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.
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) exits the restroom after its first official use. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

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.
The inside of the restroom features ADA-compliant space along with a hand-sanitizing station. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“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.”

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Rocío Guenther

Rocío Guenther worked as a bilingual reporter and editorial assistant for the Rivard Report from June 2016 to October 2017. She is originally from Guadalajara, Mexico and holds a bachelor's in English...