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Toilet designs a fresh idea

City's water bureau comes up with prototype offering cheap, crime-free flushes
by: COURTESY OF OFFICE OF COMMISSIONER RANDY LEONARD, A public restroom designed by the Portland Water Bureau may debut at Northwest Glisan Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues later this year.

Over the years, Randy Leonard has worked as a Portland firefighter, a state legislator and, now, as a city commissioner.

But he probably will be remembered as the King of Toilets.

'I know that's how I'm likely to go down in history, but there's nothing I can do it about it now,' he said.

Leonard believes he will be forever linked with toilets because he has taken on the task of designing and installing new public restrooms in Portland. Although the need for new restrooms has long been known - especially in the Old Town area where many of the city's homeless people live - no council member made it a priority until Leonard stepped forward last year.

'The older I get, the more this issue means to me,' he joked.

At Leonard's request, the council assigned the task to the Portland Water Bureau, which he oversees. After receiving $250,000 to develop a prototype restroom, the bureau came up with a design for a cylinder that houses a single toilet, with the sink mounted on the outside so users do not linger inside.

The unconventional design also features louvered openings at the base to allow police to see how many people are in the restroom.

'The louvers allow the police to look in, but not up,' Leonard said.

According to Leonard, the design is so unique that the city is looking at securing a patent for it.

'I believe this design will work so well, other cities will want to use it,' Leonard said. 'There's no reason that Portland shouldn't make some money off it.'

Leonard hopes the design can be built and installed for around $10,000, far less than the $270,000 or more that traditional public restrooms cost. He wants the first one in place along Northwest Glisan Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues later this year.

'Once people see how well this works, I think we'll have requests to install it in other parts of town,' he said.

Leonard expects the water bureau to issue a Request for Proposal to begin building the toilets in the near future. He plans to ask the council for an additional $250,000 in next year's bureau budget to fund the work.

'I hope to build as many as $500,000 will buy,' he said.

New park may go without

The city has been urged to build more public restrooms by a group of Old Town business owners and other who have banded together under the name PHLUSH, which stands for Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human.

More than two years ago, the group began lobbying the council to address the problems created by people using the streets for toilets. The Clean and Safe program operated by the Portland Business Alliance receives thousands of calls for human waste removal every year.

One person who would appreciate the project's success is Ken Love, chairman of the South Portland Neighborhood Association that includes the neighborhood being built in the South Waterfront area.

Love serves on the advisory committee helping design the first public park in the area. It will be located on a two-block area bounded by Southwest Curry and Gaines streets and Moody and Bond avenues. Love said the design is going well, but he is bothered that Portland Parks and Recreation says there is not enough money to include a public restroom.

'I think a restroom is an absolute necessity,' Love said.

Although the bureau used to build free-standing restrooms at virtually all parks, the construction rate slowed over the years because of escalating costs and crime concerns.

One of the easiest park restrooms to maintain was built at the south end of the RiverPlace development along the west bank of the Willamette River, said Sandra Burtzos, the bureau project manager for the South Waterfront park.

According to Burtzos, the restroom is relatively well-supervised because it was constructed across the street from a parking garage that employs attendants who help watch it. The restroom, which includes three toilets, was built in 1999 for around $300,000, she said.

Today, even the smallest stand-alone restroom would cost at least $270,000 - significantly cutting into the $2.8 million construction budget for the planned park.

During several open houses held to help design the park, area residents and other members of the public have indicated they want other amenities built first, Burtzos said, including open spaces, play areas, storm-water treatment facilities and a central plaza.

'I know it seems like a restroom would fit into the budget, but not when you consider everything else the public ranks higher,' she said.

Because of that, Burtzos said parks officials are very interested to see the prototype toilet that Leonard and the water bureau are developing.

'If that works, it could solve the problem,' she said.

Durability, simplicity prized

As Leonard sees it, many, if not most people, need to rethink the concept of public restrooms to solve the problems created by the lack of them.

'People are used to thinking of public restrooms as Taj Mahals,' said Leonard, referring to the traditional free-standing building with multiple stalls and sinks that used to be built in parks and other public settings. 'But those are too expensive and hard to maintain. What we need is something simple and easy to repair and keep clean.'

The fundamental concept for the prototype was developed by Curtis Banger, a designer who previously has volunteered with the nonprofit group Architects Without Borders. He had lived in downtown Seattle, where he saw the problems created by the public restrooms there, which provide complete privacy.

'Privacy creates the opportunity for misuse,' said Banger, explaining that the louvered openings represent a compromise between complete privacy and the ability to prevent criminal and antisocial behavior.

Beyond that, Banger and Leonard say that the toilet is designed to be as durable as possible. It will be built primarily of steel and concrete. The components are modular, meaning if anything is broken, it can be easily replaced. And each one is equipped with a hose fitting so that the inside can simply be sprayed out into the gutter, if it becomes too dirty.

'In the worst case, if a car drove over it, we could just pull it out and replace it with a new one,' Leonard said.

As Leonard sees it, the city has a responsibility to solve the restroom shortage issue.

'We offer people free water downtown. If we give them an opportunity to take it in, we need to give them a place to let it out,' he said.

To learn more about the project and voice your opinion on the prototype design and first potential location, visit Leonard's Web site at portland online.com/leonard.

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