Can Downtown Grow Without an Upgrade to Public Restrooms?
Advocates push for clean and safe public restrooms to help boost the city’s vitality — and tourism.
When construction consultant Karen Benner ventured out and about in Denver, answering nature’s call didn’t necessarily mean a hunt.
Sidewalk signs pointed the way to portable restrooms in the Mile High City, which has experimented with mobile bathroom units in parkable trailers.
But in Downtown Pittsburgh’s Market Square, where Benner sets up shop for the summertime Night Market with her artist husband, getting relief is more complicated. With no common bathrooms in easy eyeshot, she leans on restaurants to use their stalls — some requiring a code.
“They don’t seem to mind, but it’s awkward to ask. I get the code and try to remember it,” says Benner, 47, of Mt. Lebanon, who moved from Colorado about two years ago. During a seven-hour Night Market outing, her “small bladder” might need three bathroom trips.
For locals and out-of-towners alike, finding accessible toilets Downtown turned tougher amid the height of COVID-19 precautions. More than two years later, it’s still often a tall task — an uncomfortable reality that can discourage tourism, shorten visits and spur public urination and defecation, according to advocates for public bathrooms.
Wayward human waste emerged as a top issue for the Building Owners & Managers Association of Pittsburgh when pandemic-related closures cut both bathroom access and daily foot traffic in the Golden Triangle, says BOMA Executive Director Amanda Schaub. A recent bathroom study sought by the association found no year-round public restrooms Downtown that are open 24/7.
About a quarter of survey participants couldn’t find a public bathroom in the neighborhood, while about 14% “opted to go home or uncomfortably waited to use a restroom in another location,” according to the study. That latter group represents “money lost to the local economy.”
“Downtown is at a really critical juncture. We need people to want to be down there. We want tenants to stay,” Schaub says. “We see this as a public health and operational issue, but also for the vitality of Downtown. We want it to be clean, safe and welcoming.”
Conducted this summer by doctoral students at Point Park University, the study lays out several bathroom recommendations, such as reopening those in parking garages and other public spaces, developing a wayfinding system and offering incentives to businesses that let the public use their toilets. In August, as BOMA was exploring prospective costs and partnerships for such steps, study contributor Ashley N. Malachi warned the status quo could sap vitality Downtown.
Families with children and people with bathroom-needy conditions may feel especially unable to visit, she says. Solutions will require cooperation from everyone from city government to business, adds Malachi, a student in the community-engagement program that led the study.
“Because it affects all people, it affects people in different ways,” she says of the bathroom deficit.
A cross-section of Downtown regulars illustrated how.
From Staying Put to Holding It
Near St. Mary of Mercy Catholic Church, a woman sat with her belongings on a bench along the Boulevard of the Allies. She was without a home for about three years in New York City before arriving in Pittsburgh about a year ago, she says, asking not to be named.
Still homeless, she has found most restrooms are closed.
“That’s why people [who are unhoused] often stay within one area” of several blocks, she explains. “After a short time, you know which ones are open and which ones aren’t.”
She rattles off a few go-tos: a Burger King, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh location on Smithfield Street, the Red Door program at St. Mary of Mercy.
Just off Market Square, James Kucinski, 42, of Bellevue, recalls a parking-garage restroom that saved him from embarrassment when he was navigating street life.
“A lot of places want you to buy something” before offering the bathroom, says Kucinski, who secured an apartment in July. Toilet access at Downtown businesses can “depend on who you know — and how well they know you.”
After pandemic-related shutdowns, some businesses continued to limit bathroom availability amid labor shortages and concerns with COVID-19 transmission, according to scholars who follow restroom trends. Many Pittsburgh establishments tightened or halted restroom access in hopes of preventing the virus’ spread, the Point Park University study found.
Some public restrooms closed due to vandalism, drug or other illegal activity, or the pandemic, and portable toilets — conventional porta-johns — set up near unhoused populations Downtown have been insufficient, according to the study. At a restaurant near Grant Street, people had been trying to bathe in the establishment’s bathroom facilities, a worker says.
A sign there, like others across the Golden Triangle, cautions passers-by that bathrooms are for customers only. The Wiener World crew on Smithfield Street bleaches its doorways each morning, says owner and operator Dennis Scott.
“During the pandemic, it kind of became a free-for-all,” he says. The window-service eatery stacks tables and chairs in a back doorway at night to keep people from emptying out.
It doesn’t always work. Scott says the staff sees public urination in the area every day, adding that his corner of Downtown — around Smithfield and Sixth Avenue — feels forgotten and lawless.
Sharlana Capan, 27, of Sheraden, reports her 6-year-old daughter once relieved herself outside because she had no alternative. “It sucks when you bring a kid down here and they have to pee,” Capan says. The prospect means she doesn’t visit Downtown very often.
The bathroom crunch didn’t begin with COVID-19, according to Max McIntosh, 49, who has worked in the Golden Triangle since 2003. Public urination and defecation accelerated over the past five years, becoming “exponentially worse” since the pandemic took hold in early 2020, he says.
His observation: Those relieving themselves in public aren’t typically people who are unhoused, but often appear to be mass-transportation riders, families and younger people carrying backpacks.
“It’s not just people who are partying at 1 a.m. and dipping into an alley. It’s all hours of the day,” says McIntosh, of the West Hills, who has pressured city officials for better toilet facilities and chronicles the problems on a Facebook page.
“It’s getting worse, and then you want people to come Downtown, live Downtown, shop Downtown,” he says. “And especially now, when it’s been a dry summer — it stinks. It’s disgusting.”
A Public Role’s Long Decline
As pandemic-related precautions ease, many U.S. businesses are reopening their restrooms, edging closer to pre-COVID levels of access, says Steven Soifer, president of the nonprofit American Restroom Association, based in Maryland.
But his assessment lines up with McIntosh’s: Public access was limited even before the pandemic.
In the 1960s and as late as the ’80s, municipal governments prioritized public restrooms. “It was the government’s responsibility to provide that,” Soifer explains.
By the ’90s, domestic travel and tourism had grown, and governments didn’t typically see public toilets as their duty, he says. “So it fell more and more on businesses and other establishments to provide facilities.”
Building codes effectively formalized the mindset with restroom mandates for businesses, according to Soifer. Yet there just aren’t enough available toilets today to accommodate recent increases in travel and tourism, he says.
In many cities, growing populations of unhoused people can deepen the challenge. Homelessness has increased in the Pittsburgh area, although changing foot traffic during the pandemic may make the increase appear bigger than it is, according to social-service leaders.
“Starbucks is, in effect, the public toilet of America. When you put together the other Starbucks-like things, like McDonald’s, you have an inexact way of finding where [the accessible bathrooms] are,” says Harvey Molotch, a restroom association board member and emeritus professor at New York University.
Still, even Starbucks might clamp down. After the company made its bathrooms public in 2018, CEO Howard Schultz warned at a New York Times conference in June that the accessibility could cease amid a worsening mental health problem, rising drug use and other challenges.
Meanwhile, some cities are taking public ownership. Molotch points to Portland, Oregon, which has drawn particular notice for its approach to tackling restroom challenges in urban hubs. In the late 2000s, Portland pursued a stand-alone bathroom kiosk that operates at no charge to users and can be open 24 hours a day.
“If you can get a hold on restrooms as safe and good, you don’t provide just a place for people to go. You create an advertisement that the whole place is good,” Molotch says.
Molotch highlights the transition of New York City’s Bryant Park from a drug haven to a Midtown Manhattan oasis after old public restrooms were overhauled and other improvements were made. Fresh flowers appeared in the refreshed bathrooms.
Drug use also came up in the Point Park University study, including as a deterrent to bathroom use. Features such as modified restroom lighting can prevent that, the authors found. Portland puts blue lights in its own Portland Loos, making it hard to find veins to inject drugs, says Evan Madden, sales manager at the Portland Loo Inc.
Portland now has 20 loos in operation; more than 120 others have been shipped to communities across the U.S. and Canada. The Portland Loo costs around $95,000, plus $12,000 for annual maintenance.
“It’s definitely a mix of repeat and new customers. And it’s been growing quickly,” Madden says about who’s using the loos. A study in San Antonio, Texas, found the loo saved the city close to $250,000 in street-cleaning expenses, he notes.
The Portland Loo landed more than a dozen mentions in the Point Park University study, which recommends a combination of smaller and larger new toilet units in Downtown Pittsburgh — some with changing tables.
Almost seven in 10 survey participants were willing to pay more than $1 for clean, safe restrooms with adequate ventilation and other niceties, according to the study.
The authors found strong support for access even when a person can’t pay. Other ideas include a tax or discount incentive — even direct payments — for Downtown businesses that open restrooms at no charge to the public. BOMA could partner with the city government on that, according to the study.
Many Downtown business owners, residents and nonprofit representatives interviewed for the project agreed that bathroom attendants would promote cleanliness and discourage misconduct like drug use.
“Putting [bathrooms] in is the easy part,” says professor Heather Starr Fiedler, who chairs Point Park’s community-engagement department. “It’s maintaining them, making sure they’re not abused and stay clean, safe and not vandalized — that’s the hard part. That’s the part many cities have failed to do, and the part we need to make sure we do.”
BOMA will host a public forum at 10 a.m. Oct. 6 at Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse, 350 Forbes Ave., to center on the study, recommendations and an action plan. (A registration link for the meeting is available online.) As of press time, BOMA was digging into prospects for funding and had “great support from every Downtown stakeholder,” from the city government to the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, Schaub says.
Reopening public bathrooms in city parking garages look like “the low-hanging fruit that could be immediately done,” she says. Bigger-ticket infrastructure improvements are more likely to materialize in 2023.
The city government joined in the study and is “looking to see what we can do to increase public restroom access Downtown,” says Maria Montaño, spokeswoman for Mayor Ed Gainey.
“We understand this is a critical issue and that everyone deserves a place to use a restroom that is clean and staffed and available for use as needed,” Montaño says. City officials are looking at collaborations with partners and at “long-term possibilities to explore public bathrooms in city buildings,” she adds.
In the city Office of Community Health and Safety, manager Laura Drogowski casts bathroom access as a human-rights issue — “not just a human-service issue.”
“There’s no situation in which we think having people going to a bathroom in an alley is acceptable,” Drogowski says. “It’s really a matter of finding a workable alternative.”
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