Herman: Downtown public bathroom on the move

Feb 17, 2018
Jay Janner
A city of Austin public toilet is stationed at the base of the historic Buford Tower Feb. 5. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

I think we all understand the concept of any port-a-potty in a storm. We’ve all encountered those internal storms.

That’s the very real notion underlying the current test, a joint project of the city of Austin and the Downtown Austin Alliance, of a portable bathroom facility that’s been moved around downtown to see if and where it’s needed.

Oh, nature knows it’s needed. Now in its fifth location, it had an estimated 13,508 satisfied customers from late September through mid-January, according to the alliance. (We’re assuming satisfaction.)

Three of the locations worked out well. A fourth drew complaints, and it had to be moved rather urgently to its current location — right next to a downtown landmark. That’s not sitting well with some.

RELATED: The secrets of the Buford Tower

Perhaps you’ve seen it. It doesn’t exactly blend in to the landscape next to the Buford Tower on West Cesar Chavez at Colorado Street.

Some Buford Tower background: Built in 1930, the six-story Italianate edifice was constructed to train firefighters (to fight fires in six-story Italianate edifices?). In 1974, that function was transferred to a training tower at what’s now Roy C. Guerrero Colorado River Park on Pleasant Valley Road.

The downtown tower was renamed the Buford Tower to honor Austin Fire Department Captain James L. Buford, who died during a 1972 flood rescue. The tower faced possible demolition in the 1970s but was saved as part of the Lady Bird Johnson-inspired effort to beautify the area.

(Sidenote: Am I the only Austinite of a certain age who was surprised that a movie named “Lady Bird” is not about Lady Bird?)

In 1978, an electronic carillon was added to the tower, leading some folks to call it the Carillon Tower. Whatever it’s called, it’s always seemed to be an underappreciated building that lots of folks pass each day without knowing much about it. I like it, a constant in a downtown of constant change.

The National Register of Historic Places says the tower is “an iconic landmark along a popular hike and bike trail.” (And you thought that in Austin only old Mexican restaurants were iconic.)

I found the sight of the portable public bathroom next to the tower a bit jarring when I first saw it. Turns out, I’m not alone.

“I’ve just noticed that a large portable potty has been placed adjacent to the historic Carillon Tower in downtown Austin, on Cesar Chavez,” reader Lorelei McDevitt told me. “It seems a peculiar place to place a Porta-Potty. … Is this the city’s answer to the homeless in the area?”

The answer to that last question is not entirely.

McDevitt also noted that that area “has been used by the homeless as bedroom/bathroom for some time. Those of us who live downtown have been witness to this, especially early morning dog walkers who pass through this area around the Carillon Tower.”

I also heard from Grace Mitchell.

“We pay a high premium to be able to live downtown and have a view of the lake,” she told me. “It is becoming more difficult to live downtown with the homeless. I don’t have to remind you that the property values in this area are some of the highest in the country, as well as taxes.

“The city continues to throw their hands up and do whatever possible to make the homeless more comfortable without regard to residents or merchants,” Mitchell wrote. “These porta pots must go. The neighbors, restaurants and merchants cannot live with these eyesores without consequences to their homes or businesses. We want something done about the homeless.”

We all want something done about the homeless. Not to the homeless, but for the homeless. It is a persistent problem that has defied solution, only, at best, mitigation. And let’s remember that it is not only the homeless who benefit from public restrooms.

This portable one is part of a pilot program that began Sept. 28 when the unit (far more substantial than what comes to mind when you think of a standard Porta-Potty) was placed at the west frontage road of Interstate 35 at East Sixth Street. It stayed there until it was moved Nov. 7 to the 500 block of Brazos Street.

From Dec. 13 to Jan. 30, it was at the 600 block of Red River Street. After that it was at Fourth and Colorado streets from Jan. 31 to Feb 1. That’s right. One day. It was not welcomed there and now has been at the Buford Tower since Feb. 2.

Bill Brice, the Downtown Austin Alliance vice president for operations, said the goal is to gather data on which to base a recommendation to the City Council about installing one or more permanent public bathrooms downtown.

These would not be portable ones like the current one. They would be what Brice called “built structures.” And, because it’s what Austin sometimes does, we might look toward Portland, Ore., home of the Portland Loo, a structure that, according to Brice, Austin city officials “have kind of taken a shine to.”

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(Worth noting on Portland Loo website: “The Loo is rated for 140 mph gusts up to three second in length.”)

The locations picked to date for the pilot program were high pedestrian traffic areas that were well lit and in view of police cameras. Brice said there were no complaints about the first two locations, I-35 frontage and East Sixth Street and 500 block of Brazos Street.

The Fourth and Colorado location was abandoned after a day because, Brice said, “there were some upset businesses there.”

He said it was the first location where the bathroom was “set outside someone’s front door and we learned quickly that’s not a good thing to do, so the unit was moved from there.” It actually was near someone’s front door and close enough to be a problem.

The “someone” was Chris Ruhling and the “front door” was at his The Market cocktail bar at that location. Ruhling says it was a bad choice and, according to him, one made unannounced after plans to put it elsewhere nearby ran into logistical problems.

Ruhling said the toilet emptying procedure produced “an odor that wafted over the whole corner of Fourth and Colorado for about an hour twice a day.”

Yeah, we get the picture (odor?). Ruhling said he is very appreciative of how quickly Brice moved in to get the toilet moved.

“This is all part of the learning process to determine what are the factors and issues,” Brice said. “Now we’ve learned a lesson: Hey, this is not the kind of thing that should be in front of someone’s business.”

So now it’s next to Buford Tower, a location picked because of high pedestrian traffic, including hike-and-bike-trail users and Ann Richards Bridge bat-watchers.

Brice has heard no complaints about the portable bathroom at its current location. He was appreciative of hearing the ones I relayed. The bathroom will stay it its current location for a few weeks before another location is tried. The goal is to have a recommendation for City Council in the fall.

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He discounts the notion that this movable downtown bathroom or any future permanent ones are intended solely for the homeless.

“It’s truly for everyone,” Brice said. When the bars close, there are thousands of people “with nowhere to go. They’re going in the garages, in the alleys. This is a big need and to say it’s just for homeless would be untrue.”

So, to those unhappy about the current location, don’t worry, it’s temporary. And we all can be reassured that any downtown public bathrooms that this leads to won’t look like this thing.

We didn’t need a pilot program to figure out there’s a need for public bathrooms downtown. Let’s hope the program leads to a solution that’s appropriate, both on what they look like and where we put them.

Suggestion: Any permanent toilet placed for use by downtown bat watchers should be appropriately designed and called the batroom.