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Originally published May 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 20, 2008 at 10:52 AM

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City Council OKs removal of 5 high-tech public toilets

Seattle's $5 million experiment with high-tech toilets is over. The City Council decided Monday to remove all five of the public restrooms...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Seattle's $5 million experiment with high-tech toilets is over. The City Council decided Monday to remove all five of the public restrooms, saying the silver cylinders became a hideout for illegal drug use and prostitution.

"It has taken the unseemly behavior out of shadows of the alleys and put them under the glare of the public toilets," said Councilmember Nick Licata, who voted in 2001 to install the restrooms and now wants them removed. The council vote was 5-0.

The toilets will close by July 1 in Victor Steinbrueck, Hing Hay, Occidental and Waterfront parks and at 1801 Broadway.

Seattle Public Utilities plans to eventually post signs pointing people to other public restrooms, said Andy Ryan, utilities spokesman. The utility hopes to sign agreements with public agencies such as Sound Transit to provide public access to restrooms, although no negotiations have started yet.

The automated restrooms opened in 2004, in response to complaints that homeless people were relieving themselves in alleys because of the lack of public facilities. At the time, the city provided portable toilets for the public to use.

Citing the success of automated-public toilets in Europe, the City Council voted to import the pricey German-made stalls, saying they would serve both tourists and homeless people.

Like a drive-through carwash, the restrooms were supposed to be fully automated. Doors opened and closed by themselves, and jets of water cleaned the stalls between each use. The toilets were free to everyone.

Then-Mayor Paul Schell vetoed the legislation because of the price. When the council voted to override his veto, Schell presented members with a "Golden Plunger" award, a plunger spray-painted in gold.

Opponents in 2001 said people would use the toilet stalls to conceal illicit behavior, a prediction that came true. The toilets' tech wizardry failed as well. Trash clogged the self-cleaning mechanism, so workers had to clean the stalls. The Downtown Seattle Association observed more, rather than less, human waste on the streets after the restrooms opened.

Seattle Public Utilities estimates the five restrooms were used a total of 500 to 700 times a day.

Mayor Greg Nickels had proposed ending the contract at the end of the year, but Councilmember Tim Burgess recommended moving the end date up to this summer, citing the public-safety problems.

Utility officials say the city will save $5 million by canceling the contract early. They intend to spend most of that money contracting with other public agencies to provide public restrooms.

Utility ratepayers paid for the toilets, which added $2.59 to the average $465 annual sewer bill for a single-family home. The removal of the toilets won't affect sewer bills.

Councilmembers Licata and Jan Drago were vocal supporters of the high-tech toilets seven years ago, even leading a tour of alleyways to publicize the need for accessible restrooms.

On Monday, Licata said the drug use and prostitution at the public toilets "may return to the alleys if we don't increase bike and foot patrols and provide better signage to toilets."

Councilmembers Licata, Richard Conlin, Sally Clark, Richard McIver and Jean Godden adopted the resolution. Councilmembers Drago, Burgess, Tom Rasmussen and Bruce Harrell were absent.

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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