The City of Austin is considering adding some structures to the downtown landscape: 24-hour public restrooms.
But, the initiative could benefit more than just tourists stuck downtown without a place to go.
More than a decade ago, the Texas Commission Environmental Quality put four Austin bodies of water on what’s called the “303(d) list” – an EPA list of rivers, lakes and creeks that are in danger of impairing water quality. While many of the Austin area bodies of water like Lake Austin and Bull Creek contained low levels of dissolved oxygen, the TCEQ singled out Waller Creek as one body of water that contained unsafe levels of fecal bacteria.
Chris Herrington with the Austin Watershed Protection Department says the bacteria come from all kinds of places.
“Domestic pets, leaking wastewater infrastructure, wildlife and direct defecation by humans are all happening simultaneously,” he says. Those all contribute in varying degrees, but a lot of it goes into Lady Bird Lake. Herrington says, while many blame the homeless for the human waste, it's not just them.
"We all know when the bars close at two o'clock, there's nowhere to go," he says. "There's nowhere for anybody to go to the bathroom and we know that from locations in our monitoring and other parts of town that it's not just the homeless."
He says Watershed Protection included public restrooms as a partial solution to the problem in its response to the TCEQ and says the Waller Creek Conservancy is weighing the installation of public facilities in a planned development of the creek.
So, the city wants to offer these new restrooms as a cleaner alternative. Not only could they help improve water quality, but it could also offer a certain level of convenience to visitors. Think of the times you’ve visited a city, only to stop in the sidewalk and ask where a restroom is. Austin’s no different, says Bill Brice with the Downtown Austin Alliance.
“These might be visitors,” Brice says. “They might be people from Austin down here entertaining.
Brice says a few cities have tried this out, including Portland and San Diego. Some have been more successful than others. San Diego eventually removed their public restrooms when they couldn’t afford the maintenance cost. Plus, they provided cover for some unwelcome activities.
“[There were] problems with people using the restroom to go in and lock the door to use or sell drugs or to conduct prostitution activities or other things that you don’t want happening in a public restroom,” Brice says.
Portland Loo, a company founded after that city’s successful 2007 effort to make a durable, safe public restroom, has replicated its prefabricated porta-potties all over the U.S. and Canada, with loos in Boston, Cincinnati, Victoria and Seattle, among other towns. San Diego’s embattled effort to expand public restrooms utilized two of those “loos,” but the cost of maintenance for the two units – which cost $100,000 each – and crime led the city to recommend shutting one unit down.
The Austin City Council has instructed City Manager Mark Ott to research a public restroom pilot program, during which the city could test out the look and placement of these restrooms. The research will be presented to the Austin City Council in March.