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Pottyless in Seattle: age-old problem of where to go vexes city

An underground public men's room located in Seattle's Westlake Square circa 1917 is shown in this handout photo courtesy of City of Seattle
An underground public men's room located in Seattle's Westlake Square circa 1917 is shown in this handout photo courtesy of City of Seattle

By Jonathan Kaminsky

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Seattle has endured sewage problems since the 19th century, when waste from flush toilets washed back to the city at high tide. Today, it is public potties that have officials of the West Coast city on the edge of their seats.

Seattle wants to replace five self-cleaning toilets that were installed a decade ago for more than $5 million but ended up auctioned on eBay for less than $13,000 because they were often used for drugs and prostitution.

In its search for the perfect prefabricated public toilet, the city is looking no farther than Portland, Oregon, its trendy neighbor, and the Portland Loo.

Patented by Portland in 2010, the toilet reflects the attitude of a number of North American municipalities that simple sidewalk toilets that meet a basic public need while discouraging other uses are the way to go.

"It's designed to be not convenient to go into and do something illicit or something you shouldn't be doing," said Linc Mann, spokesman for Portland's Bureau of Environmental Services, which oversees toilet maintenance in the city and helps cover its costs by selling the Portland Loo to other cities. The starting price: $90,000.

Although big enough to accommodate a bicycle or a stroller, the Portland Loo is much smaller than Seattle's previous large stainless steel toilets. It is also less private, with metal slats along the top and bottom that allow a view if police suspect illegal activity inside.

To cut the time people spend in the toilet and to discourage clothes washing, the sink is on the outside of the Portland Loo. And, unlike the toilets Seattle sold that had a three-minute self-cleaning cycle between each use, the Portland Loo is cleaned the old-fashioned way, twice a day.

Cities like Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles have toilets similar to Seattle's castaways, with installation and maintenance costs typically paid by vendors in exchange for advertising in the toilets and at bus shelters.

Each week, Portland fields a handful of calls about its public toilet, Mann said. The Canadian cities of Victoria and Nanaimo have each purchased a Portland Loo, as has Ketchikan, Alaska. San Diego, Cincinnati, Houston and other cities have expressed interest.

Romtec, Inc, based in Oregon, recently began marketing its own version of the Portland Loo, called a Sidewalk Restroom, for less than half the price.

QUEST FOR A TOILET

Seattle is expected to decide at a City Council meeting within the next few weeks whether to buy one Portland Loo. A proposal before the council calls for a private developer to foot the bill for purchase and installation.

"There are literally tens of thousands of people coming here and no public restrooms", said Leslie Smith, head of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, which is spearheading an effort to bring the Portland Loo to a part of town that has two sports stadiums. "People have to have somewhere to go."

According to the most recent U.S. census figure, 608,660 people live in Seattle.

Robert Brubaker, a program manager with the American Restroom Association, which advocates for more and better public toilets, said the Portland Loo is an improvement over Seattle's previous toilets. But, he observed, "It's difficult to solve the problem with a single unit where multiple toilets are needed."

Brubaker said that in addition to toilets, cities are well-served by signs directing people to such facilities and paying businesses that open restrooms to the public.

He said many states have enacted plumbing codes requiring businesses to open their restrooms to customers and "visitors," but increased security has made it harder to gain access to restrooms in public or semi-public buildings.

A 2008 city report found that in downtown Seattle, where most restaurant toilets were reserved for customers, alleyways had become an option.

Gary Johnson, Seattle's city center coordinator, said he does not think the problem has gotten any better since that report. "Just because access to toilets has gone away, the need for them certainly hasn't," Johnson said.

(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky; Editing by Arlene Getz, Toni Reinhold)

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