Will a New Downtown Restroom Relieve Problems or Create Them?

The exterior (above) and interior of a Portland Loo
The exterior (above) and interior of a Portland Loo

The most common sign in Downtown San Antonio, it seems, isn't a neon "Open" sign or directions to the River Walk. It's a phrase plastered to the interior of countless shops and restaurants: "No Public Restrooms."

Public and private San Antonio entities have spent considerable time and money to lure people Downtown. Though a few public restrooms are scattered throughout the area, all of them have restricted hours and are out of order from time to time.

That's a problem, according to Councilman Roberto C. Treviño, an architect whose district includes much of Downtown. But a pilot project he's spearheading could provide a solution.

Within the next three months, the City of San Antonio will install a Portland Loo somewhere Downtown. The Portland Loo, named for the Oregon city where they're manufactured, is a free public restroom open 24 hours a day. Over a dozen cities have purchased them since 2007.

"We'll spend half a million to a million dollars building a restroom facility and then we'll lock it up. There's a problem with that. People need to use the restroom at all hours of the day," Treviño said.

Pat DiGiovanni, president and CEO of Centro San Antonio, called providing more public bathrooms Downtown a "common sense" step to improve the area.

"If I invited you to my home and you asked to use the restroom, and I said, 'I don't have one, you'll have to go across the street,' I'm not sure you'd come back to my home," DiGiovanni said.

The Portland Loo costs about $90,000. That doesn't include the cost of hookup to sewer and water lines, which Treviño said would probably be "nominal," but has cost more than the loo itself in some cities. Cleaning, maintenance and upkeep will cost about $1,000 a month. Treviño thinks the need justifies the price.

"We want more and more people to come Downtown, and we need to make downtown more accessible. This is one of the basic services that the city is supposed to be providing," Treviño said.

Built Like a Tank

Without an exterior restroom sign, it would be tough to tell that the Portland Loo was a place to go to the bathroom. But that's what it is – and it's no mere Porta Potty. The Portland Loo is constructed out of stainless steel and anchored to a concrete slab (Treviño described it as "a tank"). There are few moving parts, with a push-button, gravity-driven flushing mechanism and a hand-washing station on the outside. Each of Portland's seven loos are flushed roughly 250 times per day.

Evan Madden of Madden Fabrication, the company that makes the loos, said the restrooms are designed to be as low-maintenance as possible. And with over eight years of experience troubleshooting, he thinks the company has worked out most of the kinks.

"Everything that's had a chance to fail, it's failed in Portland," Madden said.

That includes both mechanical and crime-related problems. Public restrooms elsewhere have become hubs for drug use, prostitution and squatters who essentially turn them into miniature residences.

"You give people enough privacy, it becomes their art gallery, or a place to do something illegal," Madden said. "It's not a solution to drug use, it's not a solution to prostitution."

But the loo is designed to mitigate these problems. There are slits at the top and bottom for ventilation so that it's nearly impossible to hide – without compromising privacy. A blue overhead LED light turns on when someone enters the bathroom. Its exterior is coated with a substance that makes it easy to remove spray paint or marker.

Of the 24 loos Madden has installed, only one has been removed. A San Diego, California loo (one of two the city ordered) got the boot after installation became more expensive than anticipated, and business owners complained that it became a focal point for crime and the homeless population, which repelled potential customers.

The design is just as important as the loo's placement and supervision, Madden said. San Antonio's first loo will likely be in a high-traffic area Downtown. Although a permanent home hasn't been selected, possible locations include Travis Park, Milam Park, the southeast corner of Navarro Street and Crockett Street, and Commerce Street at Santa Rosa.

"You've Got to Do What You've Got to Do"

Public urination is a problem Downtown, but DiGiovanni said it's "an unfair expectation" to presume local businesses should help solve it by opening their doors to all go-ers.

San Antonio's loo will join a skimpy lineup of Downtown public restrooms, including ones at Main Plaza, the parking garage at St. Mary's Street and Travis Street, and at Centro Info on Commerce Street. A city employee who wasn't authorized to talk about the situation and asked to remain anonymous said that the restrooms at Centro Info had been out of operation for over a week.

The employee said she'd recently heard about the forthcoming Portland Loo, and she's skeptical about the impact it will make.

"That ain't gonna do it," she said. "It's a lot of money for just one bathroom. They say it's indestructible – we'll see."

Tourists and homeless people primarily use the Centro Info restroom, the employee said. Fred Christa, a homeless man who spends most of his time on Commerce Street, said not having it for the past week "has been a pain."

"All the other places, they want you to buy something [to use the restroom]. The homeless, we can't, we don't have no money," Christa said.

When Christa can't make it to a public restroom, or when they are all closed, he goes to the bathroom around (or in) a Dumpster in some secluded alleyway.

"When you're eating Dumpster food, it messes with your stomach," Christa said. "I hate to do it, but you've got to do what you've got to do."

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