A divided Olympia City Council gave the go-ahead Tuesday to install a heavy-duty 24-hour downtown public restroom this summer at the Artesian Commons.
The council also approved a plan to install temporary portable toilets near the Salvation Army on Plum Street and the Fertile Grounds Guesthouse on Adams Street. This will bring the total number of porta-potties to four following last year’s installations at the Artesian Commons and across from the Olympia Transit Center.
The decision was met with applause from a handful of Just Housing advocacy group supporters in the audience. They have been lobbying the council and state to provide more public restrooms — especially at night.
Last month, the Department of Enterprise Services installed a temporary portable restroom with 24-hour access at the state-owned Heritage Park. The action came after Just Housing demonstrators occupied the permanent Heritage Park restrooms at closing time on consecutive nights.
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C.C. Coates, who is homeless and depends on limited disability assistance, showed the council a small barrel-shaped plastic container that serves as a nighttime chamber pot. Coates bemoaned the lack of accessible restrooms and the accompanying health hazards of human waste that ends up on streets, alleys and sidewalks.
“I’m just trying to survive,” said Coates, who called on the council to act. “There are over 25 restrooms in the Olympia area that could be opened tonight.”
City planners warn of sticker shock for the permanent facility, which could cost up to $355,000 to buy and install. The site needs preparation for a sewer connection that would run beneath the sidewalk from Fourth Avenue to Jefferson Street. Bids will be sought this spring and construction could begin in June, city engineer Fran Eide said.
“We don’t just bring it in and set it down,” she told the council Tuesday.
The unit itself would resemble the trend-setting Portland Loo, but at a slightly lower cost of $75,000, compared to the Loo’s $90,000-plus price tag. Other estimated costs for Olympia’s project include $43,550 for sidewalk construction, $35,000 for site design, $20,000 for traffic control and $9,000 for permits.
Three council members — Mayor Cheryl Selby, Mayor Pro Tem Nathaniel Jones, and council member Julie Hankins — voted against moving forward on the deal. They cited the facility’s location and potential cost along with a lack of data from the ongoing downtown sanitation pilot project.
Launched last spring at the request of the downtown business community, the pilot project has funded the two existing porta-potties along with an early morning Clean Team. The latter cleans up an average of three to five “deposits” of human waste every day, according to city staff.
In voting no, Jones said he was “not ready for bricks and mortar.”
“The temporary potties meet the need until we can get a more thorough analysis for a permanent facility,” Jones said Tuesday.
A 24-hour count in November showed that 111 people used the Honey Bucket at the Artesian Commons in that period, said parks director Paul Simmons. Staff had previously estimated that 80 to 90 people used the toilet daily based on the amount of waste that gets pumped out, he said, adding that no data has been collected yet for the toilet near the bus station.
Some council members say the early numbers validate the project and make a permanent facility at the Artesian Commons worth the risk.
“That really demonstrates how many individuals use this service,” said Council member Jessica Bateman, noting the city’s goal to turn the Artesian Commons into an urban park for all. “Having a public restroom in a public park makes a lot of sense.”
Council members Clark Gilman, Jeannine Roe and Jim Cooper also supported the motion.
Also under consideration is whether to reopen the restrooms on the west side of Percival Landing near the Oyster House restaurant. The city closed those somewhat secluded restrooms in 2014 because of drug-related behavior and litter.
“There aren’t eyes on this bathroom,” said City Manager Steve Hall, who warned that restrooms could attract unwanted behaviors that may end up discouraging daytime visitors and families from visiting popular destinations such as Heritage Park or Percival Landing.
“We need to avoid user conflicts,” Hall said.
Some council members took umbrage at the suggestion that the restrooms are intended solely for the homeless and street community.
“We’re setting ourselves up for classism in restrooms,” said Cooper, calling for building a 24-hour restroom for all residents regardless of social status. “I’m concerned about the ‘have and have not’ conversation around the restrooms.”