Skip to comments.High-tech public toilets going to waste, city told
Posted on 10/05/2006 11:22:54 AM PDT by Sopater
High-tech public toilets going to waste, city told
Fancy facilities are used for drugs, prostitution
Thursday, October 5, 2006
By KERY MURAKAMI
Jack Gray and the other homeless men who sat in Pioneer Square's Occidental Park say they go to the mission when nature calls. Or to the Starbucks.
Anywhere, they say, besides one of the city's fancy automated public toilets -- two years old and just on the other side of the park.
|Mike Kane / P-I|
|Honey Bucket route driver Joe Powers cleans the automated public toilet in Occidental Square downtown on Wednesday. The city decided in 2004 to spend nearly $700,000 a year to maintain five high-tech toilets.|
"The crack heads are always in there," Gray said.
The decadelong debate over giving people public toilets downtown appeared to be over when the Seattle City Council decided in 2004 to spend nearly $700,000 a year to maintain five high-tech toilets downtown and on Broadway in Capitol Hill.
But these days, local businesses say the toilets have only made things worse. Not only have they become a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes, but the streets are filled with more urine and feces than before, according to Seattle merchants and members of the Metropolitan Improvement District.
The organization, funded by downtown businesses to clean and patrol streets, wants Seattle to flush the state-of-the art toilets -- even if the city has to eat roughly $820,000 to dispose of them and break its maintenance contract.
But representatives of Seattle Public Utilities, the agency responsible for overseeing the toilets, said they're doing some good and will improve next month.
A camera will go up outside one of the toilets to deter criminals, though the utility hasn't selected one yet, said Sandy Kraus, the project manager.
It also plans to pass a rule barring more than one person from being inside a toilet at the same time, unless helping a child or a handicapped person, she said.
City Attorney Tom Carr, who said earlier this week that the city should "just cut its losses" and get rid of the toilets, reneged Wednesday and said through a spokeswoman that the utility's plan is worth a try.
But City Councilman Tom Rasmussen wants the utility company to plan for what to do if the city ditches the toilets.
"They've become dens of illegal behavior," he said.
In addition to the Capitol Hill and Occidental Park toilets, there are some in Hing Hay Park, Victor Steinbrueck Park and on the waterfront next to the Seattle Aquarium.
City Councilman Richard Conlin, who voted in favor of acquiring the toilets in 2001, agreed.
"They haven't worked out the way we'd hoped. ... We're going to have to go back to the drawing board," he said.
Certainly council members hadn't envisioned the scene Wednesday on First Avenue, between Pike and Pine streets, outside the Eco-Elements store.
Inside, there were environmentally friendly lotions.
In the doorway, there was a large piece of human feces.
Reggie Smith, the improvement district's field supervisor, pulled up in a truck with a shovel and collected the waste in a black garbage bag, before spraying the doorway with water and a sanitizer.
"It's human," said Smith, who installed phone lines for Qwest before being laid off then hired by the district.
He'd gotten 21 total calls from district ambassadors Tuesday and Wednesday about garbage, urine, feces and vomit. The ambassadors patrol downtown streets daily.
Smith said the automated toilets he sees always seem to have drug dealers in front, forcing people to find somewhere else to go. "And I guess when you have to go, you have to go."
Peggy Dreisinger, the improvement district's field operations director, said that since the automatic toilets were installed two years ago, 7,418 occurrences of human waste have been reported and cleaned up.
"In the two years prior to the installation, the number is just over 2,400," she said.
The automated flushing toilets are enclosed with a locking door that automatically opens after 10 minutes. A minute earlier, a voice warns that time is nearly up. Once vacant, fluid is sprayed to clean the roomy chamber, avoiding the toilet paper, for the next patron.
In 2001, the City Council authorized bringing automated toilets to Seattle's streets. Then-Mayor Paul Schell, however, vetoed the measure as too expensive. But council members overrode Schell's veto, and in 2004, the city entered into the contract with Northwest Cascade to maintain the toilets.
|Mike Kane / P-I|
|The Metropolitan Improvement District's Reggie Smith shovels trash and feces while cleaning a downtown Seattle alley Wednesday. Despite the public toilets, city streets still contain human waste.|
The city's contract with Northwest Cascade runs until March 2014, but Kraus said the city can cancel the agreement in March 2008 for about $820,000.
In 2005, an MID task force examined the cost of canceling early, possibly immediately, and said the city would save money in the long run by not paying roughly $656,000 annually until 2014.
The task force, though, recommended first trying to change the city's sign ordinance to allow ad kiosks, then using the revenue from the advertising to hire attendants at the toilets.
But Kraus said changing the sign ordinance seems unrealistic.
Meanwhile, some merchants have lost patience.
At the Fuel sports bar, down the street from Occidental Park, owner Mike Morris said Tuesday that the toilets are no longer viable.
"It's a joke. There's drug use going on in there, prostitution. ... How do I know? You see two people going in there. What do you think they're doing?"
But not everyone is ready to trash the idea.
At the Grand Central Bakery adjacent to Occidental Park, store manager Carolyn Padineau said Tuesday, "I love the toilets." Since the toilets went in, she said, there have been fewer incidents of drug use in her bathroom. Apparently, she said, that's because the drug users have moved to the automated toilets.
Mayor Greg Nickels' proposal Wednesday to create a squad of unarmed rangers to patrol downtown parks could help deter criminal activity in and around the toilets, but, Kraus said, "I don't think toilets are the deciding factor of whether we have drug activity or no drug activity."
And she is not sure simply getting rid of the toilets is the answer.
"They capture a lot of raw sewage that would go somewhere else, and some of it would go on the street," said Kraus. "We'd just be right back to where we started."
P-I reporter Kery Murakami can be reached at 206-448-8131 or email@example.com.
© 1998-2006 Seattle Post-Intelligencer
just saved the city $70k/year.
That way, good citizens could just tip them over if they see a crackhead or a whore going into one.
they should just place the toilets next to a police station...
McGreevy tidies up his booth for what's expected to be a busy day
Another good reason not ever to visit Seattle.
You can't substitute technology for good old fashioned common sense.................
It may deter criminals to some extent but not entirely. And does it give you any comfort while you're being beaten to a pulp to know that a camera is recording what is being done?
Why don't they take a cue from the c-stores and play classical music outside the toilets to keep away the riff-raff? A camera will just end up getting vandalized.
What a deal.
Why can't the Seattle police do their jobs and arrest the drug dealers and pros?
To say a public toilet is bad is like saying that a gun is bad because it is used by someone to commit a crime.
You can mark San Antonio as being the next gullible city to install these.
* chuckle *
Oh how many government projects could/should have this carved into their tombstones!
Bums complaining about how the crackheads and dealers and hookers are ruining the neighborhood. Gotta love it.
Hello! for $175,000/yr per toilet, couldn't they just hire full time attendants?
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