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San Diego officials say they’ve adopted a data-driven approach to adding public restrooms downtown after years of complaints about lacking access and public health crises that have accentuated the need.
Kirby Brady, the city’s chief innovation officer, said the city is trying to place public restrooms within a five-minute walk of all areas downtown, a target she envisions meeting within the next two weeks with the addition of port-a-potties near Children’s Park and in Little Italy.
Brady expects the city to set more ambitious future goals – and perhaps to site permanent restrooms or buy mobile restroom trailers – with the help of usage data, mapping software and Get It Done app reports about homeless camps that it’s now using to gauge where restrooms are needed.
“We are actively working to fill gaps around downtown,” Brady said.
That work to provide more restrooms downtown follows a mayoral spokesman’s statement last month rejecting the notion that the city had struggled to provide enough restrooms downtown.
For years, advocates – and four grand jury reports – have criticized the city for its public restroom shortage and flagged how it could fuel public health threats. The city’s struggles drew headlines in 2017 and 2018 amid a hepatitis A outbreak that disproportionately hit homeless San Diegans. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic curtailed restroom access, and a shigella outbreak that has now sickened at least 41 homeless residents, most of whom were staying in central San Diego, further emphasized the city’s restroom woes.
Dave Rolland, the mayoral spokesman, also wrote that the city had hurried to install new port-a-potties to address about the outbreak of shigella, an intestinal infection that – like hepatitis A – can spread via fecal matter.
Rolland didn’t provide specifics on plans to place more public restrooms, though he said city officials “had identified additional opportunities” for port-a-potty locations.
Behind the scenes, city staff were digging into data – as first revealed in a San Diego Union-Tribune editorial last week that briefly described the city’s efforts to add new downtown restrooms.
Brady said weekly conversations with county officials about their collective response to the recent shigella outbreak led city staff to consider how city data and mapping tools could help them decide where to place handwashing stations and later, restrooms.
A city team eventually began mapping complaints about homeless camps made through the city’s Get It Done app and assessed public restroom access in those areas. They also created a public-facing map of public restrooms and wash stations.
The city set an initial goal to provide restrooms within a five-minute walk of all areas downtown, a target Brady said aligns with a common city planning and accessibility focus on amenities that are about a quarter mile or a roughly five-minute walk away.
Brady said the initial city target showed gaps in Little Italy and near Children’s Park, which is now in the midst of an overhaul that will include new restrooms. The city’s new approach also led it to last month install a port-a-potty outside the old Central Library and has inspired conversations about potential signage and even more mobile restrooms such as trailers deployed in Denver that could be more easily moved as need shifts.
The city got an additional public restroom last week when a Portland Loo prefabricated restroom suddenly reappeared downtown years after it was yanked out of the ground to make way for the Park and Market project set to house UC San Diego classrooms and a residential tower development.
But unlike other new restrooms, the city didn’t pay for the installation of the loo now being maintained by the Park & Market Condominium Master Association as part of a formal pledge between the city and the developer.
The city reports that new city restroom sites with port-a-potties each cost about $30,000 per month once security and lighting are factored in.
For now, Brady said, the city’s parks and recreation department is footing the growing bill and overseeing those restrooms.
For that reason, Rolland said the city will need to also consider other items on its want list as it explores new restroom infrastructure.
“The city has extensive needs and limited resources, and everything is important,” Rolland said. “It comes down to a conversation about priorities. How many of these restrooms can we afford?”
It’s not clear how soon additional public restrooms might materialize.
Rolland said Tuesday that the city hasn’t set a timeline for additional restroom investments, but that the city hopes to move forward “as soon as possible.”