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Many say toilets have got to go

The units are called a haven for crime and may be removed, at Seattle's cost.

September 09, 2007|Lynn Marshall | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — Just across the street from the historic produce stalls of Pike Place Market sits a gunmetal gray cylindrical pod with shiny silver doors, a structure that would look right at home on the bridge of the starship Enterprise.

It is the public restroom of the future. But its heyday here may soon be in the past.

After three years in operation, Seattle is considering pulling the plug on these space-age restrooms, which cost the city $6.6 million.

Automated Public Toilets are used in more than 600 cities around the world -- Athens, Singapore and London -- and in the U.S., including New York, San Francisco, San Antonio, Atlanta and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Los Angeles has seven similar units in operation, and an eighth is expected to open next week in Van Nuys.

Seattle's five automated public toilets, in operation since March 2004, are all near the downtown core, and they have been a source of complaints almost from Day One.

The Downtown Seattle Assn., a business group, has voiced concerns for more than a year.

"They are literally havens for drug deals and prostitution," says Anita Woo, a spokeswoman for the group.

Dale Joseph, 52, says of the unit in Pioneer Square: "I won't stand near it, even."

Joseph, who lives on the street here, sums up the situation: "If the doors open and there's a dealer doing business in there, and I'm looking at him, I've got a big problem. It's not worth it."

Seattle Public Utilities, which manages the so-called APTs, acknowledges that it has received complaints from the public and the business community.

Last fall a local TV station filmed drug dealers at work in the APTs. Around the same time, the editorial page of the Seattle Times advised the city to "cut its significant losses, cancel the contract, pay the penalty and move these dens of iniquity out."

The complaints and bad publicity have reached the mayor's office and City Council. Next spring, on the first chance the city has to opt out of its contracts to maintain and lease the restrooms, the City Council plans to talk about removing the units. Getting out of the contracts will cost a cancellation fee of $500,000, plus about $50,000 a toilet for removal.

Chuck Clarke, director of the utility agency, says the greatest challenge the program faces is "ensuring that these facilities are used solely for their intended activity."

Robert Brubaker, program manager for the American Restroom Assn., a nonprofit group that advocates clean, safe public restrooms nationwide, says the APTs themselves are not the problem.

"Nefarious activity is a problem any time you have locked-door toilets," he says. "It happens inside retail establishments, in restaurants -- anywhere people can gain privacy by locking the door."

He says APTs tend to fare better when they are placed where they are easily observed.

Lance Oishi with the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services, says that so far, L.A. has not had any of Seattle's problems with its APT units. "I say that knocking on wood," he says. "Our problem has been getting the utility lines connected."

Oishi says location is a huge issue. "The two we have on skid row -- the homeless have pretty much adopted them and watch out for them. And they were placed in such a way that organizations for the homeless would be able to keep an eye on them."

In L.A., the units are supported by advertisers that buy space on nearby street furnishings. All of the APTs in the city, except two on skid row, charge a quarter for each use. Los Angeles is actually guaranteed $150 million in revenue from the 20-year contract for the APTs.

In Seattle, such advertising is forbidden by law, as is charging for the use of a public bathroom.

Seattle's APTs may be controversial, but they are also in almost constant use, arguably demonstrating the need for public facilities. Seattle Public Utilities statistics show that together the units are used an average of 300 times a day.

The toilet seats are cleaned automatically after each use; the seat retracts into the wall for sanitation. On the outside of a unit, a panel of lights alerts those waiting as to whether the toilet is vacant, occupied, cleaning or out of service.

"It's a little weird," says Allison Emery, 41, who was visiting from Des Moines and flummoxed by the three-minute cleaning interval. "When someone comes out, you want to go in. And you can't."

But Emery was happy to find the APT near Pike Place and didn't feel that the 10 minutes she waited to use it were worth complaining about.

"It was clean, and easy to spot. I didn't have to go into a business and buy anything, or ask people where to find the bathroom. I just walked out of the parking lot, and there it was," she says.

Brubaker says that if Seattle does remove the APTs, it would be the first city he has heard of to do so. "Here in Washington, D.C., the Metro system put in one and decided not to install any others, but I haven't heard of any city that has gone so far as to remove existing units," he says.

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