

Winnipeg architect Wins Bridgman says he is drafting designs for public washrooms, which he will share with the city and interested businesses. (CBC)

While the BIZ installed portable toilets in Old Market Square about a decade ago, Timmerman said, the toilets were removed after the BIZ found they were being used for drug-related and sexual activity.

The BIZ now has a program in place to deodorize and power wash any area that begins to smell.

"It is something that we do try to work at fixing," Timmerman said. "Unfortunately, it would come down to dollars."

Bridgman has been calling on the city to install public washrooms in the Exchange District for the past 10 years.

In 2008, he set up two portable toilets on the corner of Higgins and Main — a move that he said at the time made a noticeable difference. But the city ordered them removed.

More recently, Bridgman's firm and two other businesses rented a portable toilet for a group of homeless people camped in the alleyway behind his office building.

Though that toilet was later removed after a fire in the area, Bridgman said it represents an attempt by concerned businesses to improve conditions for everyone in the Exchange District.

"It's a way of thinking about the community," he said. "It's a way of saying, 'Let's actually use the strengths of the community,' as opposed to pointing out that there is just a problem."

Learning from other cities

Several cities across Canada maintain public washrooms. Edmonton unveiled new public toilets in 2012, while the City of Montreal agreed earlier this year to build a dozen public washrooms downtown at a cost of $3.6 million.

Bridgman said several groups in Winnipeg are thinking about this issue, adding that he will offer proposals to both the city and businesses that might be interested.

Asked where public washrooms could be installed, Bridgman said that the two-block stretch between the Siloam Mission and the Salvation Army Booth Centre on Henry Avenue would be a good option.

Artist rendering of a public washroom designed by Winnipeg architect Wins Bridgman, who hopes the city and businesses will work together to bring public toilets to the Exchange District. (CBC)

Timmerman said the BIZ has considered the type of public washroom installed in Edmonton, which allows passersby to see the feet of people inside the stalls.

"It definitely is a solution, or at least an attempt at a solution," he said, adding that the city would likely have to front the costs.

"I would say that it would be worth a try," Timmerman added, noting he doesn't know what other infrastructure might be required.

While Bridgman hopes the city will step up and fund more permanent structures, he said citizens and businesses must also do their share.

"I believe that we really own these public amenities," he said, hoping the washrooms will be seen as a way to address the larger issue of homelessness.

"It's true that urination and feces are part of the story, but it's not the whole story," Bridgman said. "It's kind of a tip of the iceberg there."

An architect with offices in the Exchange District is trying to do something about Winnipeg’s lack of public toilets, saying it's about providing dignity to people who don't have access to washroom facilities. 2:40