It's time for Seattle to start thinking about creative funding sources to maintain and improve our infrastructure. Okay, I know this is Seattle, and public private partnerships and leveraging advertising investments are mostly verboten, but times have changed.
We should eliminate barriers to common-sense funding options.
One prime barrier stems from city's land-use code regulating off-premise signs — the so-called sign ordinance (SMC 23.55.014). The ordinance, developed in the mid-'80s was meant to curb the expansion of billboards in Seattle — a good thing. However, it has also significantly inhibited the ability of the city of Seattle to enter into public-private partnerships at a time when maintenance budgets are getting squeezed.
Essentially, the ordinance bans any signage that might distract drivers. This has been broadly interpreted to include virtually all signage that can be seen from the street.
There have been some severe budget impacts because of this.
Most people know about the Great Seattle Automated Public Toilet (APT) Fiasco — how Seattle spent $5 million on public toilets that fell into disrepair and in some cases became magnets for drug dealing and prostitution. But most people don't know that the city did not need to pay for those toilets.
In fact, we have the distinction of being the only city in the world that did pay for the toilets. How did this happen and what can we learn from it?
First, this happened as a direct result of our sign ordinance, which prohibited the city from allowing vendors such as, the JC Decaux automated toilet company, from installing advertising kiosks to pay for the installation, operation, and maintenance of the toilets. They have done this in Paris, San Francisco, and all over Europe. The advertising kiosks add to the vibrancy of the street scene and generate the needed revenue to provide a much needed public service to citizens and visitors alike.
There is no doubt that providing this public amenity has its drawbacks and involves intensive maintenance and management. Physical placement of these facilities is a key indicator of whether or not it will become a public safety problem as well. Placing an APT in Occidental Park in Pioneer Square, for instance, was never a good idea. San Francisco as well had problems with their units in certain areas and not in others.
For other cities, the kiosks provide a self-generating source of revenue to pay for maintenance and operations. Of course, the lesson we in Seattle take from our negative experience is that we can't provide public restrooms, and and not that we set ourselves up for failure. Are people in Seattle really that much less civilized than people in San Francisco or Paris or London? I don’t think so.
But there is a larger point here. The mayor and the Seattle City Council could bring our code into the present and create opportunities to leverage private investments and advertising to pay for any number of maintenance needs — whether it is for parks, bus shelters, or graffiti removal. Transportation improvements in the pedestrian and bike master plans could also benefit from a new way of thinking about revenue streams and public-private partnerships.
Seattle has always had an uneasy relationship with advertising and a distrust of public-private partnerships. Some of that is deserved. However, we can learn from other cities. The San Francisco Giant's home, AT&T Park, was funded privately, and the new de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park was privately funded and provides incredible views and access to the public.
In the case of the De Young, an effort to get public funding for the expansion failed and civic leaders got together and figured out how to do it privately. Imagine, the wealthy in the community coming together to make a civic investment in the greater good of the city. We could use some of that energy at the Seattle Center.
In this time of shrinking budgets and the inability of local government to maintain our public infrastructure investments, we need new thinking. A good place to start would be to update our sign ordinance and have a discussion about leveraging the creativity and wealth in our community for the public good.
And let's, at the very least, provide a place for people to relieve themselves.
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