She may not look like one—her dyed maroon hair and gold-rimmed sunglasses hint at her second life as a “Burner” (one who regularly attends Burning Man)—but in 2006, when the city of Portland wanted citizens to disconnect their downspouts, it put Peterson in charge. In 2011, when it wanted to convince restaurants to install grease traps, Peterson handled that too.
When Peterson looks at the latest problem she’s been handed, she sees a load of crap.
Last December, the Bureau of Environmental Services assigned Peterson to sell the Portland Loo, a 3-ton steel outhouse made in Oregon.
Her job is persuading other city governments to buy our loos at $90,000 a pop.
Why? If Peterson, supervising two marketing consultants working on commission, can sell enough loos to other cities, the proceeds will pay the cleaning bill for the six public toilets Portland has already installed.
The loo has been the most celebrated and debated addition to the Rose City streetscape since then-City Commissioner Randy Leonard returned from a trip to Europe in 2006 with the idea for a stainless-steel, open-air public toilet.
The invention is designed to solve the woes associated with decrepit, dangerous public restrooms.
It’s made of steel, so you can’t break it. It has angled slats at the top and bottom, so police can see inside. It has a single stall usable by both men and women, with enough room inside for a wheelchair, a stroller or a bicycle. It can be installed directly on the sidewalk and plugged into city utility pipes. It even has solar panels.
Leonard was so gung-ho on the idea that he had the city patent the design.
But Leonard didn’t budget for the cost of cleaning the loos. And that expense—which has ballooned to nearly $90,000 a year—has been paid with the water and sewer bills of city ratepayers.
Now Peterson, who also oversees loo upkeep, has been handed custody of a political orphan—a project City Hall officials either scoff at or don’t want to talk about.
Irate water ratepayers have even sued the city for the $617,588 spent to date on maintaining the loo and marketing it.
If the city wants to make the loo self-funding, it would have to sell at least four toilets a year. And that’s not counting Peterson’s $76,814 annual salary and her benefits—add those in, and the city would need to sell eight loos a year.
Since it began marketing in 2010, the city has sold three.
Peterson did not create the loo, nor did she ask for the task of marketing it. And the cost of the Portland Loo’s trial is chump change compared to some of the city’s other experimental projects, like the multimillion-dollar Portland Streetcar.
But her assignment does suggest how far Portland’s government can drift from its core responsibilities. Providing loos downtown may be a beneficial public service. Trying to sell them around the globe to pay for maintenance? Not so much.
The money Peterson will spend marketing the loo could preserve the job of one of the firefighters or cops who are about to be laid off as new Mayor Charlie Hales tries to account for a $21.5 million budget shortfall.
The loo sales project hasn’t been mentioned as a budget cut. Nobody at City Hall knows how to shut the faucet off.
“Is my time worth it?” asks Peterson, as she walks between loos on Southwest Naito Parkway. “Some days, I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’”
video by Sara Sneath
When Peterson was handed the assignment last December, she
laughed—because working with “a giant stainless-steel thing” is also
how she spends her free time.
In 2005, a year before she landed at the sewer bureau after years spent managing children’s services programs for Multnomah County, Peterson drove with her 16-year-old daughter in a 1970s motor home to Burning Man, the annual weeklong bonfire extravaganza in the Nevada desert.
then, she returns regularly with her partner, artist Martin Montesano,
and his signature machine: a 7-foot-tall, 6-ton mechanical spider called
“The Walking Beast.” (The creature, a perennial Burning Man attraction
now equipped with a massive flamethrower, is housed in a Salem garage.)
Peterson, 54, stands out in the buttoned-down sewer bureau: Her dyed hair is a remnant of the green-and-blue dreadlocks she grew for Burning Man. The day in 2006 when she walked into her Bureau of Environmental Services office—wearing leopard-print calfskin boots—she decided she needed to buy some khakis.
Peterson flourished at the sewer bureau, proving herself a proficient and accomplished project chief. But now—in a legacy of a city that tethered its future to projects outside its borders—she is a loo sales clerk.
Her role—assisted by her boss, facilities manager Scott Turpen—is to field calls from other cities interested in buying a loo, explaining the logistics of purchasing, shipping and installing a toilet. (A Boston official recently expressed worry that the loo, which weighs as much as 6,000 pounds, would crash through the sidewalk and into the subway system.)
Peterson doesn’t do any outreach, and she doesn’t see her mission as entrepreneurial.
“Our goal is not to sell loos,” she says. “That’s a strategy. Our goal is to maintain a public good. And it’s an undefinable public good. Randy Leonard’s office took it on as a hallmark project. And like many hallmark projects, it created issues that weren’t anticipated.”
That main issue is basic: cleaning it.
Portland’s loos are cleaned twice a day by a contractor, managed by the Portland Business Alliance. The cost is $14,566 a year for each toilet.
For six loos, that adds up to $87,396 a year, in addition to a $12,000 mechanical repairs budget. (The city’s seventh loo, which opens May 17 in the Pearl District’s new Fields Park, is an anomaly: It will be cleaned by the Parks & Recreation staff, and is open only during park hours.)
When Leonard announced his idea for the loo in 2008, he cited the fact that the toilets weren’t self-cleaning as a selling point. Seattle had just abandoned its own public-toilet project—the five city-purchased, $1 million automated toilets ended up a squalid mess that attracted drug addicts and prostitutes.
By contrast, the Portland Loo could be cleaned with a hose attached to a faucet on the structure’s wall.
“The guts of this are basic and designed to take a lot of abuse,” Leonard told The Oregonian.
Leonard left office in December. WW attempted to reach him at his new home in West Linn. “I don’t want to talk to you,” Leonard said softly, and closed the door.
Leonard was so proud of his idea that he had the city patent it, at a cost of $15,441. The patent application—approved in July 2010—reads “Inventor: Charles Randall Leonard.” (Private architect Curtis Banger drafted the actual designs.)
The patent application describes the loo as “the brainchild of Commissioner Randy Leonard, who saw a growing global problem and devised a novel, local solution…there is an ever-increasing demand for functional, low-cost, easy-to-maintain, low-power-consuming, safe and accessible public-restroom facilities available to all citizens of a modern society.”
Two years after the Leonard-run Portland Water Bureau began installing loos—at a final cost of $686,000 in general-fund money and $156,000 from the Portland Development Commission—the Water Bureau began marketing the toilet to other cities. The goal, Leonard’s staffers told the press, was to make the city money.
A Portland Loo sells for between $90,000 and $110,000, depending on amenities and whether it includes electric power or solar panels. Madden Fabrication, a welding company in Industrial Northwest Portland, charges $60,000 to build one.
In 2010, Water Bureau officials and Leonard’s staff started sending emails to cities—including Las Vegas, Oakland and San Jose, Calif.—suggesting they buy.
The response was mixed.
“Sounds perfect for so many of our areas,” a staffer in the Berkeley, Calif., mayor’s office wrote the Water Bureau. “Of course, we’d need to find a funding source with things so tight (and scary) here in California.”
The Water Bureau sold its first loo to Victoria, B.C., in 2011; it was promptly voted “Canada’s Best Restroom” after a social-media push by Portland city staffers.
Since February, the city has sold a second and third loo to Ketchikan, Alaska, and Nanaimo, B.C., both for their waterfront tourist districts.
The San Diego City Council is set to finalize its two-loo deal this month, but the contract has hit a familiar snag: Nobody in San Diego has found money for cleaning the toilets.
“In the world of loveliness, there would be cities lining up and we’d be cranking contracts out,” Peterson says.
Back in Portland, hostility grew from the people who were footing the cleaning bill—water ratepayers.
In 2011, ratepayers that included former City Commissioner Lloyd Anderson sued the city, claiming that revenue from water and sewer bills was paying for projects unrelated to providing water and sewer service. One of their targets is the $617,588 of Water Bureau money that’s been spent on maintaining and marketing the loo.
Not long after, former Mayor Sam Adams transferred the loo project to the Bureau of Environmental Services—removing it from an embattled Water Bureau.
Kent Craford, a former seaplane-company CEO who is a spokesman for the plaintiffs, says the city tried to avoid ratepayer scrutiny. “BES got the turd put in their pocket—pun intended,” he says.
Last year, facing a lack of success in selling the loo, the City Council voted to double down—and contract with marketers to sell the loo to other cities, giving them a 10-percent commission for every loo they sold.
The only vote against the plan? City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who called it “ill-timed” and pointed to the lawsuit against the Water Bureau as evidence the city shouldn’t be attempting any additional loo efforts.
Saltzman still opposes using city time to market loos anywhere. He says the idea of paying for loo upkeep by selling more loos is foolhardy.
“Sounds like a drug addiction or something,” Saltzman says. “Sounds like a bad addiction.”
One of the two marketers the city contracted is Greg Madden, who runs Madden Fabrication, the steel company that builds the loo.
The other is Carol McCreary—the woman who originally sold the city on public toilets.
“I’m sure there are people in our bureau who would rather do anything but talk to Carol McCreary,” says Peterson, who now manages her. “They just couldn’t handle the overwhelming nature of her head.”
In 2010, as Portland prepared to unveil its second loo next to the Salmon Springs Fountain on Southwest Naito Parkway and Taylor Street, McCreary ghostwrote a speech for the Water Bureau to use at its “First Flush” opening ceremony.
“A hundred years ago, Simon Benson saw a universal need: the need for a clean drink of water,” the speech begins. “Right now, we’re standing in front of another elegant piece of street furniture. Like the Benson Bubbler, it promotes commerce and tourism and is likely to be seen as the kind of amenity that all cities should have. And like the Benson Bubbler, for me at least, the Portland Loo just shouts out, ‘Welcome to Portland!’”
The expansion of the loo project marked a triumph for McCreary and her organization, Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human, or PHLUSH.
The group was originally formed in 2005 as an ad hoc subcommittee of the Old Town/Chinatown Neighborhood Association. PHLUSH’s original goal was simply to badger city officials into putting public restrooms in Old Town to relieve the city’s homeless.
The group first gained the ear of then-Mayor Tom Potter—who opened City Hall’s restrooms 24 hours a day—and then Leonard.
Two years before Leonard announced his loo plans, PHLUSH published a report calling for public restrooms in Old Town—including the suggestion that the city install free-standing “street furniture.”
“Had Carol [McCreary] not been doing this stuff, there wouldn’t have been a Portland Loo,” says Robert Brubaker, program manager for the American Restroom Association, a Baltimore nonprofit that advocates for public restrooms.
The PHLUSH offices, on the fifth floor of an Old Town office building, look like a sanitation museum crossed with a highway construction site: Plastic buckets and barrels line the walls, including a blue rain barrel with a white seat on top, lettered in curving script: “Donations Accepted Inside.” A cartoon chart of the Portland sewer system is displayed on an easel, and books on the shelves include Rose George’s The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters.
“We human beings are just highly sophisticated tubes,” McCreary says, walking along a MAX line in Old Town. “We’re tubes. And we’re absolutely obsessed about food. But we won’t look at daily needs on the other end.”
McCreary, 67, spent three decades in and out of developing countries: Yemen, Morocco and Afghanistan. Her jobs ranged from developing a TV show with messages about HIV in Pakistan to coaching executives at the Tunisian-American Chamber of Commerce how to get investments.
But it wasn’t until she arrived in Portland in 2002 and began taking care of her aging parents that she became obsessed with public toilets—not for developing nations, but in the First World.
“We’ve got an absolute crisis,” she says. “We don’t talk about it, we don’t write about it. We’re doing toilets all wrong, everywhere.”
McCreary has dedicated herself to fighting the notion that toilets should be private property, indoors and separated by gender, or should even tie into the water system. Instead, she seeks 24-hour, unisex public restrooms as a common good, just like sidewalks or street lamps.
A slight woman with a tuft of white hair, McCreary is a dizzying conversationalist, seemingly hard-wired for epiphanies, which she often yelps out.
Despite her evangelical style, McCreary hasn’t sold a toilet since being contracted to market the Portland Loo last October.
“It just hasn’t been on my radar,” she says.
Peterson still believes she can harness McCreary’s energies toward selling the loo.
“People go to the Macy’s parade to see the balloon,” Peterson says. “That balloon would not be in the parade if not for someone holding onto the cord. I would say Carol is probably a Macy’s balloon. I’m the one holding on.”
The challenge of selling loos has become more difficult—competition has emerged. And it is pricing toilets lower.
Last November, the Cincinnati City Council announced it was looking at buying a Portland Loo for the city’s farmers market. National media trumpeted the proposed purchase as another indication of Portland’s leading role in public toilets.
But Cincinnati backed away in January, citing the cost and saying it wanted to study the project for another year. City officials also said they had found a cheaper free-standing metal toilet, built by a company called Romtec Inc.
“The Portland Loo comes with all the frills and thrills—the solar panels, the stainless steel,” says Jon Harmon, legislative director for Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Seelbach, who first championed the purchase. “The Romtec model has that as an option.”
Romtec Inc. is a private manufacturer of public-restroom buildings in Roseburg—178 miles south of Portland.
Romtec has been selling restrooms to cities and national parks since 1991. But only last year did it begin marketing an item called “the Sidewalk Restroom.”
That metal public restroom looks like the Portland Loo’s identical twin—the same steel structure, the same slats, the same size. On the company’s website, it is billed as “a new direction for urban restrooms.”
The Sidewalk Restroom starts at $38,500.
Greg Madden, the loo builder, says he’s aware of the Sidewalk Restroom. “My marketing technique is to keep improving the loo so it’s the only product out there,” he says.
Despite the fact that Portland is being underbid by more than half, despite officials’ skepticism and despite the ratepayers’ lawsuit, Hales has not cut the loo sales project—or any loo expense—from his bureau-slashing city budget.
“Should the city be in the business of selling products like the loo in the future? I don’t know,” Hales says. “And frankly, it wasn’t as high a priority in my budget as police reform and keeping water and sewer rates low. Will I take a stronger look at the issue for the next budget? Likely.”
One new arrival at City Hall is dubious of the loo sales strategy.
“We shouldn’t be involved in a commercial enterprise that doesn’t make money,” says Commissioner Steve Novick. His colleagues Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish declined to comment.
The mayor has acknowledged that numerous projects in the water and sewer bureaus shouldn’t be funded by utility bills. Hales’ budget proposes moving 11 programs—even those as small as $62,000 for elm-tree protection—from the water and sewer bureaus into the general fund.
But the loo sales experiment persists. It lives on as a shining steel example of how occasionally Portland area governments fund big projects without thinking about the cost of maintaining them.
Multnomah County built the $60 million Wapato Jail in North Portland in 2004 without having the money to run it. It has never housed an inmate, and is now being rented out for movie shoots.
The Portland Streetcar’s eastside extension cost $148 million to build last year, but the city’s funding dropped so much that the streetcar couldn’t afford operators to drive the cars, and had to decrease arrivals.
And Metro’s natural-lands levy on the May 21 ballot asks voters to approve a new tax to upgrade 12,000 acres the planning agency bought with two other tax levies—but has no money to maintain.
Craford says ratepayer advocates are preparing a ballot measure creating a people’s utility district for as early as the May 2014 election—taking the water and sewer departments out of City Hall control and placing them in a public co-op run by an elected board.
He says loo marketing shows ratepayer money is still “being siphoned off for some ex-commissioner’s vanity project. And they don’t see how that’s a problem? We’re not convinced that there’s ever going to be any meaningful change from City Hall.”
Peterson, who will probably be moved to another project at the end of the year, says the loo’s distress is familiar.
“Fifty years from
now, will the loos be as iconic to Portland as the Benson Bubblers?” she
asks. “I sure hope so. [But] you can’t just plunk it down and think
it’s going to maintain itself.”
Portland Loo Locations
- SW Naito Parkway and SW Taylor St.
- SW Naito Parkway and SW Ash St.
- NW Glisan St. between 5th and 6th Aves.
- NW Johnson St. and 11th Ave. at Jamison Square
- NW 10th Ave. and Overton St. at Fields Park
- NW Couch St. and 8th Ave.
- SW Columbia St. and Park Ave.