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Originally published September 4, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 15, 2007 at 5:46 PM

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Were high-tech toilets worth $6.6 million?

Seattle intended the costly restrooms to serve both tourists and the homeless. But some people see them as crime havens.

Seattle Times staff reporter

They were meant to be an oasis of cleanliness and decency. Five gleaming, cylindrical public restrooms.

With automatic doors, toilet seats that retract for high-pressure cleanings, and a high-tech system to scrub down the floors, the $6.6 million toilet project was deemed a humane, if pricey, investment -- for tourists, and especially for the city's homeless.

On Seattle streets since 2004, each toilet is now flushed an average 332 times a day, down substantially from previous years, according to records kept by the maintenance company, Northwest Cascade. But with regular use comes misuse. Prostitution and drug-dealing were predicted and, it seems, are taking place in the restrooms.

"The revolving crack house" is what Luigi Gephart calls the public toilet in Occidental Park. Gephart, who is homeless, uses it but advises tourists to stay away. "These are the worst bathrooms you can go to," he said.

Next spring, Seattle officials will get their first chance to decide whether to stick with the public toilets or pay to opt out before the 10-year contract expires. Once again, they'll weigh the costs, use, crime and whether these toilets, though imperfect, are an accommodation the city needs to provide.

Hygiene opportunities

This year's one-night count of homeless people on Seattle streets -- not including those staying in shelters -- was 1,589. And when the shelters empty out each morning, the number of homeless people walking around, in need of a place to clean up or relieve themselves, soars.

The public toilets -- in Hing Hay, Victor Steinbrueck, Waterfront and Occidental parks, as well as on Broadway -- provide some of the few opportunities for hygiene and privacy, said Sandy Kraus, public-toilet project manager at Seattle Public Utilities.

Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition for the Homeless, said more than toilets are needed.

"We need resources like hygiene centers ... basic resources for sanitation and dignity," she said. "I would say the homeless need more than just a safe, clean place to pee."

City Council President Nick Licata said the toilets are the least the city should provide. Even with the concerns over use and cost, Licata said, "We need to have something."

Few breakdowns

"The real problem we're having with [the toilets] is that there is a public perception we're not getting our money's worth," said Andy Ryan, a spokesman for Seattle Public Utilities.

A report submitted by the utility to the City Council last fall cited the $360-per-toilet, per-day cost to lease and maintain them, and compared it with the $16 a day it costs to operate a humble port-a-potty. But a chief reason for going with the automated public toilets -- APTs, as they are known around City Hall -- is that they were to offer a much better, more hygienic experience than portable toilets.

Despite complaints that the restrooms are frequently out of service, Kraus insists breakdowns are few. For the month of May, for example, there were four reported incidents of downtime among three toilets, she said.

One much-advertised feature of the restrooms, the self-cleaning floor, was turned off nearly 2 ½ years ago. Dirt tracked in from outside turned into mud, and the most innocent piece of paper in the unit turned to sludge.

The contract price was not reduced, but Kraus said, "It just got to the point where we were just wasting water."

Now the floors are cleaned twice a day by maintenance crews.

If the restrooms have gained a reputation for breaking down, they also have been perceived as havens for crime.

Between June 2006 and June 2007, the Seattle Police Department registered more than 3,300 service calls for the toilets' five general locations -- with almost 3,200 of those calls for Victor Steinbrueck, Hing Hay and Occidental parks -- for everything from narcotics to public disturbances to weapons.

The toilets, though, can't be blamed, said Capt. Steve Brown of the department's West Precinct.

"I'm not seeing a huge, huge increase or significant call for service [increase] at any one of these APTs any different than ... for the general area," Brown said. Police would be facing the same issues in those areas with or without the toilets.

Dafe Chen, general manager of the New Century Tea Gallery in the Chinatown International District, says he takes his 2-year-old son to play in Hing Hay Park almost every day and frequently sees human waste on the park benches -- despite the public toilet just yards away.

As for crime, in the nine years his store has been across the street from Hing Hay, Chen says, there have always been drugs and prostitution.

"There are lots of those characters," Chen said."The toilets haven't changed that, but they haven't made it any better."

To try to cut down on crime, restroom doors automatically open 10 minutes after someone goes inside, rather than the original 15 minutes.

Ideally, Brown said, the restrooms would be monitored more closely -- to spot, for instance, when more than one person enters.

Still, he said, he remembers people urinating and defecating in streets and alleys, and "creating real health risks" before the toilets were installed.

Anita Woo, spokesman for the Downtown Seattle Association, said reports of human waste have increased since the toilets were installed -- but she added that the downtown population has grown as well.

"We haven't asked [the council] to get rid of the toilets, but we have asked them to take a close look at how they're managed," Woo said.

Removal costs

If the City Council rejects the toilets next year, it will cost $570,170 to get out of the contract, and $50,000 -- per toilet -- to get them off the streets.

Danielle Purnell, a strategic adviser with Seattle Public Utilities, is putting together a report for the City Council and will suggest that the council appoint a task force.

Licata said he wants to understand why the toilets were used twice as much two years ago, and would like a better overall understanding of the restrooms' benefits and shortcomings.

The council has gotten plenty of public comments, Licata said, but added that someone angry over the restrooms is far more likely to send a letter than a passing tourist.

"We need more than just anecdotal stories," he said. "I would hate to get rid of [the toilets] and then three years later say, 'Hey, those were a great idea, we gotta bring them back in.' "

Information in this story, originally published on September 9, 2007, was corrected on September 15, 2007. The story about automated public toilets in Seattle said each toilet is used an average 332 times daily. Seattle Public Utilities says that figure represents the number of flushes, including during cleaning. SPU estimates that 80 people use each of the five toilets each day.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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