Downtown Austin might be getting public restrooms!
We’ve heard about this plan for a while, but last week at a public stakeholder meeting the city unveiled additional details of its upcoming pilot program for determining the ideal location for restroom facilities in the urban core.
If all goes well, the program will bring two temporary restroom installations to downtown within 8-10 weeks. The facilities will migrate around town, spending a month at different sites while gathering, shall we say, usage data, in order to narrow down the list of locations for future permanent restroom facilities to be installed.
The temporary facilities described by the city will cost about $50,000 apiece, be ADA compliant, include 24-hour access, and be serviced twice a week.
For at least the first two weeks of the installation, an attendant will be on site at all times, costing the city about $3,800 a week per attendant — though the representatives at the meeting didn’t elaborate much on this point, they made it clear that this attendant will not be a city employee.
Once they’ve supervised the site for two weeks, the program will reassess whether there is a continued need for full-time attendants. Data collected at each site will include the number of users per week, along with the number of identified human waste and public urination incident locations in a one-block area around the restroom — in theory, these numbers should go down once the facility is installed.
The first installation will be at the corner of East Sixth Street and the IH-35 Service Road, near the public parking lot under the highway deck. The program seeks the simultaneous installation of a second restroom at East Sixth and Brazos Streets, which will ostensibly be a real blessing to the late night crowds on Sixth.
Program representatives at last week’s stakeholder meeting went to great lengths to emphasize the multiple benefits to the public wrapped up in supplying these facilities and eventually replacing them with permanent installations, seemingly to avoid creating the direct association between the restrooms and the city’s homeless. Sure, they’ll also be great for tourists and barhoppers, but it’s not exactly a mystery to figure out who will benefit the most — and there’s nothing wrong with that!
A major selling point for the pilot program is the reduction of bacterial contamination in Austin’s watersheds, particularly Waller Creek, home of chronically high concentrations of E. coli.
(Of course, some of this contamination was an inside job, so to speak — but we’re not pointing fingers!)
Part of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s plan for reducing fecal contamination in Austin’s creeks specifically mentions the investigation of locations for public bathrooms in the lower Waller Creek area, particularly at Waterloo and Palm Parks.
It’s certainly possible that these installations would feature the same architectural flourishes of the public restrooms along the Hike and Bike Trail, but that’s tomorrow’s problem — for the time being, the Portland Loo is the city’s model for the design of permanent public toilets downtown, and that’s probably a good thing.
The Loo, first designed and built in its namesake city but quickly adopted by communities across the country, is a particularly thoughtful piece of industrial design, not to mention a valuable addition to the toolbox of the placemaker. It’s so popular, it has off-brand knockoffs!
While not appearing too unfriendly, the restroom facility discourages unlawful use through implicit design choices, rather than aggressive enforcement by police or other security. The unit has a screen around the bottom at roughly ankle-level, making it obvious if multiple people are inside the structure at once without compromising the privacy of a legitimate occupant.
The Loo also includes blue-tinted lighting, which reduces the appearance of veins and thus discourages intravenous drug users from occupying the structure. One surprising omission is a sink, which city officials say is frequently used in public restrooms to wash clothing, something they would prefer to discourage.
Instead, the bathroom will include an external hand washing station designed to prevent such activities. City representatives also said they’re looking at hand sanitizer stations as another water-free option — but they’ll need to ensure that the sanitizer doesn’t include alcohol, since, believe it or not, at least a few people will be brave enough to try drinking it.
One of the most interesting parts of the city’s presentation was learning about other public restroom projects in varying stages of progress around the state. A Portland Loo already exists in San Antonio — despite receiving snark from multiple fronts in regards to its cost — and another installation is on the way to Galveston as part of improvements to the city’s seawall district.
Similar facilities are proposed in El Paso, though they’re currently facing some challenges as well. Far be it from us to encourage development based solely on keeping up with the Joneses, but these cities really shouldn’t be lapping the state capital on building smart, accessible public facilities, should they?
Of course, the Loos haven’t been effective everywhere, but if the city gives this project the attention it deserves and uses the pilot program’s data wisely when choosing a location, public toilets downtown have a fighting chance to become more than just a scary boondoggle.
Stay tuned for our review of the first installation — we wouldn’t miss this for the world.