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Council to soon consider public restrooms downtown

Friday, January 15, 2016 by Vicky Garza

Everyone has to use the restroom, but sometimes it can be frustrating to find somewhere to go, especially if you are in downtown Austin.

To help alleviate this problem, the City Council’s Health and Human Services Committee has directed the Office of the City Manager to look into the feasibility of installing free, 24-hour public toilets downtown.

“This has been an issue that has been discussed for some time, and I’m eager to move forward on getting some concrete recommendations,” said Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, the sponsor of the resolution. “These would offer great social as well as environmental benefits for the range of people who come downtown, from those who are here visiting the city to those who are frequenting the entertainment district to the homeless individuals in our city who also need a place to go.”

The resolution is asking for City Manager Marc Ott to meet with downtown stakeholders and come up with specific suggestions on where toilets might be located, how they would be funded and what model makes the best sense for Austin. Tovo wants Ott to look at cities, such as Portland, Oregon, that have successfully installed public toilets.

From personal experience, Council Member Ora Houston, a co-sponsor of the resolution, said that she has seen successful public toilets in Los Angeles and Cloud Park, New Mexico, and wondered why Austin didn’t have any.

“There are so many visitors and millennials drinking downtown, and they can’t just go into a hotel and say they need to use the bathroom,” said Houston. “It is something we should at least be looking at.”

Council Member Ellen Troxclair did her own research on the dais and was concerned that many cities had not had success with public restrooms. Additionally, she asked where the idea to have public toilets downtown came from.

“This resolution is calling for us to study this and try to come up with a recommendation,” said Bill Brice, security and maintenance director for the Downtown Austin Alliance. “Despite the fact other cities have tried and failed, we should see what we can gleam from all best practices from around the world and take all unintended consequences into account.”

The DAA provides ambassadorial services such as supplemental cleaning and safety hospitality services downtown, and part of that work involves cleaning up human and animal waste. The resolution stems from visitors and downtown users who have been asking about public toilets, said Brice.

Council Member Delia Garza suggested using the free public restrooms on the hike and bike trail as a good model because they are well kept. “I’m hoping we can use that model to provide the same service throughout downtown,” she said.

Another factor behind this resolution is the environmental impact.

“The Watershed Protection Department has also raised this as a very serious concern,” said Brice.

Tovo said that Waller Creek has been cited as having high bacteria levels and that outdoor toilets are included as a voluntary bacteria-reduction measure in the City of Austin’s Implementation Plan to reduce bacteria in the city’s streams.

Although no one from the Watershed Protection Department was present at the meeting, Tovo said she believes it has something to do with human waste along the creekbed or nearby.

“We have an obligation to those who are visiting our city, to those out on Sixth Street and other places, to consider their needs. We also have an unfortunate number of individuals downtown who are homeless,” Tovo said.

Tovo added that she recently learned there is a pastor who goes to the alley of his downtown church every morning to clean up human waste left behind from the people who sleep there. “I think it is not only unhealthy for them and for others using that street, but it is also really inhumane,” she said, urging a better solution.

With that, Tovo moved for approval of the draft resolution with the understanding that she would be making a few changes before it goes to the full Council, such as requests for a map of public restrooms downtown and for city staff to see if restrooms on city property are accessible to the public — and, if not, if that can be considered. She said she would also be adding more organizations, such as the Waller Creek Conservancy and the Trail Foundation, to the list of stakeholders for Ott to meet with.

The committee approved the item in a vote of 3-0-1, with Troxclair abstaining, saying she wanted more information. Tovo said she expects it to appear on the Jan. 28 Council agenda.

Many urinals rows with amber lighting in the Tokyo Cinema’s toilet” by Dick JohnsonFlickr: Cinema Mediage. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons

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