This article originally appeared in the December 10, 2008 edition of the Portland Observer.
Restroom seen as fundamental right
The Portland Observer
Until recently LaVergne Smith, a 41-year-old homeless woman, has had a reoccurring problem with something so basic many of us take it for granted: she needed to use the bathroom and had no where to go.
The city of Portland is hoping that Smith’s problem will be less common.
On Monday, Commissioner Randy Leonard unveiled the first of a new line of public toilets called “Loos” on Northwest Glisan Street and Sixth Avenue near the Greyhound bus station. The Loo is one of the city’s latest efforts to address a longstanding and messy problem.
Leonard noted that many politicians aspire to have public buildings named after them, but said, “it looks like I’m going to have to settle for a restroom,” and added that the facility fulfilled “a fundamental human right.”
A Loo looks like the toilet from the future. It is a sleek, metallic structure with an ovular shape. Three photovoltaic panels line the top, which soaks up sun and powers the Loo putting it completely off the electric grid.
Mayor-elect Sam Adams gave the Loo its maiden flush. Shortly after Leonard was awarded a golden plunger by Varner Seaman, an advocate for the homeless from Sisters of the Road Café.
Anna DiBenedetto, a staff assistant to Leonard, explained that the city took care to prevent the Loo from becoming a magnet for unsavory activities. It has louvers on the top and bottom, which allow onlookers to see how many people are in it.
Leonard said the structure’s sturdy build was intended to serve the largest cross section of people as possible including visitors, homeless, and downtown businesspeople.
“It’s designed to be abused,” he added.
There is also no sink in the Loo. Instead there is a spigot on the outside for hand washing and a hand sanitizer dispenser in the inside.
The city has been mulling over what to do with the lack of public restrooms in downtown for years. Its most recent solution was to keep a security guard staffed all night at City Hall so that the bathrooms could remain open. However, this cost about $120,000 annually.
“We cannot do nothing with people on the street,” said Lan Nguyen, the owner of the Northwest Orchid Salon and a member of Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human, a group formed in conjunction with the Old Town-Chinatown Neighborhood Association.
Nguyen said that since she started her Old Town business five years ago she’s had to constantly grapple with homeless doing their business on the steps of her salon, and is pleased to see the city step up to the issue.
Carol McCreary, the treasurer of the neighborhood association, said that the lack of public restrooms has been an issue since she moved to the neighborhood in 2003, and added that the association is pleased the city is addressing this longstanding issue.
“Portland stepped up to the plate,” she said.
Oldtown-Chinatown has a large population of homeless people, which is why it was chosen for the first Loo.
“I’m delighted,” said Fern Elledge, community service sector director for Transition Projects, which helps Portland’s homeless and is based in the neighborhood.
Leonard said he got the idea while on a vacation to Italy, where he saw similar facilities. That prompted him to wrangle $500,000 from city council awarded in increments last year and early this year.
The prototype Loo was built by local metal fabrication company, Madden Fabrication for $140,000. Leonard is hoping to put up two more Loos with the money left over.
Two sites being considered are Northwest Third Avenue and Couch Street, and another at Jamison Square in the Pearl District.
In the future, the cost to build the facilities is estimated to go down to around $25,000 a pop. The money would go to Portland’s Water Bureau, which Leonard heads.
Leonard is hoping the Loos will bring in money for the city by selling the design to other cities. DiBenedetto said that the city has received queries from Olympia, a suburb in Atlanta, and Victoria, Australia.
She said that the biggest difficulty with the project has been escaping the specter of a similar, and failed, project launched by Seattle several years ago. The elaborate and expensive toilets became hubs of unsavory activity and flopped, costing the city millions. Since then, people have been skeptical of Portland’s similar effort, said DiBenedetto.
However, Portland might be onto something. Paul Brubaker, program manager with the American Restroom Association, said that no other city has anything quite like the Loo, and that more cities are looking to add similar facilities to enhance their “livability.”
“There’s been an interest across the country for this,” he said.