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Automated public toilets get off to very slow start in L.A.

Seven of the luxury loos have been installed so far, with up to 150 planned, but only one works. City bureaucracy is blamed.

May 03, 2007|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

The green, oval, vaguely Art Deco pod arrived in Pershing Square six months ago -- billed as the answer to one of downtown's most human of needs.

It's a luxury automated toilet, the kind seen on the streets of world-class cities such as Paris and New York and a prototype for as many as 150 that officials plan to roll out across Los Angeles in the next few years.

Costing as much as a small downtown condo, it offers instructions in Vietnamese, French, Italian, Spanish, English and Braille, advising passersby to drop a quarter in the slot and step inside.

Unfortunately, the bathroom doesn't work.

Six months after the arrival of the automated public toilet in Pershing Square -- and 2 1/2 years after officials began installing public toilets in the city -- only one of seven facilities actually works. In downtown, where they were supposed to help tourists and homeless alike, there is only one working automatic lavatory.

Though the luxury public toilet has become a status symbol in cities around the world, in L.A. it's a slightly complicated tale -- one of the city's efforts to create a more pedestrian-oriented life, but also a story about its bureaucratic struggles to achieve that goal.

The city plans to install the APTs, as they are known, around the Westside, the Miracle Mile, the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood, and by doing so, it joins more than 600 cities around the globe that have installed the toilets.

In Los Angeles, the facilities are part of a 20-year contract between the city and a joint venture of two companies: CBS Outdoor and JCDecaux. The latter, a French firm, has installed thousands of the sleek units worldwide, mostly in exchange for the right to sell the ads that adorn them. It's a common model that is used by the majority of American cities looking to install the loos. L.A. is guaranteed $150 million in revenue over the course of the contract.

Backers say the toilets are needed to instill a more pedestrian culture in places such as downtown, Hollywood, Westwood and Ventura Boulevard. They note that they are a big step up from the Porta Pottis used in some parts of downtown.

But skeptics wonder whether the toilets are needed, and whether they are less about serving a public need than selling ad space.

"There is a price for it," said Kevin Fry of Scenic America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to scenic conservation. "The city streets become increasingly commercialized.... You are surrendering the visual quality of the public realm to marketers, and we don't think that's a way for cities to be built."

Even some supporters are becoming frustrated with all the delays, which include getting the power turned on -- and to stay on -- at the toilets. One downtown blogger has posted regular "Toilet Watch" updates on his website in frustration.

"If we want to clean up the smells and sights of our streets, we have to be able to offer these facilities," said Eric Richardson, the blogger, who is a member of the area's neighborhood council.

CBS Outdoor and JCDecaux are installing transit shelters, public kiosks and toilets as part of a massive "coordinated street furniture" deal with the city. The companies foot the bill for installing all the structures, including the toilets, and for the maintenance on each.

Separate city departments have been responsible for overseeing installation of the APTs, the running of sewer, power, water and phone lines to the sites, and inspection and permitting of the toilets.

The departments blame each other for the delay. Various people interviewed attributed the delay to a lack of cooperation among the agencies responsible for getting the toilets operational.

Francois Nion, a co-managing director of the CBS-JCDecaux venture, blamed the slow installation process on a lack of power and water hookups.

"It's a big city," he said. "There are so many departments you have to go through."

Lance Oishi of the city's Bureau of Street Services was blunt: "The utilities are holding up the opening," he said -- a nod to the city's Department of Water and Power.

Joe Ramallo, a spokesman for that agency, said officials were looking into the cause of the delay. He said work on the Pershing Square unit would be completed in a month.

The one downtown toilet that is operational sits just outside San Julian Park, at San Julian and 5th streets.

Its location -- in the heart of skid row -- and its price -- free -- guarantee that it gets a lot of use. Nion said estimates put daily usage at about 120 to 130 flushes.

A toilet at the Red Line station in North Hollywood gets a similar number of flushes. An APT in Northridge, near the Metrolink station, gets about 20 to 30 users a day.

As a group, the toilets are sleek, modular units with doors that whoosh open like an elevator's, with plenty of space for ads on the outside.

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