Named for the city that created it, the Loo is a prefab, stainless-steel public restroom, big enough to hold a person and a bike or a mom and a stroller. Eco-friendly with its solar panels and low-flow toilet, its surfaces are graffiti-proof, and a system of louvers allows police to monitor activity inside it without infringing on privacy.
But public-works projects, even those as relatively small as the Loo, can easily become complicated: First there was a five-month public-outreach process. Then arose the issue of who'd pay for the maintenance. By June 2011, everything appeared to have been sorted out. But then came a lawsuit challenging the state's overhaul of local redevelopment programs and, with it, a freeze on the Loo's funding source.
“Some of us, myself included, naively thought we'd get the restrooms by January of 2011,” said Noor Kazmi, president of Girls Think Tank, which first proposed the Loos in early 2010. “There are a lot of things that are out of our control, obviously.”
Girls Think Tank started in 2006 as a group of girlfriends, many of them attorneys and law students, meeting over dinner to discuss solutions to homelessness. Two years ago, they launched the Basic Dignity Campaign after surveying Downtown's homeless population to see what was needed most.
“Of course, the first thing was housing,” Kazmi said. “But the second thing was access to public restrooms and clean drinking water.”
The Loo's been a success in Portland—there are four located throughout the downtown area with plans for two more this year, said project manager Anne Hill.
GTT pitched the Loo idea to Councilmember Marti Emerald. In May 2010, Emerald sent a memo to the Centre City Development Corp. (CCDC), the city's Downtown redevelopment arm, noting that $900,000 had been earmarked for one public restroom in Little Italy. “The Portland Loo is priced at $87,500, not including shipping and installation,” she wrote. “For that amount of money, the city could afford to install multiple loos throughout Downtown.”
Maintenance of each Loo—including supplies, thrice-daily cleanings and water—is estimated at $24,000 a year, said Tara Lake, a CCDC project manager. By comparison, the city spends more than $200,000 a year to operate its two 24-hour public restrooms, located at the Civic Center and at the southern end of the Gaslamp Quarter.
While community leaders in Little Italy ultimately concluded that a Loo wasn't for them—they're opting for a less-expensive public restroom—it was decided, with input from neighborhood groups, that one Loo would be located on city property at 14th Street and Imperial Avenue near Tailgate Park and the other at a proposed off-leash dog park at 11th Avenue and Market Street.
Though redevelopment money can cover the purchase and installation of the Loos, CCDC would need to find someone to pay for maintenance. Funding for the Loo at 11th Avenue and Market Street was easy: The cost would be built into the contract of whomever operates the dog park's adjoining parking lot. For the second Loo, CCDC first approached the Padres. But, after months of negotiations, in July, the team said it didn't have the money. However, the Downtown San Diego Partnership, an association of Downtown businesses, has agreed to pay for the maintenance of the Tailgate Park Loo under a one-year pilot program, said the Partnership's president, Kris Michell.
In an Aug. 10 post on the GTT website, Kazmi said she hoped the Loo would get its “first flush” before the end of 2011.
The very next day, Aug. 11, the state Supreme Court halted redevelopment activity pending the outcome of a legal challenge to legislation that requires cities to either dissolve their redevelopment agencies or make annual payments to the state in exchange for redevelopment being allowed to continue. Under the court's stay, CCDC can't enter into any new contracts. The court's expected to make a decision by Jan. 15, 2012.
“The Portland Loos, like many other neighborhood projects, are unfortunately caught up in the battle over the future of redevelopment,” said City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer, whose district includes Downtown. “I will be pushing for funding for this project and others as I continue to battle Sacramento's grab for San Diego redevelopment dollars.”
CCDC's Lake traveled to Portland recently to visit a friend and made a point to check out the Loos.
“They looked great, they were working well, they were a huge hit,” she said.
Last week, Lake was perusing San Diego's general plan— the document that guides the city's long-term development— and was surprised to see that the need for more public restrooms was included in the “mobility” section of the plan.
“It talks about how public restrooms should be around and accessible. It was talking about improving the pedestrian environment and having people out and walking,” she said. “A lot of people wouldn't have thought to put that in the mobility element.”