June 24 2015 11:34 AM

East Village public toilet frustrates, frightens business community

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Homeless lounge by Portland Loo at 198 14th St. behind Petco Park.

Sitting next to a gray, metal public toilet on 14th and L streets, hiding from the sun under an ivy-laden trellis, roughly a dozen homeless folks share cigarettes, marijuana and banter. The restroom door swings open and closed as endless streams of street people use the gritty facility.

Across the road, at Mission Brewery, patrons in polo shirts throw back hoppy suds while sitting around wood tables. The renovated brick warehouse echoes with laughter as TV screens flash and bartenders pour beers.

It's around 2 p.m. on Friday, and the class disparities of the fast-evolving East Village are on full display throughout the neighborhood. However, this particular intersection, the site of San Diego's first Portland Loo public restroom, has become ground zero for social tension.

At a recent City Council committee meeting, Todd Gloria, whose district includes East Village, addressed complaints about the Loo: "Drug abuse, prostitution, this kind of stuff that's going on in there, that doesn't happen in my council district; I don't want it in my council district."

Envisioning use by tourists and transients alike, the city shelled out $560,000 for two Portland Loos—the second one is located at the trolley station at Park Boulevard and Market Street. However, unlike its more heavily trafficked counterpart, the 14th Street Loo has, since its installation in December, become a hub for the down and out.

While complaints of lewd behavior and other crime at the facility have poured into City Hall, law enforcement statistics tell a slightly different story. Since January, the San Diego Police Department has responded to 18 calls for service in the area near the Loo, compared with 214 calls around the less controversial public facility at the trolley station.

"There has been an increase in crime in the area, but looking at the individual incidents, it's hard to make the correlation between crime itself and the Portland Loo," said Lt. Debra Farrar, who heads the San Diego Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team, at the committee meeting.

To appease frustrated business owners and residents, Gloria has indicated he'd support moving the restroom to a site hosted by a homeless-services agency, potentially Father Joe's Villages. The move would cost $200,000.

"My constituents have made clear to me that they believe the Portland Loo has resulted in a concentration of illegal activity," Gloria told CityBeat in an email. "They are demanding action be taken to stop it. The city has a responsibility to address all criminal acts in our neighborhoods and that responsibility is even more acute when deviant behavior is being facilitated by a city-funded project."

Over the last six months, nearby businesses have complained to city and elected officials about homeless people stalking women after dark, brandishing knives, prostitution and rampant drug abuse in the area around the Loo.

"I can say that the crime and the drug use and everything was going on before, but it was probably further away than it is now," said Marcelle Stuyck, who works at Hawkins and Hawkins Architects, near the Loo. "We didn't have issues on this street until the Portland Loo was installed."

The police department and Clean and Safe, the Downtown San Diego Partnership's neighborhood-improvement program, had been "cleaning this area up," said Melissa Hill, marketing manager at Mission Brewery.

"It was getting better, and now the Portland Loo moved in and feels like we're stepping back," she said. "We can move people along. But this is just a magnet for people."

Homeless advocates see things differently.

"Everyone, homeless individuals included, should be afforded the basic right to have a private place to use a restroom," said Heather Pollock, executive director for Girls Think Tank, which championed bringing the Loos to San Diego. "It's a safety concern, especially if you're a female."

The Loo is located in what's considered San Diego's skid row; it's around the corner from Father Joe's Villages, which houses the city's year-round homeless shelter, and near Petco Park's parking lot, which becomes a tent city at night.

"I use it to pee and poop," said Brian Glasco, 43, who has been homeless Downtown for about 18 months. "Sometimes, I'll be running four blocks to get here. It's hard. Sometimes, you might have to stop and go in a bag real quick."

"I heard they were going to take it out," he added. "That's not a good idea. There's going to be feces and urine all over the street down here. It's necessary."

Before the Portland Loo was installed, the area smelled "really bad," said Kelly Spinks, 29, who is homeless and pregnant. "This is useful because what if the restaurants are, like, She's homeless; we don't want to let her in to use the bathroom'?" Most of the homeless folks CityBeat talked to said the 14th Street Loo is often missing toilet paper and in need of maintenance. Most blamed the situation on those using the facility.

"It's rough, man," Glasco said. "It's rough. It needs help. It needs to be cleaned more often. A lot of people don't have respect for the public restroom. They trash it."

The city originally said cleaning the facilities would cost $50,000 a year. However, at the recent committee meeting, officials put the actual cost at about $185,000.

The contract to clean the Loo expires at the end of July, and so far, the city hasn't received any bids, said Katherine Johnson, director of infrastructure and budget policy for Mayor Kevin Faulconer, at the committee meeting.

Johnson said that without a cleaning contract, the city would have to close the Loos.

However, that annual cost estimate for cleaning and maintenance could be inflated.

The city added power washing to the new maintenance contract, which was "super odd," said Eric De Jong, owner of Diamond Environmental Services, which currently has the contract to clean the facilities.

Power washing is covered under prevailing-wage law, and De Jong believes the requirement would mean he'd have to pay other employees working on the Loos prevailing wage, significantly driving up costs. The highest required wage sets the pay rate, he said.

"The power washing is mandatory, and it's part of the quote."

Making power washing a separate contract could significantly reduce the cost of cleaning the restrooms, he said. "My suggestion was to strip it out and add it to power-washing contracts that they already have."

Also adding to the cost, the city has suggested hiring a security guard, estimated at up to $438,000 a year, depending on hours of employment and whether the guard would be armed.

The mayor's staff is scheduled to give an update on the Portland Loos at the City Council's Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee meeting on July 29, where staff is expected to give a detailed cost estimate for maintaining the Loos or moving the 14th Street facility. 

Write to joshuas@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on twitter at @jemersmith.

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