Seattle and Portland's Strange Toilet History

As was noted far and wide earlier this week, Seattle is looking to buy a loo for Pioneer Square. Specifically, Mayor Mike McGinn announced plans to buy what’s known as a “Portland Loo” from our hip, environmentally conscious neighbors to the south in the Rose City, which is selling their patented stainless steel potties for roughly $90,000 apiece. If all goes as planned the Portland Loo will be installed on west end of the Sinking Ship Garage in Pioneer Square sometime late this summer or early this fall.

But this isn't purely a story of the Pacific Northwest's first and second cities coming together for a less shitty tomorrow. To use a phrase, Portland stepped in it with these stainless steel loos. Seattle's helping to pull them out of it. But more on that later.

Seattle, of course, is no stranger to public restroom debacles. In 2004, Seattle installed five self-cleaning cans throughout the city for a cost of $5 million. The expensive toilets became havens for garbage, drug use and prostitution. Eventually Seattle was forced to offload the cans - via eBay - at a substantial financial loss, not to mention plenty of embarrassment.

Designed with slats at the bottom so an occupants feet can be seen – by police or anyone else who cares to gander – the Portland Loo, in many ways, is a reaction Seattle’s public bathroom failures. “We really looked at Seattle as what not to do,” Anna DiBenedetto, a staff assistant to then Portland city commissioner Randy Leonard – the man behind Portland’s patenting of its loo - told The Atlantic Cities in 2012. “We think it was the design that was the fatal flaw. Trying to be comfortable and private makes people feel more empowered to do the illegal activities that people do in public toilets.”

It’s good to see other cities learning from Seattle’s public toilet mistakes. On the other hand, while the Portland Loo gets plenty of props and positive press for its design and functionality – much of it deserved – as Willamette Week’s Aaron Mesh details in a lengthy cover story this week, the Portland Loo hasn’t come without headaches for PDX.

Most importantly, the city seems to have forgot one very important aspect when planning for the installation of the six Portland Loos that dot the city: budgeting money for their cleaning.

According to Mesh’s story, in Portland the cost of cleaning the city’s six Loos has “ballooned to nearly $90,000 a year.” It’s an expense that has been footed by water and sewer city ratepayers, resulting in plenty of fussing, and even a lawsuit, with what Mesh describes as “irate water ratepayers” suing the city for the “$617,588 spent to date on maintaining the loo and marketing it.”

This substantial budgeting oversight in Portland is what has led the city to peddle its Loos. In an effort to break even, Portland is marketing the city’s patented public toilets and trying to convince cities like Seattle to fork over $90,000 apiece for them. As Mesh points out, “If the city wants to make the loo self-funding, it would have to sell at least four toilets a year.” Add in the salary and benefits of the woman whose job it is to sell the toilets and that figure jumps to eight loos a year.

According to Willamette Week, “Since it began marketing in 2010, [Portland] has sold three.”

Now Seattle is poised to buy a Portland Loo, which will surely help the Rose City’s plight. But much like Portland apparently learned a thing or two from Seattle’s expensive mistakes in the public toilet realm, so too has McGinn.

“The west end of the Sinking Ship Garage was identified by neighborhood stakeholders and City staff as the preferred location. Much progress has been made – SDOT traffic has approved the site, Seattle Public Utilities has located water and waste water infrastructure nearby and the Pioneer Square Preservation Board is supportive of the Loo facility and the proposed location,” Seattle’s mayor notes in a blog post announcing plans to install a Portland Loo in Pioneer Square.

“Most importantly, we have identified non-City sources of funding for both installation and maintenance of the facility.”

As Portland’s crappy experience has taught us, that’s probably a wise move.

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