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Sales Are Slow But The Portland Loo Still Seen As A Success

About a year ago, Oregon's first solar powered public toilet was unveiled — to great fanfare.  Here's Anna DeBenedetto with the City of Portland outlining her expectations.

Portland LooAnna DeBenedetto: "They're coming to us from Corvallis, Oregon; Altlanta, Georgia; all the way from Victoria, Australia. People are interested in the Portland Loo.  We're hoping that this can be a profitable project and that we can lower the rates at the water bureau, what they have to pay for their water bills. Because if we make a little profit on this. We can give that back to the tax payers."

It's been a tough year and there have been no orders for the new toilets.

But people who make it their business to know about these things, say the Portland Loo is still a success.

Kristian Foden-Vencil visited the auspicious landmark and files this report.

The opening of toilet next to the Greyhound Station last year, was quite the civic occasion.

Sam Adams: "I invite all Portlanders to use Randy's Toilet!"

Mayor Sam Adams was there, as was the driving power behind the new loo, Commissioner Randy Leonard.

Randy Leonard: "A lot of people in my position work for years to get fire stations named after them… public buildings named after them. And it looks like I'm going to have to settle for a restroom. But that's okay because it a real fundamental human right, in all seriousness, to have public facilities available for all."

It'd be easy to poke fun at a city project that aspires to design and build a public toilet. But to be fair, it's not an easy undertaking.

Restrooms are notorious for ending up as a warm spot for homeless people to sleep; or for strangers to hook-up for sex; or for addicts to secretly inject themselves.

It doesn't make them very appealing to people who just need somewhere to pee. So many cities have opted not to have public restrooms or to only have one or two, staffed by attendants.

But Greg Madden, of Madden Fabrication in Portland, built the city's $140,000 prototype and says special design features, like a series of angled slats at the base of the stall, put a stop to all the usual problems.  

Greg Madden: "The main function is the visibility down below so they can see how many people are inside, if anybody is still inside, without having the disruption of the privacy of actually using it."

Kristian Foden-Vencil: "So you've got slats in there so you can see down, but you can't see up. So you can see  feet but not much else."

Greg Madden: "Correct."

Designers also decided to get rid of the sink.

People can wash their hands outside — where there's a little jet of water. But it's neither a secret nor a convenient place for someone to wash their needles or clean their clothes.

So the question is: has the design worked?

Norm Sharpe is with the Portland Business Alliance. His organization has cleaned the loo for the last year.

Norm Sharpe: "Well basically it's been a real good success. I can't even begin to describe the success."

But after a year there's only one loo.  Politicians originally talked of several, scattered around town.

Water Bureau employee, Anne Hill, was given the task of siting  the loos. She says people seem to like the idea of a safe public restroom, but they’re not keen on having one outside their business. 

Anne Hill: "Some of the issues that have come up with citing loos have been:  do the structures match the architecture outside certain buildings? Or if a park closes at midnight, can you have a 24 hour facility placed in the middle of a park?"

Despite the problems, she says the city is still getting inquiries from places like British Columbia,  Salt Lake City and Salinas, California.

The cost is down to about $60,000, but Hill says, bad economic times prevented other communities from placing orders.

Still, the Portland Loo has attracted attention. Jack Sim is from Singapore and he's the founder of the World Toilet Organization.

Jack Sim: "Portland has been doing a very good job with the toilet situation improvement."

PHLUSH or the Public Hygene Lets Us Stay Human movement agrees. Founder, Carol McReary, lives one block away from the loo and is pleased with the addition.

Carol McReary: "My feeling is that if you activate the street with a toilet, you've already got eyes on that street. You've attracted, it's a positive attractor for the street, not a negative one. And that's what sort of galls me when I see neighborhoods saying, ohhh, do we really want that? Yes, you do. You want a restroom."

Just a half block away from the new loo a homeless man, who didn't want to give his name, says he's seen drug addicts use it. But he says, they don't stay long.

Homeless guy: "It's really a godsend to a lot of us out here that have to go because there's not too many places out here that you can use the restroom."

Meanwhile, politicians who want to make the Rose City more appealing to tourists, hope to announce a few new restrooms over the next couple of months.