Seattle officials hope to buy and install a new public toilet in Pioneer Square by the end of this year. An earlier proposal called for a developer to purchase the restroom, but that pact fell through.
Seattle is trying yet again to relieve itself of its Pioneer Square public-toilet problem.
The city’s current budget includes $230,000 for the purchase, transportation and installation of a stand-alone restroom in the historic downtown neighborhood, where large numbers of tourists, sports fans and homeless people lack a reliable option. An official leading the project said he hopes to open the unit by the end of the year.
“Our goal is to make this happen ASAP,” said Gary Johnson, who coordinates the Seattle Department of Planning and Development’s center-city strategy.
The last time officials addressed the issue, they wound up with a mess. The city spent $5 million on five high-tech, self-cleaning toilets for Pioneer Square and other neighborhoods in 2003, only to have the units become refuges for drug use, prostitution and hanky-panky. They were sold on eBay in 2008 for $2,500 each.
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Johnson insists the new toilet — a Portland Loo-style model — will be much better. Named for the Oregon city, which installed its first unit in 2008, the Loo is small, solar-powered and made from heavy-gauge stainless steel with a graffiti-resistant finish.
Its sink for hand-washing is located on the outside, to discourage people from using the unit to bathe and wash clothes. Angled steel louvers at the top and bottom of the unit allow passers-by and police to observe how many people are inside without compromising privacy.
The unit on its own costs less than $100,000; another $100,000 or more will be spent on installation and other items, Johnson said. If the Loo is a success, the city may add more in neighborhoods such as Ballard and the University District. Seattle Parks and Recreation is siting two at the Rainier Beach Playfield, said Johnson.
Portland now has seven Loos, adding one as recently as 2013.
Some are in neighborhoods where people living on the street congregate, as in Pioneer Square, and the unit’s popularity is growing. Portland has exported Loos to three California cities, including San Diego, and Cincinnati will open its first next month.
The Loo has a concrete floor and a back door that swings open so workers can use a pressure-washer multiple times each day to hose the unit down, Johnson said.
“You get just enough privacy,” said Johnson. “Based on Portland’s experience, this public toilet doesn’t just work well for homeless people — it works well for everybody.”
The self-cleaning toilets were an embarrassment for Seattle. But merchants, residents and social-service providers have continued to push for restroom service, said Leslie Smith, executive director of the nonprofit Alliance for Pioneer Square.
Between Jan. 1 and May 5 this year, Pioneer Square accounted for 3,496 of 11,120 human- and animal-waste cleanups by the Metropolitan Improvement District (MID), which patrols every neighborhood downtown, according to MID statistics.
Some homeless shelters in Pioneer Square close down in the morning, forcing the people who sleep there onto the street right away, Smith pointed out. “Then we have hundreds of thousands of people every year going to sports events (at CenturyLink Field and Safeco Field) and we also have people coming for the nightlife,” she said.
Pioneer Square identified restroom service as a priority in a 2010 neighborhood plan, but progress has been sluggish. There was a proposal in 2013 for a real-estate developer to buy, transport and install a Loo for the city in exchange for 30 extra feet of height atop a residential and commercial project on the east side of Occidental Park.
That deal fell through when the developer decided to instead build an office building for Weyerhaeuser on the site and no longer needed the extra height.
The City Council last week changed how the toilet will be paid for, choosing to tap real-estate excise taxes rather than the general fund, as the budget initially called for.
“We’ve been working on this for five years, and it’s been slow going,” said Johnson, from the city, attributing the delay in large part to the scrapped development pact.
“There have also been some challenges around where to site the toilet,” he said.
Some merchants and property owners want the Loo installed near them, while others want the opposite, said Smith, from the Alliance. Portland officials have noted that the toilets are best used in spots with heavy pedestrian traffic, Smith said.
Greg, who is homeless and who declined to give his last name, said he wouldn’t mind having a toilet to use near Occidental Park. But he struck a dubious note, raising his eyebrows when told the Loo will be kept open all day and all night.
“People are going to do drugs in there,” Greg predicted. “They’re going to have to clean it more than once a day. It might not be worth it.”
But Phil Bevis, who owns Arundel Books at the west side of Occidental Park, said a public restroom is overdue. People often traipse into Arundel to use his toilet, he said.
“This is about a basic human right. This is a long time coming,” he said, adding that the city will need to monitor the Loo closely to make sure women feel safe using it.