A new measure in front of the Anchorage Assembly could ask voters to approve a $12.5 million bond that would go toward buying, installing and maintaining about two dozen modular public bathrooms around the city.
“Public restrooms have been a common feature in cities, along with other public health and hygiene amenities such as drinking fountains, seating areas, and indoor and outdoor recreational facilities such as parks, transit stations, and community centers,” according to a memo written by the measure’s sponsors.
Alaska’s largest city has few restrooms available to tourists, pedestrians, trail users or anyone else. The lack of readily accessible accommodations means people needing to go often have to make a purchase to use the facilities in a private business or duck behind cover in green spaces.
On top of that, the municipality is grappling with a homelessness crisis, with hundreds of people living outdoors without a thorough city strategy accounting for restroom needs. Though officials have moved a small number of port-a-potties to some of the larger homeless encampments, people staying at such locations have regularly complained of squalor and unsafe conditions inside them.
One of the measure’s sponsors, Anchorage Assembly member Anna Brawley, said port-a-potties freeze, are susceptible to damage and are not uniformly accessible or compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The proposal calls for setting up 20 to 30 new public bathroom facilities spread across the municipality as part of a pilot program to gauge how well they work meeting public needs.
“We’re paying not just installation, but upkeep,” Brawley said. “They need cleaning and they need occasional repairs.”
“The argument is: We’re paying for it either way,” Brawley said.
Supporters anticipate the money will buy a prefabricated metal public bathroom model named the Portland Loo or a similar design. The single-occupancy facilities were first built and deployed in Portland, Oregon, by a company called Madden Fabrication and have since been adopted by several other cities around the country.
Unlike port-a-potties or plumbed brick-and-mortar public bathrooms, the modular units were specifically designed to deter crime, vandalism and drug use. Angled louvers in the siding allow for a measure of privacy, but significantly less than solid walls. Handwashing stations are on the outside and use only cold water.
“Protected with an anti-graffiti clear coat, the restroom can take a lot of abuse, and is easy to maintain with a cleaning hose and janitorial supplies stored in the mechanical closet,” the company’s website says. “The Portland Loo also uses blue lights to prevent drug users from locating veins.”
“We’re looking to buy something that’s fairly indestructible,” said Assembly Vice Chair Meg Zaletel, another of the bond proposal’s sponsors.
One impetus for the measure is that a lack of public restrooms shifts costs for providing and maintaining them onto private businesses.
“Increasing concern and frustration from business owners about these impacts to their own facilities has led to a trend of reducing public access to restroom facilities, such as requiring a purchase to use the restroom, use of keys and door codes to limit access, or simply not providing this convenience,” the measure’s sponsors wrote.
Assembly members were quoted a price of around $150,000 per Portland Loo unit, according to Zaletel. Additional expenses include installation, which involves connecting them to electrical power for lighting, and so that a heating wire around the toilet bowl can prevent freezing. The units can be connected to city water and sewer lines, or an “off-grid option” that relies on a large sub-surface tank, according to the company.
Zaletel said she and other backers were deliberate in opting for a bond proposition, instead of pursuing the policy by scrounging for spare funds in the operating budget or reaching out to private foundations.
“We would have to piecemeal it in, frankly,” Zaletel said of the latter approach.
A sizable bond, she said, will secure enough money to deploy new bathrooms all over town, aiming to have an impact across the whole city instead of just one neighborhood.
“With this proposal we can go muni-wide,” Zaletel said.
Backers have not yet identified where individual units will go.
The Portland Loo model was recommended by the Parks Department, which had previously looked into options for standing up and funding new public restrooms.
If a majority of the Assembly’s 12 members support the ordinance, it will go before voters on the April 2 municipal ballot. The 20-year general obligation bond works out to a cost of $2.54 per $100,000 of assessed value on a property, or, about $11.43 for the owner of an average-priced home in the municipality.