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COLUMN ONE : Bringing Restrooms to the Street : Budget cuts and crime have closed many public facilities, stranding pedestrians and the homeless. Some cities are trying to restore a basic amenity of urban life.


The challenge went out 10 months ago to architects, designers and engineers around the world. Could they meet the elemental human need for a clean and safe restroom capable of withstanding the rigors of American city streets?

The response was staggering, contest organizers say. More than 2,000 people asked for applications, and 309 designs for automatically self-cleaning facilities were sent in by May. To be sure, some were lured by $8,000 in prize money, but most contestants wanted to restore a basic amenity that has nearly disappeared from urban life.

"The need is so apparent. You don't have to walk very far off a main street to smell the stench in many cities," said Henry Myerberg, a New York architect who headed judging in the "urban outhouse" contest sponsored by the Vermont Structural Slate Co.

Some entries were lighthearted, like two drawn in the form of giant rolls of toilet paper. Most, though, were in earnest.

"Sure, there is a sort of bathroom humor," Myerberg said. "But we wanted to send a message that this isn't a joke. It's a serious issue that requires a seriousness of thought."

Indeed, all across the United States, cities are struggling with that distinctly unfunny problem.

As the number of homeless people rises, more streets and alleys reek of human waste. Many public restrooms have closed or are unusable because of vandalism, drug dealing and other crimes. Budget-pinched cities can't afford to fight back much, or have given up any pretense, such as the decision not to build restrooms in Los Angeles' new subway system. As a result, private facilities at restaurants and hotels are besieged in many areas.

Now, however, there are signs that some relief may be near. The design contest and a recent exhibit of the best entries at the Urban Center in New York City have generated much attention among city planners nationwide. And, perhaps more important, the first large-scale program in decades to build public restrooms in a U.S. city is expected to begin soon in San Francisco. It will be run by a French company that boasts of having helped in Europe with "95 million flushes."

Any improvement is welcome, said USC professor Michael Dear, a geographer and urban planning expert who studies downtowns and the homeless. "American cities always have been grossly under-provided with these public conveniences compared to Europe anyway," he said. Matters worsened in the last decade, he added, as public facilities closed and economic conditions put more people on the street.

To address those problems, San Francisco is negotiating with the JCDecaux company to bring 27 sleek restrooms to the pedestrian-intensive city. For four months last year, New York City successfully tested six Decaux units--computerized affairs with seats that retract into the wall for disinfection after each use and doors that pop open if a person lingers. With permanent installation uncertain in New York, San Francisco is expected to be the first U.S. city to give the new lavatories a real home.

"We are the first, the showcase for many other cities. So we want to make this work," said Jacob Szeto, the city employee who manages the San Francisco project.

Officials in Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Philadelphia, Washington and elsewhere are watching, particularly because the San Francisco deal is supposed to cost that city nothing. In exchange for placing each pay unit on San Francisco sidewalks, plazas and parks, Decaux would be allowed to place four kiosks and newsstands around the city and rent out advertising space. In addition, users will pay a quarter, although free tokens will be given to the homeless, probably through service agencies and soup kitchens.

Many details of the restrooms and kiosk placement in San Francisco face scrutiny by municipal agencies. Much debate is expected about adding advertising to cluttered streets. But because all the proposed units are wheelchair-accessible, San Francisco avoided the bruising arguments New Yorkers had over the rights of the disabled to use all public facilities.

San Francisco officials hope that the first units will be hooked up to sewer lines this winter. Likely locations include the Civic Center, Market Street in the financial district, Fisherman's Wharf, Union Square and at the cable car turntable on Powell Street. "We feel there is a definite need," said Carolyn Dee, executive director of the Downtown Assn. of San Francisco. "It will be a nice convenience for business people and tourists."

Restaurateurs near San Francisco's touristy waterfront expect the new facilities to ease the burden of non-customers asking to use the facilities. "We try to be accommodating, but at the same time we want to keep the riffraff out," said one restaurant manager, who asked not to be identified.

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