Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Evening Edition

Should Public Toilet In Downtown San Diego Stay Or Go?

A woman washes her hands at the Portland Loo on 14th and L streets in downtown San Diego, July 22, 2015.
Tarryn Mento
A woman washes her hands at the Portland Loo on 14th and L streets in downtown San Diego, July 22, 2015.

City staffers say a recently installed $250,000 Portland Loo has become a nuisance and should close

The Portland Loo at 14th and L streets in downtown San Diego at 10 p.m., July 22, 2015.
Photo by Seth Hall
The Portland Loo at 14th and L streets in downtown San Diego at 10 p.m., July 22, 2015.

Should Public Toilet In Downtown San Diego Stay Or Go?
City staffers say a recently installed $250,000 Portland Loo at 14th and L streets has increased crime in the area, become a nuisance and should close, but people who live and work in the area say it should stay.

A public restroom that cost more than $250,000 to buy and install near Petco Park has been open less than a year, but it’s already created quite a stink.

City staffers say the restroom, called a Portland Loo, has increased crime and led to too many complaints. They’ve recommended it be removed and put in storage, and San Diego City Council members will consider that option on Wednesday.

The City Council’s Public Safety & Livable Neighborhoods Committee will discuss removal of the L Street loo at its meeting Wednesday at 2 pm.

The Portland Loo at 14th and L streets in downtown San Diego, July 22, 2015.
Tarryn Mento
The Portland Loo at 14th and L streets in downtown San Diego, July 22, 2015.

But the steel-enclosed single stall has its fans. People who live and work around the restroom at at 14th and L streets say it should stay.

“No business is affected more than me, and I say keep it,” said Dan Selis, president of Mission Brewery, which is across the street from the restroom.

The gray structure is about 6 feet wide and, aside from its name emblazoned on the door, isn’t easily recognizable as a public toilet. One passer-by said she thought it was electrical equipment.

The loo gets its name because it was designed by the city of Portland, Oregon. It’s meant to be easy to install and clean, is connected to a sewer line and has running water. The city of San Diego bought two loos last winter to offset the dearth of public restrooms downtown, especially ones that are open all day and night.

No matter what happens to the L Street loo, people in the area will need to use a restroom multiple times a day, every day. That’s why Selis wants to keep the Portland Loo.

“Before the bathrooms were installed, it used to smell because homeless people were going to the bathroom on the street,” he said. “If they remove it, it will go back to the street outside my business smelling like a urinal.”

‘It’s basic dignity’

Heather Pollock, executive director of the homeless advocacy nonprofit Girls Think Tank, said both the L Street loo and another one at Park Boulevard and Market Street provide the homeless with a human right.

“Affording individuals the ability to use a private and safe space to utilize the restroom is basic dignity,” Pollock said. “If we don’t have adequate access to public restrooms, there is no alternative for individuals than to resort to the streets to perform a human daily function.”

During his short time in office in 2013, former Mayor Bob Filner convened a Task Force on Downtown Public Restrooms, which made a list of public restrooms downtown. Pollock said many places on the list were hotels or other businesses, so she called them all to see if they were truly public.

“At one hotel, the woman who answered the phone said, ‘Well, yeah, the restroom is public if you look normal,’” Pollock said. “I said, ‘What do you mean, normal?’ She said, ‘Well, not homeless.’”

A restroom isn’t truly public unless everyone can use it, Pollock said.

“If you or I were to go into a place that was quote unquote public, we would likely be able to gain access, walk to the back of a restaurant, run through a lobby of a hotel,” she said. “If I walked in and was holding all of my belongings, or I hadn’t showered in a few days, there’s a very high likelihood that I would not be able to utilize that.”

That’s the case for Ronald Bennett, who has been homeless in San Diego off and on for 22 years. He said he often sleeps near the L Street Loo and is grateful for it.

“A lot of us don’t have a restroom to go to, so we can use that one and it helps,” Bennett said. Before the loo was installed, he would walk to a downtown mission every time he needed a restroom.

If the loo is removed, city staff report the nearby Father Joe’s Villages homeless shelter is willing to open its restrooms all day and night if the city pays $80,000 to $105,000 a year for cleaning.

Pollock said she applauds this decision because the shelter would have security guards to monitor the bathrooms.

Restrooms for everyone

But not everyone who uses the L Street loo is homeless. Before the start of a Padres game last week, a line of kids on summer camp field trips filed off school buses parked along 14th Street. Once one boy realized the looming steel structure was a bathroom, he needed to use it. When he emerged a minute later, lots of other kids needed to go, too.

A woman talking on her cell phone slipped into the loo a few minutes later, then used its outside faucet to wash her hands. She’d only give her first name, Maria, but said she uses it often because it’s on her walk to work.

“It’s usually a little gross. There’s boy pee on the seat, but if I need it I’ll use it,” she said.

Downtown resident Toryan James said he uses the L Street loo daily. He plans his walking route so he can take advantage of the public toilet.

“We needed these things desperately,” he said. “It has water, sometimes it even has toilet paper. They’re a godsend,” James said.

A grand jury report filed in May highlighted the lack of downtown public restrooms, and cited the two new loos as one of the few signs of progress.

Darlene Collins runs away from the Portland Loo at 14th and L streets after peeking inside its door, July 22, 2015.
Tarryn Mento
Darlene Collins runs away from the Portland Loo at 14th and L streets after peeking inside its door, July 22, 2015.

But Darlene Collins, who was visiting from the Bay Area and headed to the Padres game, wasn’t keen on trying it out.

“It’s probably disgusting,” Collins said. “Yeah, no.”

If she did need to use the restroom, she’d “hold it and go in the ballpark,” she said.

Multiple visits to the troublesome loo show it was usually a little smelly and dirty, but nothing worse than a gas station restroom. On the afternoon before the Padres game, a beer can was in the trash can and an uneaten Oreo was on the floor.

One night last week, a steady stream of people stopped to use the restroom. Most weren’t carrying their belongings and didn’t appear to be homeless. No obvious criminal activity was observed, although at one point a man went into the loo for more than 30 minutes. During his time in the stall, several other people tried to use it but couldn’t. One passer-by, finding the door locked, urinated in the bushes.

Should Public Toilet In Downtown San Diego Stay Or Go?

‘Increased criminal activity’

Some nearby businesses say crime has increased since the loo was installed.

“I know the business owners and residents in this area fear for possible rapes or assaults, and I think it’s a very valid concern,” said Jon Wantz, who runs the restaurant Stella Public House a few blocks away.

Wantz said the restroom has attracted more homeless people and crime to the area.

“It’s not just the homeless population that’s the majority of the issue, but there’s a criminal element that feeds on the area because the transient population is here,” he said. “It’s a very vicious cycle that happens in this area, and until the city really actively puts their feet down into this area and does something about that, I don’t know if 14th and L is ever a good location.”

While Wantz only allows paying customers to use the restroom at Stella Public House, a soon-to-open park next to his restaurant will include two public restrooms.

Marcelle Stuyck works at H2 Hawkins + Hawkins Architects across from the L Street loo and wrote a letter to Mayor Kevin Faulconer and City Councilman Todd Gloria complaining that the restroom increased crime and the homeless population in the area. She also said drugs and prostitution happen inside the stall, even during the day.

“You can see if more than one person is in there and you can hear things," Stuyck said.

But after she sent her letter, Stuyck said a staff member from Gloria’s office responded and the area was cleaned up. His district includes downtown.

Stuyck said police also patrol the loo more frequently, and while she thinks there’s still some crime, it’s not as bad as when the structure was first installed.

She said she isn’t sure the loo should be removed.

“There still would be a homeless problem without the loo,” she said.

Police Calls to Loo Intersections

Loo at 14th and L streets

April to June 2014: 11

April to June 2015: 25

Loo at Park Boulevard and Market Street

April to June 2014: 32

April to June 2015: 58

Source: City of San Diego

Portland Loos are designed with slits around the bottom that make it easy to see whether someone — or multiple people — are inside. A spokesman for the San Diego Police Department wouldn’t confirm whether drugs or prostitution happen inside the loo and wouldn’t say how frequently police check on the restroom.

As part of the reason for shutting down the L Street loo, city staff members point to increased crime. They said police calls to 14th and L between April and June more than doubled from the same time period last year. Still, only 25 calls were made to the intersection over three months, far less than at the other loo location at Park and Market. Staff members aren’t recommending that one should be removed.

Loo cost ‘a big surprise’

Before the loos were installed in December and January, their combined cost ballooned from an original price tag of $215,000 to $560,000. The L Street loo’s location meant sewer lines had to run beneath the trolley tracks, which increased the expense.

Cost To Keep 14th And L Loo

Cleaning, per contract: $53,472 (3 times per day, but no on-site security or staff)

Estimated repairs: $15,000 (Repairs for two Loos is estimated at $30,000 annually)

Estimated additional on-site work: $20,000 (one-time cost)

Estimated utility costs: $17,500

Total: $105,972

Annually: $85,972

Source: City of San Diego

Cost To Remove 14th And L Loo

Estimated breakdown and removal: $60,000 (one-time cost)

Estimate for Father Joe's Villages to clean, service, and provide 24-hour security at their restrooms: $80,000 to $105,000

Total: $140,000 to $165,000

Annually: $80,000 to $105,000

Source: City of San Diego

Now the restrooms are creating more unanticipated costs, according to city staff. Regular repairs and service calls will cost an extra $30,000 a year, and the L Street loo needs $20,000 more for curb ramps, backflow markings and vents.

Staff recommend removing the L Street loo and storing it until a better spot for it can be found. That will also cost another $60,000.

If you add everything up, it would be more expensive to remove the loo. The annual cost of maintaining it would be about the same as paying Father Joe’s Villages for their restrooms.

None of the costs include police service calls.

Other cities that bought loos also found they cost more than expected. Seattle is planning to install a Portland Loo in Pioneer Square but is struggling to find a site that won’t raise the price tag, said Gary Johnson, a coordinator for that city’s Department of Planning and Development.

“Portland indicated to us that their installation costs range between $25,000 and $35,000, and our preliminary estimates are more in the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Johnson said. “So that was a big disconnect and a big surprise to us.”

But Steve Shuckman, superintendent for Cincinnati’s planning and design department, said his city budgeted for its recently purchased loo, which cost around $100,000.

“We knew how much it would cost,” Shuckman said.