Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Public Restroom Realities in Olympia: Challenges to a Human Need, a Human Right

Above: The homeless stay near a public restroom on Percival Landing, on Sylvester Street, in downtown Olympia. The state Capitol Building is in the distance. The fencing is around the Oyster House restaurant, which burned down in July 2013.

By Janine Unsoeld

Public restroom closures at night in Olympia dramatically impact the downtown business community, and the human rights of the homeless, and other members of the community simply needing to perform a regular function: peeing and pooping.
On Christmas night, I helped Crazy Faith Ministries feed a couple hundred people a wonderful feast under several tents in downtown Olympia. I ate a great meal and had pie and coffee too. And then, while enjoying the camaraderie for an hour or so, getting to know a couple of guys at my table, I realized I had to go to the bathroom.

Being Christmas night about 7:30 p.m., everything was closed.  The thought of how privileged and lucky I was to have a home to go to suddenly struck me as I left, just to go to the bathroom.
For street people, every night is a Christmas night with nowhere to poop or pee. Sure, on most nights, up to a certain time, some local businesses are open and may let some people come in to use the restroom, but many others don’t. Let’s face it, for many restaurants and businesses, the invitation is only open to those whose appearance is somewhat tidy.

And after regular business hours, a whole lot of street people have no other choice but to go wherever they can find a place.  And that’s usually in an alley or some bushes.
Public downtown restrooms, open from about 8:00 a.m. to dusk, are located at Intercity Transit, Heritage Park, Percival Landing, Marathon Park, the Olympia Center, the Farmer’s Market, East Bay near the LOTT Clean Water Alliance, and the Olympia Timberland Library. All locked at night.

The gate to West Bay Rotary Park is locked, but even if you sneak around it, the porta-potty located on that site is locked.
So, out of the whole litany of players working to make downtown a happier, safer, cleaner, more comfortable place for all, where is the accountability and responsibility for basic, 24/7 public restroom availability in the city, county, Parking and Business Improvement Area, or Olympia Downtown Association’s current list of priorities?

People need to go to the bathroom, every day and every night, like, now.
Downtown Ambassador Program Report

Rob Richards is the program manager for the Capital Recovery Center (CRC), a community mental health organization. Richards runs the Downtown Ambassador Program, which is a result of a contract between the City and CRC to provide the services it provides.
Richards says there was some discussion at the council level in 2013 about restrooms, but it dissipated pretty quickly as that issue was trumped by other priorities.

Their program statistics are impressive. In their January report, the Clean Team collected 91 bags of trash, 26 anti-social deposits, i.e. feces, cleaned up 446 incidents of graffiti, 339 stickers and 286 flyers, along with helping downtown community members in other ways.
“Currently we're working with the Washington Center for the Performing Arts staff to kick off a monthly cleanup downtown. The Second Saturday Spruce Up is a small scale volunteer event where we'll partner each month with a different local business or community group to do some basic clean up downtown, picking up litter, graffiti abatement, pulling weeds, etc. The point is to get more folks engaged in our neighborhood, bringing positive energy and action.”

He admits, when asked, that the lack of public restrooms is one of the biggest needs for downtown.
“Public restrooms are one of the biggest needs we have downtown, especially ones that are accessible at night. Presently there's no place to go after about 7:00 p.m. when the public facilities close. I've heard from many, many business and property owners that restrooms should be a priority given that they are dealing with the brunt of the issue in their storefronts and back doors in alleys.”

Richards says he doesn’t know how many porta-potties would be needed to accommodate the needs of the community at night.
“It kind of depends on the size and scope. We need at least one restroom available all night, centrally located in the downtown core.” Asked how one would be secured or monitored at night, Richards says that Pacific Security is one company that is already active downtown at night.

Richards says he’s not a fan of the porta-potty solution though.
“Best practices seem to show us that this isn't one that you can solve with a lighter, cheaper, faster approach. Successful public bathrooms need to be a part of the aesthetic of the neighborhood, a place worth caring about. Porta-potties don't come close to being something that the community will take pride in,” said Richards.

LOTT Clean Water Alliance’s Restroom
Ben McConkey, Public Facilities Coordinator for the LOTT Clean Water Alliance, knows all too well the issues about trying to keep a restroom open 24/7.  The restroom near LOTT on East Bay Drive is only open May through September and for special events.

“Anytime I have opened them up, we have problems…the drug use paraphernalia is overwhelming. I would love to figure out a solution and help our community in this realm…but it’s just too dangerous to keep it open 24/7, especially with so many children around.
“In 2013, we found, roughly, about 90 used needles on our downtown least 40 of those were East Bay Public Plaza restroom related. We dispose of these properly in sharps containers. We also found a box of 100 brand new needles in the men’s room on the East Bay Public Plaza last summer just ahead of Sand in the City. They were tucked up high on a dividing wall.”

McConkey showed Little Hollywood a few photos, including a picture of a long drip on the wall of the East Bay men’s restroom which McConkey said was tested to be a blood/heroin mix.
McConkey says LOTT is a willing participant in developing solutions. 
“Both our safety officer and I are involved with our downtown community through Brian Wilson and the Olympia Downtown Association. Safety is paramount in our projects and activities – and that safety is for everybody using a LOTT facility.  Sadly that means we must limit accessibility to the East Bay Public Plaza restrooms during the time of year when the plaza is getting a lot of use…and when we have a security officer on site. 

We have provided secure access to the family bathroom, which has a lockable door from the inside, by keeping the door locked and having users contact the security officer for access.  The reason for this has been illicit drug use in the family bathroom. This summer the security officer will step up visits to the men’s and lady’s restrooms in order to deter the drug use in the bathroom complex,” says McConkey.

Heritage Park Restrooms To Be Closed on Water Street
Also in a critical location, the public restrooms at Heritage Park near the intersection of Water Street and Legion Way will be closed from March 3 until mid-May, according to a press release issued earlier this week by the Washington State Department of Enterprise Services (DES).

Enterprise Services maintains the state's Capitol Campus, which includes several parks and restroom facilities. An inspection by an engineering firm confirmed the state assessment that the roof is failing and must be replaced. Fencing will be erected around the construction site during the project.

Three porta-potties and a hand-washing station will be placed nearby to serve the public during the closure. One of the porta-potties will be accessible to people with disabilities.
The limited interior work is intended to make the restrooms clean, safe and complaint with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. New fixtures and partitions will be installed.

Jim Erskine, communications consultant for Enterprise Services, told Little Hollywood that the porta-potties will be locked at night at the same time the restrooms are usually locked, at dusk. 

Erskine also said that the restroom's existing toilet fixtures will be changed out to a stainless steel type that is designed so that there is no seat to lift up. Apparently, people are taping used needles to the underside of toilet seats in order to save them for reuse. He said that DES custodial services staff frequently finds needles in the restrooms at Heritage Park.
City Research and the City of Olympia’s Downtown Project
The City of Olympia's Downtown Project is based on city council priorities and works in collaboration with a variety of downtown related organizations. Priorities are developed under the city's Land Use and Environment Committee, featuring a nicely written, grade-school type check-off list grouped under the categories of Clean, Safe, Economic Development, and Placemaking.

City staff member Brian Wilson spearheads that project, of which the Downtown Ambassador program is one piece. Wilson has been involved with this issue for a long time.
A couple years ago, Wilson presented detailed restroom options and cost assessments to the city General Government committee. Wilson outlined the costs, with positives and negatives of porta-potties (American Disability Act (ADA) accessible porta-potties are about $340 a month with twice a week cleaning; single sized porta-potties are about $210 a month), expanding hours for existing facilities (over $5,000 a month), and the construction, operation and maintenance of single stall restrooms similar to Portland’s Loo facilities ($50,000 - $100,000 to build and install; $1,215 a month to operate and maintain).

He also looked at current visitor restroom programs in Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Seattle which have implemented programs to provide public restroom access at private facilities in exchange for a fixed stipend or memorandum of understanding.
The information appeared to go nowhere due to a lack of funding options.
In December of 2013, Wilson gave the full council an update for Phase III of the Downtown Project’s workplan for 2014.  Solutions for 24 hour access to restrooms were not discussed, although he mentioned that a particular problem area where people openly defecated was recently fenced off.
A restroom is planned at the artesian well park on Fourth Avenue, as required by the mobile food vendor code, however, it is not anticipated to be open all night.

Interview with Brian Wilson about Restrooms
Wilson answered a few questions earlier this month from Little Hollywood about restroom accessibility in downtown.

Little Hollywood: I'm looking at Phase I and II Task Lists under the City's Land Use and Environment Committee, and I see a nice check-off list grouped under the categories of Clean, Safe, Economic Development, and Placemaking. Under Phase II, it mentions Expanding Restroom Availability, with a $5,000 allocation for a pilot project. Please explain.
Brian Wilson: Council allocated $5,000 toward creating public restrooms downtown in late 2012. We completed a feasibility study of different options other cities have used. The key to public restrooms (particularly 24 hour restrooms) is creating a managed solution (infrastructure, cleaning, security, etc). We learned that $5,000 is not enough money for a viable solution at this time. This is an issue that I could write several pages about.

LH: Specifically, I would like to know where the entire theme of restroom availability is in the city's, the Parking and Business Improvement Area (PBIA), and/or Olympia Downtown Association's current list of priorities. I am not seeing any.
BW: The overall theme is that there is no shortage of public restrooms during business hours. We have about eight or so in downtown. But after about 5:00 p.m., we don't have a solution at this point. The city, the county, and the business community all have an interest in this issue. The details of the facility are where it gets tricky....We used to have porta-potties behind the Eagles Club but those lead to a lot of criminal activity including public drinking, drug use, and sexual activities.

LH: This seems to be a human right issue, not a "safe" issue as it is listed under the current list of priorities.
BW: I agree that it's definitely a human right issue. We also need to realize that previous attempts have turned into safety issues for downtown. Proper maintenance and security are key. Location is key. That said, public restrooms absolutely need to be in the conversation going forward. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this and brainstorm ways to go forward. This is a community issue that involves several stakeholders. The restrooms would serve many different populations: homeless, visitors, etc.

LH: Is the Artesian Commons restroom planned to be open at night, or just when the mobile vendor trucks are open?
BW: At this time the Artesian Commons restroom will be open until the park closes at 7 PM. I am really pushing for the park to be open until 2 AM. The Artesian Commons is a step in the right direction. The current model is an improvement from the current condition and I'll be fighting to expand the hours as we move forward. No promises whether that will ever happen. Community feedback and support for such an idea is very important. It all comes down to site management...which is really a dollars and cents matter.

LH: I watched your Dec. 10, 2013 report to the council on Downtown Project, Phase III. Nowhere are restrooms a priority although I heard you were able to put a fence up around a problem area. As Councilmember Jones said, some things fell off the list. When does providing restrooms become part of the downtown conversation?

BW: Restrooms are still in the conversation. Funding sources is the real issue as it isn't cheap to make this crucial amenity successful.
I just met with over 20 bar owners and bartenders who made it very clear that we need 24-hour public restrooms in downtown Olympia. I couldn't agree more. What we're missing is a proposal that includes a managed solution that fits into the current funds available. It's not impossible, but it's trickier than many realize.

The Parking and Business Improvement Area (PBIA)
The PBIA was created by the Olympia City Council advisory committee in 2006, with board members elected annually by the PBIA ratepayers in downtown Olympia.
Businesses are assessed fees based on the number of employees. The fees are spent on various downtown projects such as $7,000 on the decorating of benches a few years ago. This year, they spent money giving out a string of Christmas lights to each participating business to make downtown look prettier for the holidays.

In the entire 19 page Parking and Business Improvement Area (PBIA) Five Year Strategic Plan for Downtown, 2011- 2015, the word bathroom” or “restroom” is not mentioned once.
Olympia’s 2014 Downtown Master Plan

The city of Olympia will soon be embarking on its 2014 Downtown Master Plan, and opportunities will arise for plenty of public input into this vision.
“As a planning commission member, the homeless situation is now becoming more of my” problem, so to speak, because of what we want downtown to become from a planning perspective,” says Carole Richmond, a member of the Olympia Planning Commission.

To attract families, downtown needs to be clean, safe, and welcoming. Downtown is the heart and soul of Olympia and of the whole South Sound. It really seems to me that we should be making our best planning and redevelopment efforts there, which can include some housing and amenities, i.e. restrooms. I think we need a regional solution, not one that falls disproportionately on downtown Olympia. All cities want to attract entrepreneurs and employment. We're no different.”