In these coarse times, it costs money to keep the appearance of a civilized society.
At the Ballard Commons, in the heart of Seattle’s historic Scandinavian neighborhood, that cost is $550,000 for one outdoor public restroom and its installation.
But the “Portland Loo” is advertised as the best way to deal with drug use, prostitution and vandalism. Seattle already has two, at the Rainier Beach Playfield. Although there are no plans for additional loos in Seattle, according to a parks spokeswoman, more are coming to the region.
“It’s not supposed to be a comfortable place,” says Evan Madden, sales manager for the Portland Loo, named for the city where it was patented in 2010 after officials decided to design a better outdoor toilet.
The toilet has one purpose: Allow the user to do their hygienic business and leave as quickly as possible. It’s been described as looking “like a cage for a gorilla.”
Here is the experience you’ll have in using one of them.
Users are greeted by a cage-like structure, made out of heavy-gauge stainless steel. The exterior is painted in an uninviting “Portland Gray.”
The toilet bowl is made out of “prison grade” stainless steel, perched above a concrete slab floor. One amenity is the toilet seat. It’s made out of fiberglass, says Madden kind-of-jokingly, because stainless steel can stick to skin in freezing weather.
There’s no sink, to prevent users from washing clothes. Outside the loo, there is a spigot that dispenses only cold water.
No mirror, of course. So nothing to smash. And, says Madden, with the reinforced stainless steel walls, “they’ll stand up being beat up with a baseball bat.”
The paint has anti-graffiti powder in it so that, say, a citrus-based cleaner will easily wipe off a Sharpie marking.
And the blue lighting that’s bathing the inside of the loo as if you’re in sci-fi movie? It makes it difficult for intravenous drug users to spot their veins.
The loo in Ballard, currently surrounded by chain-link fencing, is set to open later this month.
You can thank the Seattle public toilet debacle of 2004 for helping design the Portland Loo.
The city spent $5 million on five public toilets in Pioneer Square and other neighborhoods that were advertised as high-tech, with sanitizing water jets and automatic doors. They were made in Germany.
The problem was, drug users and prostitutes found them a good place to carry on. The Downtown Seattle Association reported that human waste on the streets increased, instead of decreasing, after they opened.
In 2008, the city unloaded the toilets on eBay for $12,549 to Butch Behn, owner of Racecar Supply, of Rochester in Thurston County.
Behn says the toilets have just been sitting at his property for 11 years. After spending an additional $30,000 to move them, he wanted to install one of them. But the county told him he couldn’t because it was too close to a well house.
He has no regrets, though. “I got more publicity out of those toilets than anything you could ever do in your life,” he says.
Portland city officials studied the Seattle debacle.
“We really looked at Seattle as what not to do,” Anna DiBenedetto, a staff assistant for then-city commissioner Randy Leonard, referred to as the “spiritual godfather” of the loo, was quoted in a 2012 story on the website CityLab story.
Speaking of Seattle’s ill-fated German toilets, she said, “We think it was the design that was the fatal flaw. Trying to be comfortable and private makes people feel more empowered to do the illegal activities that people do in public toilets.”
So, the Portland Loo has steel bars at the top and bottom of the structure. Cops can peep inside to make sure there’s only one person inside.
And, points out the CityLab story, “The openings also help sound flow freely, letting pedestrians hear grunts and splashes inside and the person inside hear the footsteps and conversation of pedestrians. Nobody wants to stick around such a toilet for long.”
The loo is very basic. It gets cleaned when a hose is taken out of a locked utility area in the back, and whatever mess there is gets washed into a drain.
Why such drastic measures?
A 2019 report by City Auditor David G. Jones about Seattle’s Navigation Team described the problems facing vendors of the familiar Honey Bucket-type outdoor toilets.
They couldn’t service the toilets because people were often sleeping or staying inside and were “not willing to vacate the unit.” Also, there “had been challenges with blood spray in these units related to IV drug use.”
Meanwhile, said the auditor’s report, “only six city-funded restrooms are available 24/7,” with the rest closed at night.
So, for those running public parks, it starts making sense to spend the money on the Portland Loos.
King County Parks is buying four of them, at about $90,000 each, for the Steve Cox Memorial Park in White Center. The cost of the loos can vary by a few thousand, depending on structural changes.
It’ll cost $70,000 each to install the first two loos, and a larger sum for the next two because they’ll be farther away from connecting utilities, says King County Parks spokesman Doug Williams. He says the county bought loos after “vandalism and misuse” of an outdated restroom at that location.
In contrast, rental and maintenance of one Honey Bucket is about $200 a month, he says.
It was the high cost of installation that drove up the pricetag of the loo to $550,000 at the Ballard Commons, as the loo itself cost $125,000.
Located at 20th Avenue Northwest and Northwest 57th Street, the park has water jets set into the concrete that kids can run through. That meant, says Parks, that county health regulations required a public restroom within 100 feet of the water jets.
And that meant $250,000 for running electric, water and sewer to the loo and $175,000 for a site survey, project management and other items.
Madden says the company has sold more than 90 of the structures to customers around the country, as well as Canada and New Zealand. Other cities in this state that have bought the loos include Shoreline, Vancouver, Oak Harbor and Olympia. Oak Harbor decided it needed six of the loos for two parks.
“We experienced probably $3,500 to $5,000 a year vandalism in the bathrooms,” said Mike Wright, chairman of the Oak Harbor Park Board, explaining why the city invested in the Portland Loos.
On a recent sunny afternoon, the usual mix of locals was found at the Ballard Commons.
Overlooking it all was Jimmy Hawkins, who works at the commons two days a week as a “park concierge.” He opens a big, heavy-duty metal lockbox, takes out folding tables and chairs, sets them up, puts up the tamper-proof steel net on the unmovable ping-pong table anchored to a galvanized steel frame.
Among his duties is telling the drug users to stay out of the three Honey Buckets currently at the park.
“That s— don’t happen on my watch!” he tells a guy.
The guy shouts his innocence. “I only smoke weed!”
Karina Shemali, whose family lives in a nearby condo, decided to play ping-pong with her seven-year-old son. She says she wishes the loo hadn’t been placed in such a prominent location. “Whose idea was that?”
The answer from loo proponents is that a prominent location puts more eyes on anything illegal going inside them.
“I will not take him to that toilet,” says Shemali, speaking of her son. “Unless it’s an emergency, and then I’d go inside with him.”