CLEARWATER — The City Council had a fiery and passionate debate about public restrooms Thursday night.
Despite an outpouring of arguments, stern words, frustration, negotiating and outright pleading from residents of the nearby Skycrest neighborhood, the council narrowly approved demolishing the restrooms at 38-acre Crest Lake Park.
Several of the dozen people advocating for the restrooms were elderly residents who have lived in Clearwater for decades. Skycrest neighborhood activists said they were assured that the restrooms' closure last summer would be temporary. And a number of speakers said they see visitors relieving themselves in the park anyway, restrooms or no restrooms.
"We are only asking you to give us back what you have taken away from us," said Shannon O'Leary-Beck, a Skycrest resident who showed the council a photo of toilet paper and feces left under an oak tree not far from the park's playground. "We have been so diligently trying to explain to you how important our park is to us. If you choose to turn your backs on us, turn a deaf ear on us, we won't forget it at election time."
Council members voted 3-2 to demolish the small building containing the restrooms. The restrooms are next to the playground in the park, which borders Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard east of downtown.
Mayor George Cretekos, Vice Mayor Paul Gibson and council member Doreen Hock-DiPolito approved the demolition. Council members Bill Jonson and Jay Polglaze wanted the restrooms reopened, at least during events at the park.
The officials who wanted to demolish the restrooms said neighborhood residents had previously complained when they were open and were attracting suspicious characters. The city closed the restrooms last June after hearing reports that homeless people and others were jamming the automatic locks and using the facilities at night for sleeping, drug use and prostitution.
"Those restrooms as they are currently configured, where they are currently located, have not done the community any good," the mayor told the crowd at City Hall. "You complained when they were open and causing you problems. You complain now because they're closed and they're causing you problems."
Gibson questioned police Chief Tony Holloway, who said he expected the problems to return if the restrooms were reopened.
At the same time, council members also said they want to have Crest Lake Park redesigned and improved in the years to come. There's $1.5 million in future Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenue earmarked for reworking the park. The money is scheduled to become available in 2017 and 2018.
"We want to demolish the restrooms — not to take them away from you, but to put new ones up," Hock-DiPolito told the crowd.
But Skycrest residents don't want to wait four or five years.
"I'd love to go to the park again. I don't go because there is no bathroom," said Roberta Findlay, who walked to Crest Lake from her home for two decades. "It needs a washroom. It's not a teeny little park."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.