A public restroom that’s overcrowded and partially out of order can be like a canary in a coal mine — an early warning sign to point out a larger problem.
That’s what’s happening with the public restrooms next to the popular Saturday Farmers’ Market at Kapiolani Community College. Their overuse is evidence that the market’s infrastructure is not keeping up with the crowds.
This is a problem not just at the market event, but elsewhere on Oahu where too many people are using facilities never built to handle huge crowds.
Up to 6,000 visitors surge into the farmers’ market by the slopes of Diamond Head each Saturday, yet there are only four public bathroom stalls in a comfort station next to the market to serve them.
The market has grown from a popular weekend gathering for local residents into a tourist attraction with 60 percent of the visitors from out of town and mostly tourists from Japan.
Things came to a head Aug. 26 when visitors had to wait in long lines in the hot sun when two of the four toilets available were not working.
A urinal in the menʻs restroom was covered up with plastic wrapping and one of the two toilets in the womenʻs restroom was also out of order.
A few people I spoke with afterwards said this is not new, that one of toilets in the women’s restroom breaks down periodically.
Maunalani Heights resident Dr. Mary Flynn emailed me to say: “Shame on those in control of the KCC Saturday Farmer’s Market. Last Saturday (August 26) there was only one filthy women’s toilet (no soap ever) available for the hundreds of women attending and participating in this event. How do the food handlers properly wash their hands?
“The Hawaii Farm Bureau, Kapiolani Community College and the tourism industry have kicked this problem around long enough,” Flynn continued. “Bus after trolley unload (hordes) of tourists all morning long which completely overwhelm the event … It is time to bring in portable toilets for this event until renovations can be done.”
Dean Okimoto, owner of Nalo Farms and one of the founders of the Saturday Farmersʻ Market, agreed the bathroom situation is “out of hand.”
“Sometimes people have to wait a half-hour to get into the bathrooms, Okimoto says. “I see people who are very uncomfortable standing there. It makes for a bad experience for the tourists especially from Japan where restrooms are clean and orderly.”
When I called Brian Miyamoto, the executive director of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation, he said, “We were made aware recently that the toilet was broken again.” He said he was sending Kacey Robello, the market’s general manager, to check on it.
“We want to make sure people have a positive experience at the market, Miyamoto said.
Each weekend, market volunteer Nannette Geller tries to mitigate by directing visitors to restrooms in the college cafeteria in the Ohia building. But that restroom is a five-minute walk away, reached by climbing up two flights of stairs. And if you are from out of town, it’s difficult to find. When I checked out the Ohia building facilities Saturday, two of the sinks in the womenʻs restroom were out of order.
Some critics think the tour companies should be pitching in to pay for portable toilets or to help expand the existing restroom facilities.
And that might happen. For the first time since I have been writing about the tourist invasion of the KCC farmers’ market, a Japanese business executive is signaling that he and others might be willing to help.
The Saturday Farmersʻ Market at KCC is the original and most popular of the six farmersʻ markets run by the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation. It will celebrate its 14th anniversary next month. The Farm Bureau pays a janitorial service to clean the restroom and supply toilet paper each Saturday, but the facility is owned by the city’s Department of Transportation Services.
The city built the restroom in 2006 to serve as a comfort station for bicyclists and other recreational users. It was never intended to be the main bathroom for thousands of people coming to a farmersʻ market.
City spokesman Andrew Pereira says the city is eager to work with the market and KCC to address the situation.
“This is of particular importance because the weekly market is very popular and appears to be continually growing and providing a good opportunity for locals, farmers, vendors and visitors,” says Pereira.
Sometime after I alerted the city about the non-functioning toilets, it hired a private plumbing company to come Friday to make the repairs. The four stalls were up and running again before Saturday’s market.
But there continued to be long lines because a larger problem remains unaddressed: too few public toilets for the market.
Market vendor Barbara Santanna says, “We need proper restroom facilities here.”
Santanna is the owner of the marketʻs popular fried green tomatoes stall.
Because of the long waits for the unreliable bathroom, she says she tries to take care of her toilet needs before she leaves home to come to the market.
“I have to make sure I donʻt have to pee here,” says Santanna.
Okimoto says when he was president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation, he tried unsuccessfully to get the tour companies to kick in money to help.
“They are making tons of money bringing people to the market,” he says. What is wrong with giving some of the dollars to help pay for traffic control and portable toilets?”
Okimoto says when he urged the Japan-based companies to contribute about four years ago the businesses declined, telling him they were already doing their part by bringing thousands of shoppers to the market.
Okimoto thinks differently: “They take and take and they donʻt want to give back.”
But that attitude may be changing. Japan business executive Akio Hoshino said in an emailed statement to Civil Beat:
Hoshino is president of the Japan Hawaii Travel Association, a non-profit created by travel companies interested in increasing travel from Japan to Hawaii. He is also corporate officer of JTB Hawaii Inc.
Miyamoto says this signal is most welcome and that he intends to follow up.
“We want to provide the best experience for visitors and local residents that we can,” says Miyamoto.