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Crapping on Seattle

Self-cleaning public toilet.

One of five self-cleaning public toilets in Seattle, this one on the waterfront. (Chuck Taylor)

In our rapid descent from in-place to laughing-stock, Seattle is now the target for ridicule over its expensive, dangerous, now-up-for-fire-sale public toilets. Slate.com is the latest to yuk it up with bathroom jokes. At least the raspberries over the Sonics have been pushed off the front pages.

Seattle’s infamous automatic toilets were flushed down the civic drain for being too dangerous and too expensive (about $5 million for this experiment with five toilets). Rubbing our noses in it, as it were, comes news that Portland, as usual, has a better idea, deploying human attendants no less. Here’s what The New York Times had to say:

Rather than automated toilets, some cities are looking for cheaper alternatives that would be cleaned by human attendants. One prototype, to be installed next month in Portland, Ore., would cost $50,000 each, compared with some $300,000 for an automated unit. Randy Leonard, a Portland city commissioner, helped design that toilet, which in addition has open gaps at the top and bottom of the door, a feature discouraging drug abuse, prostitution and the like.

Is this a classic instance of Seattle’s inability to solve “basic” problems? Rather, I’d argue it’s a sign of our excess of good intentions. In the case of the public toilets, the city is still so squeamish about policing the streets and actually arresting drug dealers and other low lifes, that it’s no wonder the toilets became low-cost chambers for shooting up and prostitution. Secondly, the reason the City didn’t pay for the toilets with advertising contracts, as nearly all other cities do, is that the City Council developed an aversion to advertising, particularly cigarette advertising; the City had also reached an informal agreement with the billboard advertiser, the Ackerley Corporation, that if they would observe a moratorium, the City wouldn’t compete by allowing signs on city property, such as toilets.

We’re a city with so many exquisitely high-minded regulations that we trip over them from time to time. So it was, by the way, with the loss of the Sonics, where we had so many goals to satisfy that we lost the game. Among them: Save KeyArena, defy rich sports-team owners, preserve municipal jobs, preserve sports bars around the Key, prevent sprawl to the suburbs, honor a silly initiative making public investment in sports facilities “pay off,” teach the NBA a lesson in how to control its costs, save Seattle Center. And on and on until we tied ourselves into knots and watched the supposedly hayseed Okies waltz off with the team.

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