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S.F. Offers Cautionary Tales on Pay Toilets

August 20, 2001|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — If Los Angeles officials want a glimpse of what might result from their decision to install 150 pay toilets around town, including in its most downtrodden areas, they need only consult Robert Anderson.

Each day, the downtown parking attendant watches drug-addled street denizens with their shaking hands and dirty bedrolls congregate at the corner of 6th and Mission on San Francisco's skid row.

At the oval-shaped pay toilet, one of 25 installed by the same French company with which L.A. officials are negotiating, the parade of crack addicts and prostitutes subjects the facility to just about everything but what it was designed for.

"Nobody goes to the bathroom," Anderson said. "They've turned that toilet into a shooting gallery, a house of prostitution and a homeless crash pad. And that's during the daytime. The nights are worse."

While they admit there are problems, San Francisco officials are pleased with the success of their 6-year-old program to put the 25-cent, self-cleaning toilets in areas serving both the tourist population and the city's homeless residents.

The toilets function so well, especially in such tourist areas as Fisherman's Wharf, that they plan to install more, they say.

The manufacturer, the JCDecaux company, says the forest-green lavatories, now in 550 cities worldwide, get a bad rap. Company officials say drug and prostitution problems existed long before the toilets came on the scene.

San Francisco Supervisor Gavin Newsom says he would simply warn Los Angeles: Watch where you put them.

"If we did it all over again, we'd give some locations much more scrutiny," he said, "because those toilets have become an attractive nuisance in high-traffic areas."

City officials concede that the problems are largely in areas with high homeless populations. Many toilets have been vandalized for quarters. Vandals pry open the doors, allowing several people to sleep or share drugs inside.

While JCDecaux maintenance crews each day clean up the hypodermic needles and condom wrappers, the 6th and Mission toilet has drawn so many complaints that city officials plan to move it.

In another pay washroom, a man was found dead of a heroin overdose. At another, police videotaped a prostitute at work for eight straight hours. City officials say the electronically controlled doors of the lavatories are routinely broken by vagrants who force their way inside, despite a city program to distribute free tokens.

San Francisco police recently asked JCDecaux to temporarily close several toilets at night to discourage loitering.

Police Capt. Ron Roth says the toilets have necessitated more police in some neighborhoods.

"The positives outweigh the negatives, but the toilets do compound our headaches at problem sites," he said. "They offer a behind-door place to commit crimes."

The Los Angeles City Council next month is expected to finalize a contract with Franco-American consortium Infinity Decaux to install the toilets. Many would be placed downtown, including on skid row.

Under an agreement used in San Francisco and other cities, Los Angeles would pay nothing for the toilets, which cost $150,000 each. The company would install the kiosks and then collect a fee for advertising on them.

JCDecaux officials say their toilets also are in use in San Jose and Palo Alto. Chicago and New York may also get some.

Los Angeles officials, led by Assistant City Atty. Chris Westhoff, recently visited the Bay Area, after a trip to France, to see the automated toilets in action. Westhoff said he was encouraged.

"I used one toilet in San Francisco without any problem," he said. "Of course, I didn't use it at 4 a.m. It was during broad daylight."

But L.A. City Councilman Dennis Zine, who was not on the trip, sees trouble ahead.

"I've read the police reports from San Francisco," he said. "In homeless areas, there's been great abuse of those toilets. If you want to address L.A.'s homeless problems, then let's address it. Don't just blow a smoke screen and pacify it with some pay toilet."

Jake Szeto, a project manager with San Francisco's Public Works Department, said the toilets have served 2.8 million users since 1995. The commodes, each a roomy 85 square feet, feature a seat that retracts into the wall where it is automatically washed and dried after each use. The sink and soap dispensers work by motion detectors.

The sliding door reopens after 20 minutes--a time frame won by advocates for the disabled.

Szeto said that even though some of the facilities are abused, "I don't blame the toilets. If people need a fix, they'll go where they have to go--behind some staircase or on the street. I'd rather have them do it behind closed doors than in front of small children."

Francois Nion, project manager for Infinity Decaux, agreed that the company is not responsible for a city's social ills.

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