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Operators charged with overseeing a prefabricated, single-stall restroom that reappeared in East Village two weeks ago are already struggling to keep it open.
The so-called “Portland Loo” has faced setbacks since its Dec. 2 opening, including a broken lock and vandalism that has affected water service. The association overseeing the restroom told the city it is planning upgrades to discourage future closures.
The early hiccups facing the facility – which the developer of the Park and Market project promised to install in an agreement with the city – are the latest evidence of the challenges the city faces as it tries to provide more public restrooms. Mayor Todd Gloria’s team recently revealed plans to place public restrooms within a five-minute walk of all areas downtown following a Voice of San Diego story detailing the city’s longtime struggles with restroom access. Meeting the new target in practice will require ensuring restrooms the city already has are accessible.
While most restrooms the city has added in recent history are port-a-potties flanked by security guards and extra lighting, it has mandated that bathrooms be incorporated into projects including the Fault Line Park and Park and Market projects.
In those cases, private groups – not the city – are responsible for maintaining and securing the East Village public bathrooms.
Accessibility issues and vandalism have plagued both restroom sites.
The Park Boulevard and Market Street loo incorporated into the UC San Diego downtown office and residential tower development has been locked on and off since at least Saturday. The loo was locked when Voice of San Diego visited on Monday afternoon. On Wednesday, the facility was unlocked when VOSD visited again but the toilet was filled with soiled clothing that rendered it unusable and graffiti covered two walls of the facility. About two and a half hours later, the loo had been cleaned and reopened but an advocate who visited on Wednesday night found it was locked yet again by 7:20 p.m.
That advocate, Matthew Kearney, has recently visited downtown public restrooms almost daily to assess their availability – sometimes as often as twice a day.
Kearney, who is formerly homeless, told VOSD he has rarely found the loo to be open when he stopped by.
“I have not been able to access it 90 percent of the time so that’s basically worthless,” Kearney said. “If it can’t be accessed 90 percent of the time, it’s not very practical.”
He concluded the facility would need “constant maintenance” to remain open and usable.
Brent Schertzer, managing director for Park and Market developer Holland Partner Group, acknowledged the challenges.
“Since reopening on Dec. 2, our maintenance team has been on site almost daily troubleshooting a variety of issues that are the result of improper use which have caused us to need to clean or make repairs to allow for the restroom to be operational again. We remain committed to maintaining and operating the facility,” Schertzer wrote in an email. “When the Loo is locked, it is because it is unsafe, unclean, non-operational or during the closed hours of 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.”
Schertzer and a city spokeswoman said the Park & Market Condominium Master Association – rather than the developer or the city – is ultimately responsible for repairs and oversight at the facility.
City spokeswoman Ashley Bailey said the property management company, which did not respond to multiple inquiries from VOSD, has started upgrades to make the loo more durable and minimize future closures. That work will be performed incrementally in the coming days.
“The goal is to have stronger fixtures to deter destruction to any part of the loo,” Bailey said.
For now, the city has not been asked to assist.
The two restrooms at nearby Fault Line Park have faced similar struggles – and complaints about accessibility.
Pinnacle International, the developer behind a two-tower apartment project that included the park and restrooms, wrote in a statement that it began locking the two Fault Line Park restrooms after “great and repeated damage resulting in frequent closures” soon after the restroom opened about five years ago.
“This damage included the destruction of fixtures and plumbing, the insertion of foreign objects into piping, flooding, graffiti, and other unsafe sanitary conditions that impact bathroom use and adjacent restaurant operations, which has on multiple occasions been forced to close,” the developer wrote.
Those who want to use those restrooms have recently needed to flag down a security guard also responsible for patrolling the rest of the 1.3-acre park so they can unlock the bathroom doors.
Kearney said he spent about 20 minutes looking out for security at Fault Line Park on Wednesday evening during the hours the bathroom is open. Earlier this week, Kearney said he entered a Pinnacle apartment lobby to try to track down a security guard and the guard who came out to assist told him he should not return to the lobby again for that purpose.
After VOSD informed the developer of challenges finding security guards to unlock the restrooms, Pinnacle said it had decided after that feedback and conversations with the city to post a sign on Thursday featuring a phone number that park visitors can call if they want to use the restrooms but don’t see security guards.
At both Pinnacle and the Park and Market, security guards aren’t consistently posted at the public restrooms. They are charged with keeping watch over the larger developments.
Experts say that security or attendants posted at the facilities provide more robust oversight that can prevent closures, vandalism and other security issues often associated with public restrooms.
Mike Stepner, former city architect and architecture and urban design professor at the NewSchool of Architecture & Design, previously told VOSD that attendants who monitor restrooms but aren’t security guards can be particularly helpful.
“I think it takes an attendant to make sure (public restrooms) don’t become used for other purposes,” Stepner said. “That’s the European model.”
Former City Councilwoman Marti Emerald, who years ago championed the city’s initial stab at Portland Loos, said the city of Portland hires homeless residents to handle restroom upkeep.
While the city hasn’t hired homeless residents to help with restrooms, it has concluded that security and lighting are necessary to ensure access and safety.
Bailey told VOSD that recent costs for new port-a-potty sites that incorporate security guards and lighting have totaled about $30,000 per month per location. About 80 percent of the cost is for around-the-clock armed security guards.
But the city hasn’t extended those security and lighting requirements to outsiders who pledge to provide restrooms.
Instead, the city is focused on accessibility.
Bailey said the city is “actively working” with Fault Line Park property managers on availability issues and has been in touch with those in charge of the Park and Market project too.
“If developers are not fulfilling the responsibilities of their agreements, the city will make every attempt to correct the situation,” Bailey said.
Pinnacle acknowledged those recent conversations with the city and said it long ago increased the frequency of cleaning and maintenance and provided stepped-up security.
“Unfortunately, these enhanced services present ongoing costs that were never considered during our first conversations with the city,” Pinnacle wrote in the statement.
Homeless advocate John Brady, who once lived on the streets and now serves on the city’s homelessness plan leadership council, said he believes public restroom operators’ maintenance procedures should acknowledge the high demand for those resources.
He also believes the city – rather than private groups – should take responsibility for restrooms and noted that the city’s port-a-potties have recently been consistently accessible and operational.
He feared the association tasked with overseeing the Portland Loo could end up making the facility less accessible in a bid to increase security and maintenance headaches, as Pinnacle International did.
“I think eventually they’re going to give up much like Fault Line Park,” Brady said. “I think the responsibility for operating it ought to be turned back to the city.”
Bella Ross contributed to this report.