The University Heights Center in the University District gets a lot of use. Between 200 and 400 children go through every day, having a good time on the playground or accessing programs. The city of Seattle estimates that it receives 250,000 total visitors per year.
That means that when the center’s property gets used as a toilet rather than a gathering place, it creates a significant public health problem that people at the building have to clean up.
Ray Munger, the outgoing deputy director, didn’t work at University Heights when it had an outdoor toilet on its property to give people a place to go, but he’s heard second- and third-hand about the issues it caused.
“From what I understand … there were a lot of problems with managing the space, and who’s going to mind it and keep it clean,” Munger said. “It didn’t work out very well.”
He and a number of neighborhood and community groups worked together to make sure that next time it would be different.
A coalition representing community organizations, private businesses and the city of Seattle worked together to create a proposal for the City Council to install permanent outdoor toilets in a handful of locations in the University District.
Its goal: to provide 24-hour access to toilet services in strategic areas of the district, an option that currently does not exist and would remove a significant burden on homeless and low-income residents who cannot afford to pop into a coffee shop every time they need to use the facilities.
In a report released this summer, the group recommended installing prefab units called Portland Loos, spare facilities that connect to the sewer system to provide low-maintenance, outdoor restrooms.
The Portland Loos, designed for the eponymous Oregon city, are plain structures that create semi-permanent flushing restrooms in public areas. There would ideally be three installed at strategic points across the University District, proponents say.
If the group is successful, the loos would constitute the only public restrooms open all night in the city apart from the indoor facilities at Pike Place Market, according to a report by Seattle University’s Homeless Rights Advocacy Project.
Community members in the University District see a real need for the toilets, both to protect areas like University Heights Center and to provide amenities for tourists and residents, both homeless and housed, said Ruedi Risler, an employee with the University of Washington and public toilet proponent.
“I felt we did a fairly reasonable job reaching different groups. The response we got was overwhelmingly positive that people wanted this,” Risler said. “Concerns were that it has to be maintained properly and everything should be done to prevent unwanted activities inside or around the loo.”
Those concerns were not hypothetical, but rooted in experience.
The city experimented with the concept of public toilets in 2004, setting aside $5 million for five of them throughout the city. The fancy machines, imported from Germany, had the advantage of being self-cleaning, but quickly failed to live up to their promise.
The restrooms’ automated bits got jammed with trash and they became hiding places for drug users and prostitutes, The Seattle Times reported in 2008, shortly before Seattle Public Utilities decided to pull the plug on the concept.
Eventually, the toilets were sold on the e-commerce site eBay for $12,549, according to a 2008 article in The Seattle Times.
The Portland Loo advocates aim to avoid those problems by choosing the pared-down model and finding better locations for the toilets.
Portland Loos won the design contest because, unlike temporary portable toilets, they connect directly to the sewer system, meaning they do not need to be picked up and replaced. That keeps costs down, Risler said.
They’re also considerably cheaper than the self-cleaning toilets, clocking in at $267,475 each with a contingency budget. That includes the purchase, utility connections, design and permitting. The sticking point so far has been maintenance costs of between $25,000 and $30,000 a year, which the group wants the city of Seattle to cover.
The sturdy construction includes panels that are easy to clean or replace, preventing graffiti problems, and the louvered panels provide privacy but also make it possible to know if someone is inside to prevent public safety issues.
Deciding where to place the loo is almost as important as the design. It needs to be in a high-traffic area for easy access and the added protection of being in the public eye, and also where it can fit without impeding pedestrians – the loos are compliant with the American Disabilities Act, and are quite wide.
Volunteers took a tarp with the same footprint as the loo through the district to identify places that met their criteria. They found three places that would spread the services out and generally be of use to the community: one near the University Bookstore or post office, one near the Farmer’s Market and a third one to be determined, possibly near Roosevelt Way and NE 47th Street.
The group has a meeting with Councilmember Rob Johnson the week of Oct. 31 to talk through the proposal. Johnson, who represents the University District, supports the idea of public restrooms, but wants to make sure that the “U-Loo” doesn’t meet the same fate as the automated models.
Portland Loos have been embraced elsewhere with mostly positive results. One cautionary tale took place in San Diego. The California city installed two units and was forced to remove one two years after installation because it took a beating, according to San Diego City Council documents.
Those interested can read the report, check out the graphic that accompanies the story or visit one in person: There are two already in Seattle at Rainier Beach Pool.