A family outing to Belle Isle last spring was cut short when William Davis and his grandson couldn’t find a clean restroom on the state-run island park.
Davis, a retired city employee, said he intended to show his grandson how the 982-acre park had changed since Detroit lost control of what is now Michigan’s most visited state park. He ran into a problem commonly cited by visitors: When nature calls, it’s a struggle to find an open and suitable place to go.
Detroit City Council members questioned officials with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources about bathroom access during a Tuesday park update. Karis Floyd, DNR manager of Belle Isle Park and Milliken State Park and Harbor, said renovations were completed at all but one of 14 bathrooms on the island.
“So they’re open today?” asked Council Member Angela Whitfield Calloway. “All 13 bathrooms are open today?”
“Yes,” Floyd said. “They should be.”
BridgeDetroit visited Belle Isle the next afternoon and found eight locked bathrooms across the park. Bathrooms were inaccessible at shelters 2, 4, 8 and 19, Lake Muskoday and a historic stone comfort station near the Giant Slide. Two others are closed due to ongoing construction at the Belle Isle Casino and Flynn Memorial Pavillion.
Bathroom facilities were open Wednesday at Sunset Point, shelters 7 and 15, Kid’s Row playground, Belle Isle Beach and the Nature Center. Portable toilets are also located around the island, including outside Shelter 2, Lake Muskoday, the Belle Isle Athletic Shelter and a playground near the Nature Center.
Belle Isle opens at 5 a.m. and closes at 10 p.m., while bathroom facilities are accessible from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Early risers who visit the island for morning activities have to use a portable toilet or leave the park when they need to take a pit stop.
Floyd said Shelter 2 is closed because asbestos needs to be remediated and Shelter 4 needs underground repairs. The stone bathroom is in need of major repairs estimated to cost $3 million. Floyd said bathrooms on the east side of the island were closed Wednesday because the park’s afternoon janitor is out due to a family emergency.
The park, he added, isn’t fully staffed for the summer and the bathroom repairs are part of a long list of improvements being made to Belle Isle.
“That’s all part of the investment,” Floyd said. “The situation is a lot better than what we encountered when we took over; We didn’t have any bathrooms.”
Council Member Angela Whitfield-Calloway challenged DNR officials Tuesday when they claimed all bathrooms were open and renovated.
“The bathrooms, from what I’ve seen, are not restored,” she said.
Sheffield also questioned why bathrooms remain a problem nearly a decade after the DNR took over operation of Belle Isle under a 30-year lease agreement reached by former Gov. Rick Snyder and former Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr.
“That’s just like the bare minimum for residents in our city,” Sheffield said.
Tom Bissett, a parks supervisor with the DNR, said he understands the criticism but also pointed to the $118 million invested into upgrading Belle Isle since the lease was signed in 2014. Bissett said the park isn’t perfect, but major steps have been taken to clean up trash, restore ecological habitats and repair aging facilities.
“When you look at the amount of investment that was put into the island and the amount of problems that we came into, I truly feel like (the DNR) has done an amazing job for what we started with,” Bissett said.
Floyd said significant work has been done to the bathrooms in particular. He could not provide a dollar figure for those investments since state management started.
“I’m not trying to throw the city under the bus; When we came in, you had facilities that had no toilets, no fixtures, water lines were cut and removed, you had electrical panels removed, glass broken,” Floyd said.
On Wednesday, sisters Brenda, Valerie and Deanna Bassett were enjoying a sunny day at a park bench near Lake Muskoday. Each said bathroom access is an important factor in being able to enjoy Belle Isle.
“With them (the state) doing so much restoration out here, it seemed like the restrooms should have been the first priority,” Valerie said. “There are a lot more people out here than there used to be.That’s important, especially if you have small children,” Valerie added. “We have a lot of grandkids.”
Brenda said she’d be willing to take unorthodox measures to relieve herself.
“If they don’t want to open up the doors, I’ll open up my own door and let loose,” Brenda said.
Nearly all bathroom facilities on the island close in the winter because they are not heated, with the exception of Shelter 7 and the casino. Belle Isle Park Advisory Committee documents show bathrooms usually reopen in April and close around November, though Floyd said it’s largely weather-dependent.
“Temperatures have to be above 30 degrees in order for me to open our facilities,” Floyd said. “Memorial Day Weekend is when we go full blast … Right now we’re not at full staff.”
There were 5.2 million visits to Belle Isle recorded last year, up from 4.2 million in 2017.
Bissett said most state parks in Michigan have seasonal bathrooms that lack heat. Bathroom facilities on Belle Isle weren’t designed to remain open in colder months, Bissett said, so they lack insulation and other features that help retain heat.
“Any facility that’s closed for the winter, or any facility that’s down for maintenance at the time, we put a (portable toilet) outside,” Bissett said. “The last thing we want is a visitor to go to a place that they know has a restroom, have a bathroom emergency and not be able to go.”
Two full-time janitors are responsible for cleaning bathrooms three times each day. Floyd said an overnight cleaning crew is contracted to clean facilities after the park closes. A janitor checks each facility at 6 a.m. Floyd said other park staff on the island also help keep the bathrooms clean each day.
“We have teams out there seven days a week cleaning bathrooms, and it’s a never-ending thing,” Floyd said. “We want to make sure that when people come here, you have the facilities you want.”
Bissett said clean and accessible restrooms are among the top priorities for visitors.
“You have trash, bathrooms and safety – that’s what the public cares about,” Bissett said. “Bathrooms are No. 1 in everybody’s eyes. It’s not a fallacy to say that, it’s a true thing.”
Floyd said the DNR is considering adding heat to the bathroom at Sunset Point. Shelter 7 offers a year-round heated bathroom outside a city bus stop near the aquarium and conservatory. The DNR showed off the bathroom’s new look in a March Facebook post, to the applause of most users.
Other online reviews and past Belle Isle Park Advisory Committee meeting minutes show park users had complaints over the island’s bathrooms in the last few years.
“The millions of dollars the state (government) has spent on projects, some of them needed and some of them questionable where things would have been better left as they were, yet the bathrooms somehow must be closed all winter and not even well maintained in the summer,” Michael Betzold told the advisory committee in 2020. “Those of us who brave all kinds of weather because we love this beautiful place have no place to go if we need a restroom.”
A 2018 community input report found residents noticed bathrooms are cleaner and in better shape than years past, and bathroom accessibility was listed as a top priority. Meeting minutes also show accessibility improvements were made to bathrooms at Shelter 19 and plumbing issues were fixed at the Kid’s Row Playground bathroom in 2021.
Belle Isle Park administrators also updated Detroit council members Tuesday on other plans to improve the unique island destination. Construction is ongoing at the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory and casino roof. Both buildings will remain closed until next year.
Lead paint is being removed at Shelter 8, while Shelter 12 near Belle Isle Beach will reopen later this year. Park officials said they’re working on flood mitigation by planting trees and improving the flow of water through inland canals that feed interior lakes on the island.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed budget for 2024 includes $43 million for Belle Isle projects. Park administrators would spend $10 million to repair the James Scott Memorial Fountain, $5 million on Belle Isle Boathouse repairs, $5 million for beach improvements, $2 million for hazardous material removal and $1 million to reactivate the shuttered zoo grounds.
Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero asked Tuesday whether the DNR is considering removing the park fee – a $12 recreation passport – to allow for easier access. Park officials said that’s not on the table. Vehicles with a recreation passport can drive past the check-in booth.
Residents will learn more about plans to improve transportation and accessibility this summer. The DNR is working on a multimodal mobility study to make the island safer for pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles. Stakeholder meetings will be held in early June, and a public open house meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. on July 8 at the Belle Isle Nature Center.