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A few months after the city revealed its goal to place public restrooms within five minutes of any location downtown, it’s still working to achieve that target – and continuing to grapple with limited public access to two bathrooms it already has.
The city added two port-a-potties in Children’s Park near the Convention Center in late February to fill a gap amid a redevelopment effort that includes a permanent facility. The city is still trying to find solutions in Little Italy and near City College where the city has determined restrooms are needed to achieve the five-minute goal, a spokesman for Mayor Todd Gloria told Voice of San Diego.
Meanwhile, two East Village restrooms where developers committed to supply public restrooms continue to be dogged by complaints and challenges.
Voice made a half dozen visits over nearly two weeks to restrooms at Fault Line Park and a prefabricated single stall, known as the “Portland Loo,” near the Park and Market project downtown. That loo was incorporated into a project that also includes UC San Diego Extension space that’s set to open soon.
The loo was locked during every visit until last Wednesday, after Voice inquired about the restroom. During prior visits, calls to a number posted on the side of the facility were fielded by staff who did not know how to unlock the loo. In one instance, a security guard who happened to be patrolling the area unlocked the facility.
UCSD sought to find an alternate location for the loo – which was temporarily removed from the East Village development during construction – months before it was reinstalled. University officials also asked the city to relocate the facility just seven days after the loo was reinstalled in December.
The public restrooms at Fault Line Park also remain locked. The developer behind the project said that was done in a bid to keep the restrooms in service after struggles with vandalism and other issues. Park visitors once had to find a security guard to gain access, but late last year a sign with a phone number was posted outside the restroom to allow visitors to call to request that they be unlocked.
Both outcomes have frustrated visitors who say the difficulty accessing the restrooms hinder their usefulness, while those operating the restrooms say they’re doing the best they can under the circumstances.
The ongoing frustrations are emblematic of the challenges the city faces as it tries to deliver more public restrooms. Achieving that target in practice will require ensuring those restrooms are actually accessible.
Gloria spokesman Dave Rolland told Voice that the city has recently created promotional materials to help residents and tourists find existing restrooms as it works to add more of them. That includes flyers posted at some city facilities and business-card sized versions for outreach workers to give to homeless San Diegans. The city last year also created a map of public restrooms and handwashing stations.
For now, Rolland said, the city will “continue to work with developers and other organizations to make more fixed public restrooms available and continue to fill gaps with portable restrooms.”
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 both cases, private groups – rather than the city – must maintain and secure restrooms. Both sites have been plagued by accessibility issues and vandalism.
Rolland said the city has “an open line of communication” with both operators and reaches out to report problems and settle on solutions when issues arise.
Issues have often arisen, but developers essentially signed up for this.
In 2016, the city agreed to sell the Park and Market land for $12.3 million, $10.9 million less than it estimated the fair market value to be.
Rolland said this deep discount was given in part in exchange for a commitment by the developer to maintain the loo, which was already installed at the corner of Park Boulevard and Market Street.
According to a 2016 report detailing the arrangement, Park and Market developer Holland Partner Group agreed to a series of guarantees that included assuming responsibility of the “operation, maintenance, and repair” of the Portland Loo.
But years later, Holland Partner Group, has sold its interest in the property, and UCSD, as well as a representative for the property management group overseeing the development, have expressed frustration with the responsibility now that the loo has returned.
Mimi Stansberry, a property manager representing the Park & Market Condominium Master Association, which had agreed to maintain the loo, told Voice last week that the expectation to do so is unreasonable, citing the costs associated with repairing the facility and keeping it stocked.
“It is not feasible for the city to put the obligation on the association,” Stansberry wrote in an email.
UCSD, which occupies some of the space, also pushed back against the placement of the loo – and at one point last year, it appeared the city might let UCSD and the developer off the hook. But the loo ultimately went up – and UCSD raised issues about it again within seven days of it reopening in downtown late last year.
In a Dec. 9 letter to Gloria and City Attorney Mara Elliott, UCSD’s dean of extended studies Hugo Villar urged the city to find a “more suitable location” for the facility, citing concerns about a potential increase in crime and illicit activities.
“The city’s requirement for Holland Development to install the Portland Loo outside Park and Market may create a situation of foreseeable harm, including unnecessary health and safety risks, to University students, faculty, staff and visitors,” Villar wrote.
Villar also argued that if the city chose to keep the loo at its current location it should fund monitors to ensure public safety, a financial responsibility the city said the Park and Market association previously agreed to.
The university also produced a 12-page report acknowledging the need for more public restrooms in downtown but arguing that the loo is “unlikely to meet the needs of people living, working, and passing through downtown.”
It proposed a pilot program collaboration between researchers at UCSD’s H-Hub, an open-access repository of data on homelessness in the region, and city and county officials aimed at finding what it called a “better” public restroom solution.
But Jeff England, regional director at Brookfield Properties, which acquired the Merian residential property connected to the Park and Market site in December, said in a statement that Brookfield is committed to finding long-term solutions to the issues that have plagued the loo.
England said Brookfield has instituted a new janitorial protocol that includes up to three cleanings a day, new signage for an around-the-clock phone line to report maintenance issues, and a monitoring program that includes hourly checks.
Security for the complex, and representatives for Brookfield Properties, blamed the loo frequently being locked on issues with its original door handle, which they said stays locked after individuals exit the facility if they do not unlock it themselves. Brookfield said they ordered a new handle for the loo to rectify the problem.
“We understand the Portland Loo, including its many challenges, has been part of the conversation with this property and the overall issue of public restrooms,” England said. “With our new position on the Park and Market Owners Association, we are committed to being part of the broader solution to give people the dignity they deserve with accessible public restrooms downtown.”
Downtown residents and business owners are also increasingly vocal about the need for additional restrooms downtown.
The Downtown San Diego Partnership has in recent months assembled a group of residents and business owners that plan to share feedback and ideas on how the city might try to address its downtown restroom shortage. The business group said a city official has attended its recent meetings.
Terry McCleary of MAKE pizza+salad in East Village said he was eager to join the discussion.
McCleary said his restaurant turns away several people a day who come in looking for a public restroom. In the past, he said employees have had to deal with drug use and sexual activity in his restaurant’s single-stall bathroom that it now only offers to customers.
“Let’s build a solution together,” McCleary said. “I don’t think it’s any one person’s burden. It’s ours collectively and I’d like to be contributing to the solution.”
Zulu Cunningham, who’s lived on the streets of East Village for the better part of 10 years, said COVID-19 made accessing restrooms significantly more difficult, and it hasn’t gotten easier.
To make matters worse, he said, public options like the Portland Loo have generally been locked. He suspects that’s why he’s seeing more human waste on the streets.
“They wonder why people urinate in the streets,” Cunningham said. “Well, it’s because there’s nowhere adequate for people to go.”
For Cunningham, who says he’s a bit of a germophobe, port-a-potties – which the city has often turned to as it sought to quickly add restrooms amid recent outbreaks tied to sanitation challenges – aren’t very palatable. He doesn’t want to smell, or see, other people’s feces, and he’s found that port-a-potties rarely have napkins to dry your hands, let alone paper covers for the toilet seat.
A recent report from San Diego State University’s Project for Sanitation Justice, which aims to identify existing public restrooms and increase awareness of the need for more, argues temporary solutions like port-a-potties, which can disappear from one day to the next, shouldn’t be the focus of the city’s efforts.
“This dynamic goes against best practices for preventative public health interventions and creates an unhealthy cycle in which we are always reacting to, rather than preparing for, the next infectious disease outbreak,” the report reads. “A focus on permanent facilities centers the need for permanent solutions.”
But the city has said temporary restrooms were its best option amid a recent outbreak of shigella, an intestinal infection that – like hepatitis A, which hit the region in 2017 – can spread via fecal matter.
Temporary restrooms are less expensive than permanent facilities but still come at a steep cost. The city reported late last year that on-site security, lighting and the competitive nature of securing units put the cost per site at about $30,000 a month.
Kirby Brady, the city’s chief innovation officer, said last year that the city data analysis to map restroom needs 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.
Rolland said the city is still considering this option and has consulted with cities including Denver about their experience.
In its list of recommendations, the SDSU report highlights San Francisco’s Pit Stop program, which combines public restrooms with supportive services. The program also features attendants who monitor and maintain the facilities.
“Attendants work to make the facilities inviting and safe for all users: people experiencing homelessness, commuters, tourists, and residents,” the report reads.
The report from UCSD’s H-Hub also cited the Pit Stop program, and described attendants as a critical element of the pilot program they proposed developing with the city.
LAist reported last fall that San Francisco pays $244,000 to $373,000 annually to operate each location. Los Angeles, which runs a similar program, spends $7 million on 19 pit stop locations, which breaks down to around $368,000 per site.
Meanwhile, some San Diego residents still take issue with how the Fault Line Park and Park and Market restrooms are being run.
Dale, an East Village resident who did not share his last name, said security at Fault Line Park requires visitors leave their belongings outside when using the restroom. A Voice reporter was also asked to leave his backpack outside in mid-March.
Pinnacle International, the developer behind a two-tower apartment project that included the park and restrooms, confirmed it has instituted this policy “to prevent additional closures, damage to facility infrastructure, drug use, and other illicit activity.”
Dale said this makes park visitors, especially those living on the streets who may be carrying all of their belongings with them, uncomfortable.
“How do I know you’re not going to be going through everything?” he said.
Dale said this, coupled with confusion as to whether the guard was private security or a police officer, has caused some to avoid the restrooms altogether.
In a statement, Pinnacle defended its policies.
“As is the case at other public restrooms downtown, the Faultline Park facility has experienced drug use, prostitution, vandalism, and other behaviors that are problematic for park users, including the numerous families with young children that frequent the play area,” the company wrote. “Pinnacle’s efforts have responsibly kept the restroom at Faultline Park open and operational for the public’s use, while also curbing illicit activities.”
Cunningham, who’s been living on the streets in San Diego on and off for around 10 years, said organizations should consider hiring homeless residents as attendants.
He said Gloria’s five-minute goal was a good idea, but that the city still has a lot of work to do. In Cunningham’s experience, many public restrooms are locked, and many businesses require individuals to purchase something to use their restrooms.
“Public restrooms should be free to anybody at any time,” Cunningham said.
Alisha Wadhwa contributed reporting.