District 1’s Treviño: Drop in Citations Flushes Criticism of $170K ‘Portland Loo’

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Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

The Portland Loo is located on South Alamo Street between Commerce and Market streets.

The San Antonio Police Department is pointing to downtown’s first 24-hour, standalone public restroom as the cause for a substantial decrease in public urination citations around the busy intersections of South Alamo Street and Commerce and Market streets.

“Citations have been cut by more than half – maybe that installation of the bathroom was a good idea,” SAPD spokesman Sgt. Jesus Salame told the Rivard Report on Friday.

At the request of District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño’s office, SAPD examined citation records, finding that during the nine months before the loo was installed in July 2016, police issued 104 citations for public urination and defecation. From August 2016 to December 2016, that number fell to 30, Salame said.

“Looking at this year alone, we’ve only issued 21 citations within a half-mile radius of the bathroom,” he said.

The 18-foot-long stainless steel Portland Loo was installed amid controversy surrounding the $170,000 price tag, which some taxpayers viewed as excessive. The cost included purchasing the toilet and installing it. Treviño spearheaded the effort to fund the loo, and it was unanimously approved by City Council in March 2016.

Since its opening, the pricey loo has been the source of jokes at Fiesta’s Cornyation and elsewhere, and now it has emerged as a campaign issue for Treviño, who is facing local technology lawyer Michael Montaño in the June 10 runoff election for the District 1 City Council seat.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) exits the restroom after it's first official use. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) exits the restroom after its first official use.

In a phone interview Friday, Treviño said the decrease in police citations show the cost of the public toilet was justified.

“It’s no surprise that the citations are down,” he said. “We purposely picked the spot that was most highly trafficked and knew there was incidents of urination and defecation in the street. It costs around $239,000 annually just to clean the streets in that area.”

Montaño’s campaign recently mailed out an open letter signed by nine District 1 residents that criticizes the “toilet for tourists,” calling it one of several examples of Treviño’s neglect of his constituents.

“Few dollars are being invested where we live because Mr. Treviño is spending our money on a fancy $191,000 toilet for tourists and $20 million for grounds at the new Hotel at Hemisfair Park,” the letter stated. “These things don’t do anything to improve the quality of life for residents like us.”

Montaño argues the “fancy toilet” demonstrates that Treviño is not addressing the priorities of the community.

“The neighborhoods didn’t ask for this toilet,” he said in an email statement to the Rivard Report. “They asked for potholes to be filled, streets to be repaired, and more police to be hired. This is another example of the councilman being focused on expensive pet projects downtown at the expense of the neighborhoods and their needs. There are far more impactful ways of caring for the homeless population.”

Treviño said his rebuttal to Montaño’s accusations involves fighting back with facts.

“We’re really proud to see that the data never lies – facts are facts,” he said. “[The fact that] citations are down is also showing that police officers can spend more time going after violent crime versus spending time dealing with something that can be dealt with by having a restroom facility.”

Treviño also argues that the loo is a compassionate and welcoming initiative not only for visitors and residents, but for the homeless population.

“Everyone at some point has to use the restroom, and these aren’t just simply issues about cost, these are issues of the moral compass of the city,” he said. “It speaks volumes that we as a city are looking to be as inclusive as we can. Everyone from the most well off to the most indigent have used this facility, and we’ve had 40,000 flushes to date.”

The restroom is ADA-compliant, graffiti resistant, and designed to deter crime and inappropriate behavior like drug use and prostitution. Cities such as San Diego and Seattle have experienced problems with similar public restrooms, but the Portland Loo model has been a success in Portland and now, it seems, in San Antonio.

“There’s no price on humanity and just showing some dignity to a population that just needs a little hope,” said Haven for Hope Outreach Manager Ron Brown. “We need to reach out and show that we care. More of these wouldn’t hurt at all, in fact, it would help more individuals who are using the streets. They really appreciate being able to do that.”

Treviño said he hopes the city will install another Portland Loo at Lions Field Park, where portable toilets have been in use.

“The Portland Loo is durable, well-built, and will last a long time,” he said.

In addition to a toilet, toilet paper, and a hand-sanitizing station, the loo has a sink located outside to discourage people from bathing or washing clothes inside the structure. Horizontal louvered panels at the base of the structure allow police officers to see the occupant’s feet and check for illegal activity or someone sleeping inside. The loo is serviced by City staff, and SAPD bike patrol officers stop by several times a day to ensure the restroom is used properly.

The inside of the restroom features ADA compliant space along with a hand sanitizing station. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The inside of the restroom features ADA-compliant space along with a hand-sanitizing station.

“As far as any criminal complaints, I’m not aware of any safety considerations or issues concerning the structure,” Salame said. “The vast majority of urination citations were from the homeless population, but by providing them with an option, it seems to have had an impact, and officers are not witnessing it as much. I know that the downtown business owners have taken notice as well.

“We’re very happy about that … downtown is our pride and joy, and our biggest industry is tourism, so it’s important to protect the beauty and quality of our city.”

7 thoughts on “District 1’s Treviño: Drop in Citations Flushes Criticism of $170K ‘Portland Loo’

  1. Simple logic – cause and effect. Build it and they will for dang sure use it. Thank you Roberto Trevino for for finding a public need and addressing it skillfully. Montano’s sour grapes about the “fancy toilet” are ridiculous and immature. What is his solution – back to peeing on the Alamo door?

  2. How did the toilet suddenly go from an original cost of $100,000 to now $170,000 as reported in this article? Please explain.

    • Hi, Will. According to Councilman Treviño: “$97,000 was the cost of the loo but additional costs for installation and engineering made it total $170K. Installation fluctuates with location, so because the loo was close to the river it required environmentally sensitive installation. The Lions Field Park installation should be much less.”

  3. I have to say this reeks of campaigning on both sides (and I can’t believe the downtown conversation has been dumbed down to one toilet). Question aside of 30 recorded incidences still being a lot of public peeing downtown over 9 months (other outlets have reported 54 citations over 10 months), what can we make of this statistic (a drop from 104 SAPD citations downtown for public urination)?

    Is San Antonio losing downtown visitors or visitors overall or to this section of downtown (we still have no pedestrian count technology downtown)? Are there seasonal differences in public urination? Have San Antonio policing priorities and resources shifted? Is there a larger body of policing statistics released this week that the public can review in lead-up to the election?

    More critically, how should we read the following quotes from another recent fluff article about the new downtown loo:

    A user of the new toilet: “I’m carrying the bag and a lot of people think I’m homeless. When I’m walking with all my bags, most places [downtown] WON’T LET ME IN [emphasis added] so this helps out a lot when I’m downtown heading to work.”

    An SAPD Officer: “I wish they’d put more [toilets] around town.”

    The reporter: [more public toilet work is] ‘just not in the [City’s $2.6 billion annual or $850 million bond] budget’.

    These quotes combined capture what I’ve felt downtown during the last Council term – mean-spirited and ultimately costly economic and other exclusion, including for workers, people traveling light and at facilities that should be more accessible (more hours and more accommodating) in a convention, tourism, military, student and working town.

    The new ‘lazy loo’ as I’ve called it – installed at most 200 feet from a public toilet block purpose-built less than ten years ago by the City on Commerce (downtown signage could be way better) – is for me emblematic of how we haven’t worked with much brain or heart downtown over the last Council term. There are more deserving locations for a public bathroom downtown than 200 feet from public bathrooms as well as other ways the funds could have been used to improve bathroom access conditions in greater downtown, as part of some (any) semblance of a downtown strategy and implementation plan.

    For example, Travis Park, which has no toilets, is a major bus stop and site of mobile food vending historically (where hand washing would make sense and City rules suggest there should be publicly accessible facilities). Just as good would be facilities for those waiting for or de-boarding Megabus on Broadway (which runs a hellscape route into downtown, scaring visitors from Austin and elsewhere). The toilets at Maverick Park downtown have been locked up for years and could be repaired.

    Council seems to have played by their own rules downtown this term and without a plan, as key downtown strategies like the ten-year Parks and Recreation Strategy (which should have something to say about public toilets; the old strategy stresses enhancing access to existing facilities before building new), the Downtown Retail Strategy, the Bike Master Plan, the ADA Pedestrian Transition Plan, parking studies and even the Hemisfair Park Master Plan have lapsed and not been reviewed or updated. This Council has not created or published any new downtown strategies or plans that the public can review and check progress against. A one-off architectural intervention (with questionable results) could be a nice feature but it does not represent collaboration, strategy or leadership.

    Beyond the new toilet, the ‘pilot’ of the last Council term seems to have been how do we make people feel less welcome downtown? How do we remove benches, bus lanes and stops, bike lanes, awnings and B-Cycle stations? How do we narrow some sidewalks while adding more driveway interruptions to the historic streetscapes? How do we amp up the aggression of anti-poor policing (I’ve been stopped and followed)? How do we close up shops and offerings earlier and keep pedestrian lighting dismal? How do we make bus waiting conditions so deplorable that only those who must ride the bus ride it? How do we do nothing but blame pedestrians when pedestrians are killed or injured (the count is up since VisionZeroSA was declared in 2015), including downtown?

    Downtown has sucked for street life and urban tourism in the last years, from the new Centro Plaza to the new loo (just a mile on foot) as a result of some of the exclusionary planning and poor urban design choices of the last Council term. This entire stretch is within our downtown business district (passing UTSA Downtown, Market Square and Main Plaza en route), but what a difference a few blocks and the lack of City care can make.

    In greater downtown in the past few years, we haven’t built from legacy strengths, investments or planning. Too many recent and interesting City strategies and plans haven’t been reviewed or implemented and too many actual users of greater downtown have been chased off or dissed; grandma doesn’t take the kids downtown by VIA anymore. What is new in the city hasn’t been thought through or well implemented and in some cases seems to have removed public value.

    It’s been a zero-sum Council term at best, I think, and the quality of our downtown area at present simply does not measure compared to the improvements that other city centers have made for visitors and locals in the last few years – with making rather than destroying being a key difference.

    Other cities have focused to building new bike paths and better sidewalk conditions and transit (expanding rather than removing legacy transit systems such as our color coded trolley bus network) as well as efforts to create more connections between poorer areas and downtown, including with bikeshare. San Antonio has gone decidedly cheap and somewhat backwards in these areas during the last term The focus has instead been on rental cars, hotels and more parking while problematizing legacy practices (the La Villita vendors as one example) and knocking down to try to repeat-build downtown. A new public toilet next to existing public toilets.

    Do we need new public toilet investments downtown? Absolutely, but the missing piece in recent years has been strategy and implementation that is more generous and economically inclusive, smarter about preservation and public improvement, and more fun than the exclusionary and car-centric downtown politics and maneuvers of the moment.

    I don’t see the current Council as having effectively directed public work and private development in greater downtown at this unique moment of major investment, population growth and international interest in urban and pedestrian (not car-based) San Antonio. Some clues for improvement reside in 2002-2013 local planning that I’m not sure the last Council could see for the dust. There are also deeply local urban practices of global significance to celebrate and try to preserve downtown that I don’t think the last Council could ascertain for the economic discrimination (ask me why my elderly parents can now buy paletas in Ohio).

    There’s inspiration to be gained from successful cities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border and accessible with our current airport and regional bus connections and where you can leave the car at home, if you have one. I don’t really care who’s elected today, but for greater downtown and historic San Antonio as a smart and equitable urban environment, I do hope Council leadership improves.

  4. This is an example of a great solution where everyone wins. The $170,000 facilty already saved at least $115,000 a year ($239,000 annual cleanup costs cut by more than half).. If that $239,000 was for that immediate area and not toyal for citywide…. when people pass around costs, the details get omitted or misunderstood/misconstrued.

    Then there is the great public relations with tourists and the compassion for basic human needs without judgement.

    I hope Trevino keeps up the good work.

  5. It costs $239,000 to clean the streets in that area each year. So, by using the logic presented, the costs of cleaning the streets in that area went to $0.00 by installing this bathroom? It would be more genuine to cite the reduction, and certainly less misleading.

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