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Originally published Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Do city's troubled public toilets gotta go?

Seattle's $5 million experiment with self-cleaning public toilets could soon be over. Citing drug use and prostitution in the silver pods...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Seattle's $5 million experiment with self-cleaning public toilets could soon be over.

Citing drug use and prostitution in the silver pods, Seattle Public Utilities on Monday recommended removing the five restrooms, which were supposed to provide clean, safe facilities for tourists and homeless people.

City officials said removing them would save the city from spending $4.5 million more on toilets that have become havens for crime at Pike Place Market, the waterfront, Pioneer Square, the Chinatown International District and Capitol Hill.

"Although they are not the cause of problems in the neighborhood, they are contributing to problems," City Councilmember Sally Clark said at a news conference in Hing Hay Park. "They give people a place to hide out, to duck out of sight."

If the City Council approves removing the restrooms, the city would not end up saving much money. The utility hopes to pay partners to operate staffed public restrooms in buildings, which could end up costing as much as the automated toilets.

In 2001 the City Council approved importing the toilets from Germany, on the high-tech promise that they would clean themselves like a carwash after each use. At the time, the city was using portable toilets.

After the automated restrooms opened in 2004, their floor-cleaning mechanisms became clogged by trash. Prostitutes and drug users sought cover in them. The Downtown Seattle Association reported that human waste on the streets increased, instead of decreasing, after they opened.

Each restroom was used 85 to 124 times a day. Sewer ratepayers bore the cost, adding $2.59 to the average annual single-family home's bill of $465.

Council President Richard Conlin said he voted to install the toilets after seeing their success in Europe, where "everybody uses them."

"They are a middle-class phenomenon," he said. "We thought we could impose that."

As chairman of the utilities committee, he plans to discuss removing the toilets at a meeting this afternoon. After four years, "It is an experiment that ultimately has not been successful," he said.

Councilmember Jan Drago, who for several years championed bringing the toilets to Seattle, did not return calls seeking comment.

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Cutting short the 10-year contract in 2009 would cost $500,000 and require City Council approval. The city would have to spend an estimated $250,000 to restore the sites in Victor Steinbrueck Park, Hing Hay Park, Occidental Park, Waterfront Park and on Broadway.

If the toilets are removed, Seattle Public Utilities would work with other agencies to provide public restrooms near the current automated-toilet sites. So far, the utility has reached out to Pike Place Market, Seattle Central Community College, Sound Transit headquarters near the Chinatown International District, Compass Center in Pioneer Square and King Street Station, which the city owns.

Agreements for public restrooms would include security staffing, similar hours and signs directing people from the previous toilet sites. The utility would expect to spend $750,000 a year on staffing and cleaning them, about how much it now costs to operate the automated toilets.

Tim Harris, executive director for homeless-activist newspaper Real Change, wants the city not only to keep the automated toilets, but also to add portable toilets. Removing toilets would force people to relieve themselves in streets and alleys, Harris said.

"If you don't provide alternatives and viable alternatives, then it's not fair to blame people for activities that they have little choice but to engage in," he said.

Audrey Wang, owner of Ambrosia Cafe near Hing Hay Park, wants the automated toilet there to stay.

Wang said that before the public toilet was installed, some homeless people asked to use her cafe restroom "and they take a bath. It's very messy."

After the city put in the automated toilet across the street, she would direct people to that facility instead.

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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