When Nicholas Coulter, moderator of a recent Flush Forum event, introduced the possibility of an all-hours public restroom downtown, he kept the mood light–a tactic for discussing a subject with economic, public health and human impact.
The informational session examined the need for a 24/7 restroom facility in downtown Rochester and possible options. Such a service could be used both by people suffering from homelessness and visitors for rallies, parades and other events.
If talks progress, the city could opt for a pilot program with a flexible facility, or a brick-and-mortar location, similar to Fairport’s facilities near Liftbridge Lane.
“We have a special sympathy for the marginalized among us who often cannot advocate for themselves,” said Sarah Single, a member of the First Universalist Church of Rochester who, as a gardener for the site, has cleaned up after unhoused people without access to facilities who come to the church’s exterior instead. “24/7 is very important because there are some libraries, bless their hearts, with wonderful access to their restrooms, but they have limited hours. There is really nothing that’s available after hours.”
The Flush Forum included Single; Coulter, co-founder of People Centered Housing Options; Andy Carey, a social worker at MC Collective; Julie Domaratz, mayor of Fairport, and Bryan Aptekar, communications liaison with Safe Rest Villages in Portland, Ore., a city that has successfully set up 24/7 restrooms. The audience also heard from Evan Madden, a sales manager at The Portland Loo Inc..
Portland Loos were first developed in 2007 by the city of Portland following a failed attempt with self-cleaning toilets in Seattle. Ten years later, the city had 18 loos with six units open 24/7 and the rest following park and seasonal hours.
“Our city struggled with the 24/7 option, how to make them available at night,” said Aptekar, who previously worked with the Portland parks and recreation department. “Our main solution was often to put them at the edges of parks and right-of-way paths. Location is really critical when you get to that point.”
The building and installation costs for one Portland Loo are about $150,000. As Madden put it, they come “prison-proof,” meaning the loos are designed to be easy to clean and hard to destroy, but not with comfort in mind. At base level, there is a toilet, accessibility features, and a paper dispenser inside one loo. The toilets can be upgraded to be rated for temperatures as low as minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. However, Madden says they are not ideal for cold weather.
Currently, more than 30 cities across the U.S. and Canada have installed Portland Loos to mixed success. For example, the city of San Diego spent more than $500,000 installing two loos in different areas but removed one two years later after crime and maintenance issues. Still, the homeless and their advocates in San Diego say they saw better public health outcomes when the loos were installed.
Rochester also has the option of a brick-and-mortar location for a 24/7 location. Domaratz has overseen a public restroom development at Liftbridge Lane, which coincided with other business revitalization efforts at the Erie Canal location.
While not open 24/7 (there is an automatic timed lock), the Fairport restrooms have two rooms with adult and child changing areas and accessibility features. Domaratz says the exterior was chosen to reflect the overall historic aesthetic of the area and represents a compromise between different interests.
“It starts with, ‘Who is this going to serve?’ In Fairport, is it anyone who uses the canal spaces? The farmer’s market? The festivals?” said Domaratz, who was particularly glad accessibility features were included in the restrooms. “The positives are, you’re now going to serve many different people of many different age groups or many different concerns.”
She added that businesses in the area, such as the Royal Cafe, are benefiting from the increased traffic that comes with greater access. There could be similar hopes for Rochester’s downtown revitalization.
Fairport’s initial bid for the facilities was $393,000, a cost assisted by state funding options. Beyond the initial cost, other common concerns include maintaining and cleaning such areas, which add to operational budgets. In their units, Portland Loos see the most issues with plumbing and maintaining locks.
“Regardless of user, everyone seems to fiddle with them,” said Madden.
The stainless steel material of the loos can also be further treated with anti-vandal coating making vandalism more difficult, he added.
Another concern is the increased potential for illicit activities. Portland Loos provide cover but use angled louvers, making it possible to observe the number of visitors or lengthy visits. In addition, the loos can be equipped with sharps boxes or blue lights, which make it more difficult for drug users to locate veins. However, Aptekar said, even with Portland’s success, expecting zero drug use is unrealistic.
“We should not be looking at restrooms to solve the issue of chaotic drug use,” said Aptekar. “Something the city of Portland appreciates is that (the Portland Loo’s) design elements discourage that type of activity. But we still have sharps disposals inside because we know people are going to do what they’re going to do.”
City Councilmembers Mary Lupien and Jose Peo, who were in attendance at the Flush Forum, were supportive of the session. Lupien suggested that such a project could be helped with American Rescue Plan Act funds. Peo said this project could coincide with plans for the downtown skate park.
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].