It’s sleek. It’s nearly indestructible. And it might be coming to downtown Asheville.
The Portland Loo, or the self-proclaimed “Swiss army knife of restrooms,” is one of several prefabricated, single-stall restroom concepts that the City of Asheville is considering purchasing and installing. Asheville City Council voted last year to allocate a portion of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act funds to enhance the city’s public restrooms
The new amenity, which will be located at the intersection of Rankin Avenue and College Street, aims to offer residents, visitors and the unhoused a safe, clean place to go when nature calls.
“The city has long heard from businesses, homeless service providers and other community members that a 24/7 restroom facility is needed downtown,” Mayor Esther Manheimer tells Xpress.
While the final design and operational details of the new restroom are still being hammered out, the city anticipates that the new facility will be open to the public sometime next year. Though the project has received widespread support, not everyone agrees that the amenity is a good use of the ARPA funds. Others fear that the facility will become a magnet for crime and vandalism, and concerns remain about how the new restroom would be monitored and maintained.
Out of order
There are six public restrooms that are open for limited hours within Asheville’s downtown corridor, and the city also maintains a portable restroom that can be accessed 24/7. The new downtown restroom project aims to fill the gap left by the city’s last 24/7 restroom at 29 Haywood St.
The facility, which was housed in the same building as the former Asheville Police Department downtown substation, opened as the city’s only 24-hour restroom in 2018, but not without issues.
According to previous reporting from Xpress, the block surrounding the restroom saw a 128% increase in service calls between 2018 and 2019. Drug-related calls went up 400% over the same period.
The Haywood Street facility was closed with other downtown public restrooms in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic but was never reopened. City officials cited increased maintenance costs and increased illegal activity and vandalism as causes.
But Asheville soon began to feel the effects of the closure. Complaints about human waste found on the streets of downtown became more frequent, as downtown also experienced an uptick in homelessness. According to the city’s Point-in-Time Count, which measures the number of homeless individuals during a single night in January, Asheville’s unsheltered homeless population peaked in 2021 and remains higher than pre-pandemic numbers. The 2023 count tallied 573 people.
Council member Sage Turner also points out that as tourism continues to rebound from the pandemic, more facilities will be needed to accommodate visitors and residents alike.
“With millions of visitors every year, downtown is far too busy a place to not have accessible restrooms at all times,” says Turner. “There should be several locations up and running, including the ones on Haywood Street that were open pre-COVID.”
“Public restrooms are fundamental to human dignity and contribute to public health, but it also benefits our central business district,” adds Council member Sheneika Smith. “Whether you´re a local or a guest, where there’s a safe and clean restroom facility, people are inclined to stroll longer, which can lead to people patronizing more businesses.”
In spring 2021, Asheville received $26.2 million in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, a COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress earlier that year. Council voted at its May 10, 2022, meeting to allocate $650,000 toward “the modernization and upgrade of downtown restroom facilities,” along with 30 other city projects relating to homelessness, affordable housing, climate change, domestic violence prevention and assistance, among others.
“Due to the connection of addressing health, safety and [homelessness], the Council was able to allocate some COVID relief funding toward this project,” Manheimer explains.
Susannah Horton, the city’s manager for the project, says the city is looking for a prefabricated, stand-alone restroom option with features designed to mitigate many of the issues experienced at 29 Haywood St.
The Portland Loo, which was created by the city of Portland in 2010, is a 7-by-10-foot structure that would provide enough room for a wheelchair, bike or stroller. The single stall has a flush toilet. There are no mirrors, and blue interior lighting makes it difficult for intravenous drug users to find a vein for injection. Hand-washing facilities are provided outside the structure.
It is still unclear what the city’s final design will include, but according to the city’s project page, all of the models being considered will include additional lighting, security cameras and “crime prevention through environmental design.”
“Louvers at the top and the bottom [will] allow for visibility but privacy, and these are designed so [emergency medical services] can see inside if there’s an emergency and they need to get in,” adds Horton. “The material that we are seeing these being fabricated from is stainless steel with an anti-graffiti coating. These types of units are also designed to be vandal-resistant. … So those are all considerations that we have and are looking to install.”
The Portland Loos in particular, which have cropped up in more than two dozen locations across the country, have had mixed results. San Diego removed one toilet structure in 2016, just over a year after it was installed, citing a 130% increase in police service calls to the area, and city officials say that maintenance and repair costs were more than double initial estimates. Meanwhile, Reno, Nev., is installing its second restroom after its first facility was said to have reduced human waste on city streets by 73%.
Give and take
In August, the city invited members of the public to provide feedback on conceptual design options for the site through an online survey. The survey received 200 responses, with about half providing written comments as well.
Horton notes that among the respondents’ top priorities were safety, site visibility, tree preservation and cleanliness. Those concerns were echoed in an Xpress call for comments online and through its weekly newsletter, where dozens of community members expressed both concern and optimism about the project.
“An outdoor public restroom will cause additional security concerns, encouraging illegal behaviors that are already out of control in downtown Asheville,” worries resident Susan Sherman Gaddis. “This encourages the homeless population to congregate, thus increasing illegal activities.”
“Civilized societies provide public restrooms to people regardless of the time of day,” says resident and Xpress contributor Storms Reback. “If people are going to complain about homeless people urinating and defecating in public downtown, giving them a place to use the bathroom seems like an easy and humane solution.”
“It’s not only the homeless who need to ‘go’ downtown. I, for one, would welcome such a facility,” says Laura Allen. “The bathrooms at Pack Square are only open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. A place where you can go and also wash your hands located toward the other end of the downtown strip would be welcomed.”
Nearly all respondents, both supporters and those worried about the potential negative impacts of the amenity, said that daily maintenance and a security presence would be needed to support the structure.
“A facility without round-the-clock monitoring and cleaning doesn’t seem like it would be a recipe for success,” notes resident and former candidate for Asheville City Council Rich Lee.
“Of course, it would need to be staffed and cleaned — and maintenance is a thing we seem to be bad at as a town — but ‘It will be gross, and people will sleep there’ is a weak excuse against providing a reasonable facility,” says Asheville resident Claire Dima, who works downtown. “Obviously, a 24-hour bathroom won’t fix homelessness or all the waste issues downtown, but it would certainly help.”
Meanwhile, a majority of Council appeared aligned with the project while acknowledging that issues may arise. Details regarding maintenance or security monitoring of the facility have not yet been determined.
“Recognizing the challenges of maintaining 24/7 public restrooms, the city focused on a design to maximize safety, durability and maintenance,” says Manheimer. “The stand-alone facility allows for improved safety, accessibility and easier maintenance.”
Council members Antannette Mosley, Sandra Kilgore and Maggie Ullman did not return requests for comment on the project.
In the pipeline
As the project marches on, Horton says that she and her team are working with local architects to incorporate feedback from the public survey into the final design and construction documents.
“We’re aiming to get this out to bid before the end of the calendar year. The holidays are tricky. But we know that this is important,” says Horton. “We want to get this out. And we’re planning on construction being [in] late winter [or] early spring 2024.”
Once it wraps up the design process, Horton says that the city plans to hold another drop-in information session with updated renderings and details in November, though a date has not been scheduled.
For now, members of Council, business owners and the public will get by with the current facilities until the arrival of the amenity next year.
“Access to 24/7 restrooms is sorely needed, and this model is designed with both function and maintenance in mind,” says Council member Kim Roney. “I’ve shoveled waste off the sidewalk [and felt] disgusted and ashamed because I know our bathrooms aren’t open. Plus, folks are being punished for not having a place to go.
“This is for all of us,” Roney continues. “We deserve better.”