It’s a question as old as civilization that continues to stump cities: Where to go when you need to . . . go?
The D.C. Council has approved a pilot program to erect two new public bathrooms downtown and to offer as much as $2,000 in annual incentives to businesses that open restrooms to all.
Lawmakers want to provide facilities for homeless people as well as tourists, senior citizens, children, pregnant women and others while reducing the public health risks and degraded environment that results when people defecate outdoors.
But the challenge facing the District and other cities is ensuring that public bathrooms don’t become filthy crime magnets that few want to use.
The District once operated downtown “comfort stations,” but officials closed them in the 1950s saying they became “operating bases for perverts,” according to stories published in The Washington Post at the time.
Plenty of cities already have figured out how to provide safe, clean bathrooms, and there’s no reason the District can’t either, advocates say.
“It’s a total puzzle that you go to just about every other capital in Asia and Europe, and they say, ‘Of course we have public restrooms. They are needed for personal and public health,’ ” said Marcia Bernbaum of the People for Fairness Coalition, a D.C. homeless advocacy group lobbying to expand public restrooms.
“We are really, really far behind,” Bernbaum continued. “This is just a question of getting it started.”
Dozens of bathrooms are available along the Mall at free Smithsonian museums and federal monuments. The city also advertises seven downtown locations as having “clean, safe public bathrooms”: National Portrait Gallery, National Building Museum, Union Station, Lafayette Square, the White House Visitor Center, and the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. Only the memorials are open at all hours.
George Olivar, a 72-year-old diabetic, says finding a bathroom was one of his biggest challenges when he lived on D.C. streets for three years.
The bathroom at Lafayette Square had long lines because of tourists visiting the White House nearby, he said. A McDonald’s on 13th Street NW often required a purchase. And police at Union Station sometimes wouldn’t let him use the restroom without a train ticket, he said.
Olivar counted on the generosity of restaurants such as a Dunkin’ Donuts in Georgetown that closed at 11 p.m. When he wasn’t so fortunate, he had accidents.
“Now, I am lucky I have my own room,” said Olivar, who lives in low-income senior housing. “But still my friends have nowhere to go.”
So far, the District seems to have escaped the worst outcomes from a lack of public accommodations.
In San Francisco, a light pole toppled over after its metal base was degraded by urine, and subway escalators have been damaged by human waste caught in the gears. San Diego has confronted an outbreak of hepatitis A, which can spread through waste, among its homeless population.
But city officials warn that the urgency for more restrooms in the District grows as the population and tourism booms.
“The more I talk to people, the more I realize people are constantly finding themselves in a situation where they need to use a bathroom,” said D.C. Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), who wrote the legislation to expand public bathrooms. “If you are lucky to buy a $4 coffee, it’s not a problem. But if they can’t, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to” go to the bathroom.
The legislation, which is awaiting action by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), calls for the creation of a task force that would recommend locations to install the two new bathrooms and the selection of a neighborhood business improvement district to manage the incentives for businesses that open their restrooms. Supporters acknowledge those measures won’t meet demand but will help city officials decide which approaches work and whether to spend more on the endeavor.
The two new bathrooms are expected to cost $270,000 to buy and install, and about $65,000 annually to maintain. The incentives program is expected to cost more than $60,000 a year. Officials must budget money first, which means the program can’t start until October at the earliest.
The mayor’s office had no comment for this story. An administration official overseeing public property warned the council last year that the costs of maintaining and cleaning bathrooms may outweigh the benefits.
“Unknown is the level of vandalism, graffiti, cleaning and security that will be needed at these facilities,” Spencer Davis, then chief operating officer at the Department of General Services, told the council hearing last year.
The D.C. legislation doesn’t specify the type of bathrooms the city should build, but some advocates are pushing for the “Portland Loo” model, a stand-alone facility that debuted a decade ago and has been installed in more than 20 cities, mostly on the West Coast.
It’s designed to dissuade illicit activities: The outside offers partial visibility inside. It’s partially open and not climate controlled.
Several civic groups have come out in favor of the bathroom bill, although advocates expect some opposition once the locations of new bathrooms are proposed.
Robin Diener, president of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association, said it’s past time to expand public bathrooms in a neighborhood that draws tourists, young families, panhandlers and bar patrons.
“It’s uncivilized to not make provisions for basic needs that all human beings share,” said Diener.
At a legislative hearing last year, council member Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) seemed skeptical, citing the failure of self-
cleaning toilets in Seattle that closed after becoming crime dens.
“I will spare you the graphic details, but needless to say the bathrooms were a detriment to the city and not an enhancement. I fear the same results in the District,” he said, although he ultimately supported the bill during a final vote.
Todd and others, including the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, backed the incentive plan as a cheap and effective way to expand access.
While businesses have legal obligations to provide bathrooms to employees and customers with medical conditions, they usually can bar public access to their restrooms.
Starbucks announced it would open its bathrooms to all earlier this year, a rare move for a major chain.
The Georgetown Business Improvement District has expressed interest in participating in the incentive program.
Local officials say an ideal solution would be a business with a public restroom on every major block.
Will Handsfield, a former official with the Georgetown business group, said bathrooms seem to be a blind spot in urban planning.
“It’s really easy to say, ‘Oh, that’s gross, and I don’t have to deal with it,’ ” said Handsfield. “You can’t imagine a mall without a public restroom. It’s laughable. But if you think of Georgetown as kind of a glorified outdoor mall, here we are.”