A divided Olympia City Council has approved funding for a permanent public restroom at the Artesian Commons.
The council voted 4-3 to move forward with a plan to install a 24-hour restroom at the pocket park around the historic artesian well.
The estimated cost could reach $350,000, depending on access to sewer lines. A final cost will be determined after the initial design and engineering plans have been finished. The council also requested city staff to create a timeline for the installation.
Voting against the funding were Mayor Cheryl Selby, Mayor Pro Tem Nathaniel Jones and Councilwoman Julie Hankins. Selby said she supports a downtown public restroom, but said the current downtown sanitation pilot project involving temporary porta-potties is not yet complete.
“I feel like we’re rushing to a location,” she said. “Think of how many people we can house for $350,000.”
Downtown business owners have been pleading with the city to install a 24-hour restroom to reduce the amount of feces and urine in the alleys and storefronts. The Artesian Commons on Fourth Avenue has been the de facto choice for a permanent restroom because the park serves as a hub for the street community.
The new restroom could resemble the heavy-duty Portland Loo, a stainless steel public toilet that has been considered a success in its namesake city.
Jones said a single restroom will not solve sanitation issues downtown, and he opposed the idea of what would essentially become “segregated facilities” for the homeless population. He wants to see multiple locations that anyone can feel free to use.
“My bias is toward general public services,” he said, “rather than be targeted toward any one population.”
Although she isn’t sure the Artesian Commons is the best location, Councilwoman Jeannine Roe said the city needs to move forward on the issue that has gone through multiple discussions.
“It will be dollars well spent,” she said. “We just forked out $175,000 for a parking study without blinking.”
Hankins said the council’s job is to create policy, not micromanage a project like the sanitation plan. “We are out of our element,” she said. “I am a little concerned that sometimes we get into the weeds.”
Councilwoman Jessica Bateman said a restroom at the Artesian Commons is a common-sense decision for the council. “We should have a bathroom at a park,” she said. “We’ve been talking about this ad nauseam.”
The council and city staff acknowledge the permanent facility will not solve all sanitation problems, but can still provide a dignified option for people who need a toilet. Other ideas include keeping current restrooms open for 24 hours at Heritage Park or Percival Landing, for example.
The city also devoted $68,000 to assist the Downtown Ambassador Program’s Clean Team, which has cleaned up more than 327 deposits of human waste since data collection began April 1.