A lot has, and hasn’t, happened in the decades since downtown’s public restroom shortage came to light. Two grand jury reports and vast sums of money have been aimed at the problem, the homeless population has swelled, and just two single-stall toilets were added, one of which may be removed.
Or, as the latest grand jury report puts it, “very little progress has been made.” Like the last report directed to the city council, this one calls for more restrooms and a budget to maintain them. But the upkeep of the two easy-to-clean, graffiti-proof Portland Loos installed since December costs more than in any city that has them.
Now, city staff is proposing to remove the loo at 14th and L streets, a lightning rod of crime and complaints, with no clear way forward. The loo at Park Boulevard and Market Street could even be next.
No city has had a harder time with the loos than San Diego, says Evan Madden of Madden Fabrications, the Oregon company that markets them. “I’ve sold 21 restrooms to cities, and I’ve never had one cost so much to install, let alone maintain, than in San Diego.” Not that other cities don’t have toilet troubles. In fact, Portland initially hawked its patented Portland Loos to cities everywhere to pay for their maintenance. After a ratepayer lawsuit, Portland now relies on its general fund, as San Diego does, to pay maintenance costs.
Portland’s loos have also faced crime. In 2011, police blamed one of the units for worsening the drug and prostitution trade. Then there’s Seattle, which Portland used as a model of what not to do. In 2003, Seattle spent $5 million on five high-tech, self-cleaning restrooms for tourists, sports fans, and homeless people. They became havens for drug use and prostitution. In 2008 they were sold on eBay for $2500 each.
This year Seattle plans to open a Portland Loo; a better crime deterrent, proponents say, since it allows less privacy. San Francisco has also struggled with self-cleaning toilets. San Diego’s grand jury report praises their 25 toilets compared to San Diego’s 8 (counting the two loos and restrooms being built at Horton Plaza, with only the loos and a restroom at the Civic Center complex open 24-7). But San Francisco's automatic toilets have been plagued with maintenance problems. Still, San Diego stands out for its high maintenance costs for the loos.
“Every city is going to be different,” says Bryan Aptekar, who handles the cleaning contract for Portland’s downtown loos. He notes that they use service providers who are already working in the area, which keeps costs down. Portland’s annual cost for twice-daily cleaning and minor repairs of six loos is an average of $19,833 each, made easy by features like the exterior drain that aids weekly power-washing. It does not include utility costs (sewer and water), he says. The total of $119,000 breaks down as $105,000 for the cleaning contract and $14,000 for routine maintenance and repairs. Seattle will pay about $30,000 a year per loo, with maintenance handled by a Business Improvement District.
Arcata, the second California city to buy a Portland Loo, estimates cleaning costs of $20,000–$25,000 annually, including labor, supplies, and vandalism.
And San Diego?
On July 29, an update on the loos was given at the city council’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee meeting that included a cleaning estimate. (The annual janitorial maintenance contract ended in July, but Park and Recreation staff has since secured a new one). The cleaning tab for the two loos is $99,720 (compared to $105,000 for six loos in Portland).
The expenses cover three daily scrubs of the more controversial loo for $53,472 and twice-daily service of the other loo for $46,248. There are also four porta-potties costing $9807, for an annual total of $109,527. That doesn’t include vandalism, which adds another $30,000 (Arcata includes such repairs in its estimate).
And the downtown loos have faced vandalism despite daily cleaning. The crime and complaints “could be eliminated,” the grand jury report said, by hiring security guards, along with frequent cleaning and upkeep. But the maintenance tab doesn’t include security guards, either. In a proposed response to the report, the city estimates that security would require additional annual funding of $168,000 to $400,000.
So, removal or relocation of the 14th Street loo is proposed as a better use of funds. Its maintenance dollars could be used to stretch the hours of ten public restrooms at the St. Vincent de Paul homeless shelter nearby.
Estimates for Father Joe’s Villages to clean, service, and provide 24-hour security at their restrooms is $80,000 to $105,000.
“The facilities at St. Vincent de Paul could provide more stalls in a safe and monitored environment for a similar amount of money being spent on one loo,” says Katie Keach, deputy chief of staff for city councilmember Todd Gloria, whose district includes downtown.
But that may not address the shortage of commodes for all segments of the public noted in the report. Will tourists or Petco Park–goers use the public homeless shelter restrooms? Gloria doesn’t consider the option a solution to the lack of restrooms downtown, Keach says. The proposal is only “meant to address the challenges of one loo.”
The Girl's Think Tank, a homeless advocacy group that brought the idea of the Portland Loo to the city in 2010, is urging the city to give the loos more time. The mayor and city council have until October to respond to the grand jury report.
The city has no plan for adding others.
In their proposed response on the slow progress, they cite one reason as the high cost to maintain street toilets in the public right of way. Loo-maker Evan Madden stresses the importance of visibility in siting the toilets, which some say the 14th Street loo is lacking.
“Everyone feels like your neighbor,” he says of the community approach that aims to shape behavior through design, reducing security problems, and ultimately, maintenance costs. “I would love to know what went wrong in San Diego.”
(revised 8/17, 7 a.m.)