Business owners are pushing hard for a 24-hour public restroom in downtown Olympia, but nobody knows who should claim responsibility for hosting it.
Money is another obstacle.
The stainless steel Portland Loo, considered the gold standard of public toilets, costs nearly $100,000 before installation. At the other end of the spectrum, the portable and affordable Honey Buckets are considered inadequate for meeting demand.
The burden has ultimately fallen on downtown merchants who have grown accustomed to finding urine or feces on their properties and in alleyways. Some businesses, especially those open at night, end up serving as de facto public restrooms.
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Downtown stakeholders say a 24-hour public restroom, or at least one with later hours, would help create more of a positive perception of downtown that can attract more visitors and shoppers. That’s one reason why the Parking and Business Improvement Area Board — a self-taxing district with about 435 business owners — already devotes about 25 percent of its budget to the Downtown Ambassador Program and Clean Team. The latter is often summoned to clean up excrement for the businesses.
Anne Buck, owner of Buck’s Fifth Avenue, is determined to wipe out the problem. She launched an informal donation campaign for a public toilet in September. So far, she has raised about $1,700.
The toilet doesn’t need to be fancy, she said. It just needs to work around the clock, regardless of where it is located.
It’s gotten to be a real crisis. We have poop all over the place.
Anne Buck, owner of Buck’s Fifth Avenue, who has launched a donation campaign for a 24-hour public toilet in downtown Olympia
“It’s gotten to be a real crisis,” Buck said. “We have poop all over the place.”
Karin Olsen, owner of Radiance Herbs and Massage on Fifth Avenue, told the Olympia City Council last month that, in her 10 years in business, she has never seen this much need for a 24-hour public restroom. Her staff regularly encounters piles of feces when taking out the garbage, and recently, a man walked out in front of Olsen’s car and urinated on a building.
“We need to take care of it now,” she said. “I would love the council to buckle down and focus on that.”
Next year might be the year that Olympia does just that. In early 2016, city staff and the City Council are expected to discuss a “downtown sanitation plan,” including potential funding for a restroom.
In recent weeks, business owners have pleaded with the council to keep the current public restrooms open later. That includes representatives from the Parking and Business Improvement Area, also known as the PBIA.
A Google search for public restrooms in Olympia identifies facilities at Heritage Park and the visitors’ center on the Capitol Campus, along with a restroom at Sunrise Park on the west side.
The public also can access clean restrooms during daytime hours at locations such as the Percival Landing Harbor House, The Olympia Center and the Olympia Timberland Library.
The state Department of Enterprise Services is responsible for maintaining downtown public restrooms at Heritage Park and Marathon Park because they are located in state-owned parks. The restrooms have summer hours of 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and winter hours of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. — the same hours the parks are open.
But over the years, the state-run bathrooms have been targets for vandals and drug users who leave behind dangerous paraphernalia such as used needles, said department spokesman Jim Erskine.
Business owners have approached the department about extending hours for these restrooms. Erskine said the discussions from late 2011 and 2012 were sparked by problems surrounding the Occupy Olympia protests at the time.
“It was getting to the point where it was posing a significant risk to other users of these restrooms,” Erskine said. “It’s not the park users who are coming to walk around Capitol Lake that cause this issue.”
Despite the demand to keep the restrooms open longer, nobody offered resources to monitor the facilities during off-hours, Erskine said.
“You can’t just leave them open and unattended,” he said. “We just don’t have the budget to do that.”
Seattle and its Loo
In 2003, Seattle attempted — and failed — to solve its public potty problem. The city had purchased five high-tech toilets for neighborhoods including Pioneer Square, where the homeless community frequently congregates.
However, the self-cleaning toilets became havens for drug use, prostitution and other mischief. The city spent $5 million for the toilets, but later sold them in an online auction for $2,500 each, according to the Seattle Times.
The city renewed its push to install more public restrooms in 2010.
“The problem had not gone away and was still significant,” said Gary Johnson, Seattle’s city center coordinator.
While exploring alternatives such as remodeling indoor bathrooms, the Portland Loo quickly shot to the top of the list, Johnson said.
The stainless steel Loo is compact enough to fit in a parking space. It features a concrete floor along with a hand-washing station on the side. The Loos have slatted openings along the top and bottom to keep a user’s legs in view and discourage trouble. The outside comes with an anti-graffiti clear coating and a hose for cleaning.
Seattle Parks and Recreation maintains two Portland Loos that were installed recently at Rainier Beach Playground on the city’s south side. The Loos provide a “winter-friendly” option in the neighborhood with a heating element that prevents pipes from freezing and cracking, said David Takami, communications manager for Seattle parks.
For the past five years, a Portland Loo has been slated for Pioneer Square. However, plans were changed recently because of the cost to install the Loo in a historic district with old infrastructure, said Leslie Smith, director of the Alliance for Pioneer Square. Instead, the alliance will build a new brick-and-mortar restroom at one of the neighborhood’s parks.
Loos are still under consideration in Seattle’s Ballard and University District neighborhoods, which are wrapping up feasibility studies for new public restrooms.
The Ballard Restroom Study offers more insight into the potential costs. Compared to Olympia, the Ballard neighborhood has a population of about 41,500, but with four times the population density.
The Portland Loo was estimated to cost $190,000 to purchase and install, then cost about $2,000 a month to maintain, according to the study.
Portable toilets such as Honey Buckets are estimated to cost $400 a month for maintenance, but are not seen as a permanent solution. Another option is the “comfort station,” which would cost about $300,000 to install and up to $5,000 a month to maintain. The study also notes that comfort stations are commonly found in parks and can serve several people at once.
Moving forward, Johnson said the Seattle neighborhoods still need to figure out how to pay for ongoing cleaning and maintenance. Other variables include the restroom’s proximity to utilities.
Above all, Johnson said any new restroom must be safe, accessible and inviting for people from all walks of life.
“You want a high-visibility, high-pedestrian location,” he said. “Location is everything.”
What’s right for Olympia?
In Olympia, Mayor-elect Cheryl Selby said she expects the city to install a temporary facility in early 2016. She acknowledges that a “porta-potty” isn’t the ideal solution, but it’s a start.
“My preference is to get something up quicker, rather than study it some more,” Selby told The Olympian, adding that the city’s goal is to open a permanent restroom later next year.
Selby, a downtown business owner herself, also wants to extend the hours for other public restrooms while finding a way to provide regular maintenance and security.
“Why not use our existing facilities and keep them open longer?” she said. “It makes a lot of sense to me.”
Several city council members have said that the Downtown Ambassador Program and Clean Team need to be part of the discussion about a “downtown sanitation plan.”
Councilman Jim Cooper said the lack of access to public restrooms downtown, especially after 5 p.m., is “inexcusable.”
During a recent budget study session, Cooper summed up an increasingly common sentiment about downtown cleanliness and sanitation: “It’s pretty clear that we want to have a conversation about ‘pooping with dignity’ in the city of Olympia.”