Marcia Tauber, Potty Talk 2: Opportunity Costs – November 14, 2011

Monday, November 14, 2011

The problems are properly manageable

My husband and I own a business on Arcata’s Plaza. I want to explain why I think it’s important for us to put a public restroom downtown.

Tourism has become increasingly important as a source of income to Arcata’s small businesses. It is hard to see how we can call ourselves a tourist friendly city, when we leave visitors without a place to take care of their most basic needs. The only place a visitor can count on being able to use a toilet is in a restaurant, and then only if they pay for food.

Most businesses downtown are not able to allow even paying customers to use their restrooms. Restrooms in most businesses exist for employees. In addition to the obvious, they are frequently used to store inventory and supplies. They are unsafe for use by others because they require stepping over and around boxes, desks and other “not suitable for customers” obstacles. I used to allow my customers to use our restrooms, but was threatened with a lawsuit by a customer who lost her footing and fell in our stairwell on her way to the bathroom. My insurance company paid the claim and raised my rates. I no longer allow customers to use our restrooms.

And what of people who cannot afford to buy food in a restaurant in order to use the toilet? It isn’t like this is optional. It isn’t like a shower or a place to clean your clothes. We’re talking about a biological imperative. I ask you, what would you do if you needed to go and could not find a place to do it responsibly? What if your child needed to go and there were no toilets available? Really, what would you do? You would do what our traveling population does. You would go where you could find an out of the way place. You would go in alleys and flower beds; you would go in the bushes. Maybe, if you had a piece of paper available you would pick it up when you were done and throw it in a garbage can. If you didn’t have that piece of paper available, you would probably leave it where it landed. Like I said, it isn’t optional. You can’t just decide not to do it because it isn’t convenient for you or the community in which you find yourself. As one person at the City Council meeting so eloquently said, “If you don’t give them a toilet, the whole city becomes the toilet.”

It will cost money to build a public restroom, yes. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. And with appropriate community buy in, it is possible that money could be raised to defray some of that expense. We have had a couple of failed attempts at providing public restrooms in the past, yes. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done properly… it only means it wasn’t done properly in the past.  They will be vandalized, yes. But a well thought-out design, built with materials that are made to withstand that kind of abuse, can stand up to being vandalized. A public restroom doesn’t have to be warm and cozy. It doesn’t have to have mirrors and towel dispensers hanging on the wall. It doesn’t have to have doors that close all the way from ceiling to floor. It doesn’t have to have sinks large enough to bathe or wash clothes in. And it certainly doesn’t have to be made of plastic and installed in some out of the way remote location where monitoring is difficult. I assert that the problems that rose during Arcata’s few failed experiments with public restrooms in the past were both predictable and preventable.

Other communities also have a large homeless population and they manage to keep and maintain public restrooms. There will be costs to clean and maintain it. But how much that maintenance will cost will depend a lot on how it is built. And there is also a cost to NOT having public restrooms. We are paying that cost now. We are just accounting for it differently and it is born by some businesses and residents disproportionately.

We have a substantial number of residents and travelers with mental illness or substance abuse or frequently both. The fact that we don’t give them an appropriate place to go to the toilet doesn’t mean they don’t go. It means rather than everyone sharing the burden of providing a responsible way to do it, the burden falls on the business owners whose businesses back up to alleys to clean the mess at their back doors. Or it falls on the maintenance staff at the parks or churches or gardens to clean it up. And any homemaker will tell you it is easier to clean up a mess that is concentrated in one place than one that is spread out all over town.

I am heartened by the council forming a committee of interested participants: hopefully it will include business owners, city staff and organizations that serve the homeless. Let them look at what has been done in the past, both in Arcata and elsewhere and why it did or didn’t work. Let them come up with a plan for building it and funding it. Let them explore what other communities have done to keep the cost of maintaining their public restrooms down. We aren’t alone in dealing with this issue. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. What we shouldn’t do is pretend that if we ignore it, the problem will just go away. It won’t. It is a biological imperative not a choice. It will just show up on our streets and alleys, on our lawns and playgrounds. We can either deal with it responsibly or we can continue walking in it.

Marcia Tauber

Simply Macintosh



18 Responses to “Marcia Tauber, Potty Talk 2: Opportunity Costs – November 14, 2011”

  1. turd ferguson

    money, money, money. Who’s going to pay for it??? How about levying a charge to plaza area businesses for maintenance? I bet that wouldn’t go over too well, yet they would be all for every taxpayer to foot the bill for it. Seems like the “traveler” friendly atmosphere has created a smelly problem…. and, yes, if you build it, they will come.. and create even more problems.

  2. turd ferguson

    I can’t see some paying to use the auto toilet, so no solution there; both easily vandalized and the second is high maintenance; who pays for the constant cleanup??

  3. Marc Delany

    In the US, we depend on business and free enterprise to do things one might more reasonable expect of the government. Serving the bathroom needs of the homeless might be one of these. They also need showers, mail drops, etc… items a “homeless” person needs, but cannot easily get access to.

    Given the perceived impacts on the business environment (tourist et al, hate, smelly, feces, urine covered streets, parks and storefronts), it would seemingly fall to businesses (those with money and property) to provide a better environment, or (lead the way to a publicly funded solution?)… I can’t smell this problem from my home, and my business does not depend on foot traffic.

    So far the downtown merchants have banned panhandling (aggressive, or passive) as bad for business
    Certainly the increasing ranks of homeless also are “bad”. Passing more laws banning things one needs to live seems the likely course for Arcata, sadly. No solution there. Arresting homeless might work, the cells have facilities, and jails and prisons are becoming “housing of last resort” for many.

    Unless and until enough people see this oh so fundamental issue, as a common concern, worthy of public support (public bathrooms, baths, mail drops, a place to stand un assailed by police perhaps), and a humane solution, it will get worse…. the homeless will likely not fade away voluntarily.

    Until then, maybe if those with downtown business interests, that don’t want the full burden of sharing their facilities with non customers, will ask that city management require that all public buildings keep bathroom clean, and unlocked. City hall just installed locks, not sure why, or who is excluded from that public building…. I’m sure whoever it is will find somewhere else to go (in a certain sense).

    I’ll chip in when downtown Arcata , and city hall do.

    Marc Delany

  4. Ian Ray

    One time, years ago, I picked up two hitchhikers going to Arcata. They asked me where the public showers were in Arcata. I told them there weren’t any and their options were to pay for a hot tub or a day pass to the gym. The hitchhikers said they would just use the public bathroom. When I explained that public facilities didn’t exist in Arcata, they wanted to be dropped off at the entrance to the public park. Since then, I’ve wondered how many people would use a public bathroom instead of defecating in the park and using drinking fountains to wash up. Regardless of the blocks such as cost and vandalism, people are going to continue to relieve themselves in inappropriate places without any appropriate facilities.

  5. “Regardless of the blocks such as cost and vandalism, people are going to continue to relieve themselves in inappropriate places without any appropriate facilities.”

    At this point we can accept that as a premise, the repeated recitation of which is of limited practical utility. Everyone gets that people need a place to go.

    The crux of the biscuit, which the actual problem-solvers have to surmount, has always been how we can maintain this facility despite the brutal and costly vandalism which, if previous attempts at maintaining an Arcata public restroom are any indication, will besiege it.

    Rather than platitudinous recitations of the obvious, and the ever-popular and ever-wearisome moral declamations, what would be most useful is some creative ideas about protecting the facility from attacks and making it pleasant enough for everyone to use and feel safe in. That is the stage we are at now.

  6. tra

    A concrete building with stainless steel fixtures seems like the closest we can get to an indestructible public restrooms design. Of course even the most durable facility can still be defaced with grafitti, but at least actually damaging the fixtures is not easy to do when the building materials are concrete and steel.

  7. Ian Ray

    Kevin, what is the problem with using anti-vandal fixtures? There are solid-surface designs which are difficult to damage.

    Treatments can be applied to walls if graffti really is a problem for bathroom users. Anti-graffiti treatments have a trade off between toxicity and permanence.

    Every public bathroom gets vandalized to some degree. The People’s Park bathrooms in Berkeley are sometimes ravaged sometimes but it doesn’t stop people from from using them. In the case of Berkeley, I’m sure people would use alternatives if they existed, but none do. Basketball players especially drink enough fluids to make good use the only reasonable public restroom in downtown Berkeley.

    It seems to me that Arcata has been grinding its gears for years about how to make the perfect bathroom with no public bathroom at all. Even an ugly bathroom would be an improvement from zero.

  8. Maybe titanium could withstand the onslaught.

    The other problems are camping, as people actually barricaded the doors and built campfires in the ITF restrooms, and ensuring an expectation of safety inside this building. Then there’s the requirement for near-constant janitorial maintenance.

    These are the extremely difficult conundrums attendant to this issue which the abundance of idealistic platitudes are of no help in addressing.

  9. Ian Ray

    Kevin, if my memory serves me, the ITF bathrooms were/are an old design. ITF is also tucked away from public view like the alley behind the ballpark. If new public bathrooms were in plain view and of modern design, there would likely be less unwanted activity.

  10. That solves the vandalism and safety issues. Now on to siting and maintenance expense.

    We’re on a roll – let’s keep going!

  11. Ian Ray

    Kevin, surely you jest… site it on the plaza somewhere. What are the projected costs for maintenance?

  12. On the Plaza somewhere. But really, where? This is the nitty-gritty that has to be resolved.

    Depending on the model, annual maintenance costs are estimated at between $15,000 and $40,000.

    Funding for construction will also have to be determined.

  13. Ian Ray

    Kevin, the models requiring less maintenance would be cheaper in the long run. Any side of the plaza could be home to a pre-fabricated unit. (The statue of McKinley could rest on top of the restroom?)

    I’ve read on some Google search results that the auto-toilets can be problematic because several of lines forming outside. Conventional restrooms can apparently serve more users per day for the same cost as automatic models.

    Camping in an auto-toilet would seem impossible for all but Spiderman.

    I heard city council discussion at one point of a security camera. That seems creepy to me, but perhaps it is necessary.

  14. Any ideas on specifically where to put the restroom and how to pay for it and its annual maintenance will surely be welcome by the council’s little task force and everyone else wishing to see this enduring issue successfully fulfilled.

  15. Marc Delany

    Lets see:

    We live in a world now where when you walk into a restroom the lights come on and go off automatically, the fixtures go on and off automatically (toilet, sink, urinal, air dryers) and the security camera’s outside record everyone that enters and leaves.

    There is a site that is in the center of town, and watched 24/7 by about everyone. You can screen a building so it’s dry, but very ventilated, with the opaque walls 2″ above the concrete/tile floor…. 2′ from the roof, no glass. There are redundant floor drains, and all can be hosed clean…. Like 10,000 public bathrooms across the country.

    We cannot figure a way to build a public restroom that will be safe and clean? Give me a break, ‘we’ don’t want to… when we want to, there are 1000 successful ways.

    High use, requires high maintenance… some stalls can be pay, some free, all must be attended to..

    In civilized nations a person remains in attendance 24/7 and is tipped on exiting… great job for someone starting up the ladder again…

    We have yet to become civilized, theres still some hope.

    For a really fancy solution see JD Decadeux toilets in SF…. We could do better, more simply. Those cost a fortune.

    Marc Delany

  16. Marc Delany

    In October 2011 the city was gifted a $370,000 “SWAT” van… or as termed “Mobile Incident Command Center” by a local civic minded foundation with deep, deep pockets… That this item had priority over a public restroom might be debated, the fact remains that there are piles of money for projects people want to do, ask.

    Estimated cost for an adequate ADA facility (2) on the plaza, planing budget?… 35k… final cost $450K, annual maintenance 30K… annual public contribution (for fee stalls) [-] Job creation value [+]


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