The solution is murky, but the consensus is clear: Olympia has a long way to go to wipe out its downtown potty problem.
The most visible attempt to reduce human waste on the downtown streets can be seen at the Artesian Commons, where a Honey Bucket has been open 24 hours a day since April near the park’s entrance on Fourth Avenue. Although a contractor cleans it six days a week, this graffiti-covered porta-potty often gives off a stench that’s not for the faint of heart.
No data exist on the number of people who use the porta-potty at the Artesian Commons or the one installed Aug. 1 near the Intercity Transit bus station at Olympia Avenue and Franklin Street. Both temporary toilets are part of a $106,500 pilot project that was launched in March.
But at public discussion on the topic Tuesday, the Olympia City Council members agreed that these two 24-hour restrooms are not enough.
At the urging of the downtown business community, the city will continue its public restroom project in 2017. Part of the debate focuses on whether to install a permanent facility — and where to put it.
The city estimates that a more durable restroom similar to the stainless steel Portland Loo could cost between $255,000 and $353,000 to install in downtown Olympia.
The price range comes down to the restroom’s proximity to a sewer connection, which means a restroom at the Artesian Commons could cost more than a facility located elsewhere downtown.
Parks director Paul Simmons estimates that a permanent restroom in downtown Olympia would cost about $37,000 a year to clean, maintain and insure. The budget accounts for expenses such as toilet paper, extra cleanings and vandalism. In comparison, each temporary porta-potty costs the city about $27,000 a year to maintain, clean and insure.
Some council members say the current inventory of restrooms at public parks and spaces such as Percival Landing should become part of the solution. Aside from the cost of maintenance and security, City Manager Steve Hall warned that opening other restrooms overnight could have unintended consequences.
“One of the cons is, do you want to draw street-dependent people to the Harbor House and playground?” said Hall, weighing whether it is appropriate to have restrooms specifically for the street population.
Mayor Pro Tem Nathaniel Jones said a permanent restroom, especially one intended for the street community at the artesian well, could send the wrong message. Jones also wants to explore leasing restrooms such as those owned by the state at Heritage Park or establishing partnerships with the Salvation Army and Union Gospel Mission, for example, with a focus on creating something available to anyone and everyone.
“I’m not sold on the Artesian Commons as the best location for a public restroom. That action would reinforce that site as a street-dependent facility,” he said. “The future of that park is actually better when viewed as something that’s available to the general public.”
Council member Jessica Bateman disagreed with that assessment, but acknowledged that there is no quick and easy solution. She said a restroom is a necessary part of the Artesian Commons that would meet the needs of park users.
“It’s going to be an evolution for the future of that park,” she said. “I don’t think it’s realistic to have one restroom that’s going to serve all populations.”
There is no data on how many late-night bar patrons use the Artesian Commons porta-potty, according to city staff. Mayor Cheryl Selby suggested that a way to reduce human waste in alleys is through an awareness campaign that reminds bar patrons to use the restroom before they leave.
In addition to the porta-potties, the current sanitation pilot project has expanded the Downtown Ambassador Program’s Clean Team. Since data collection began April 1, the Clean Team has counted 327 individual “deposits” of human waste at a consistent average of three to five per day, said Mark Rentfrow, the city’s downtown liaison.
Rentfrow said the numbers are somewhat misleading because the Clean Team only covers a rectangular-shaped portion of downtown that’s bordered by State Avenue to the north and Legion Way to the south.
“Any activity outside of that area, we don’t have quantified,” he told the council, noting some positive aspects of the project so far. “One role the Clean Team has fulfilled is timely cleanup. It’s not so much that it didn’t happen, but that the store owner didn’t have to deal with it.”
Council member Jeannine Roe said it’s time for the city to move forward with a permanent answer on when and where to install a public restroom that people from all walks of life can use. She criticized the Artesian Commons porta-potty as unrealistic to maintain and said that any other temporary facilities should be installed with aesthetics in mind.
“They don’t have to be a blue shell. They can actually be much more visually attractive,” Roe said. “There is potential to have porta-potties in the city that aren’t an ugly plastic box.”