Oh, the places you’ll go! Public toilets return to Montreal

There is relief — and trepidation — as public loos (these ones self-cleaning) are set to return for the first time in nearly half a century.

Montreal Gazette, Jul 23, 2017
René Bruemmer

Considering they serve a fairly basic function, installing public toilets in a dense urban setting is a complex challenge many major North American cities have managed to fail.

Seattle spent $5 million on five high-tech, self-cleaning toilets in 2003. Stymied by filth, drug use and prostitution, the city threw in the towel five years later and sold them on eBay for $2,500 each.

New York City went through three municipal administrations and 18 years of promises and failed to implement them. Finally, billionaire mayor and philanthropist Michael R. Bloomberg deemed them an essential human right and made public toilets the third priority of his electoral campaign after education and the city budget.

Bloomberg signed a deal in 2005 with a Spanish company to install 20 automated toilets, for free, in exchange for the right to post advertisements. A decade later, only five are open and 15 of them are sitting in a warehouse in Queens.

Toronto, too, signed a contract to install 20 German-made public toilets in 2007. The cost of each was $450,000, the expense to be covered by Astral Media as part of an advertising agreement. Six years later, only three have been installed. The first two had to be shut temporarily over two successive winters because their water lines froze.

It is with a mix of civic pride and some trepidation, then, that Montreal’s Ville-Marie borough approved a contract in April to install 12 self-cleaning public toilets downtown and in Old Montreal.

It will be the first time in nearly half a century that public toilets return to the downtown core, much to the relief of tourists, shop owners and homeless-rights advocates who have been requesting them for years.

But at roughly $300,000 each, they cost more than the average price of a condominium on the island of Montreal. Which comes with a washroom.

And before the contract was even signed, Montreal’s attempts were mired in controversy.

A previous initiative by Ville-Marie in 2014 was quashed because the sole bidder didn’t meet city standards.

For the current $3.6-million, three-year contract, only one company submitted a bid. In February, opposition party Projet Montréal called for it to be rejected because Atmosphäre, the Mirabel-based urban furniture supply company that won the bid, shares the same address, phone number and three administrators with Imagineo Inc. That firm’s former director of operations was fined $210,000 and received a nine-month suspended prison sentence in 2014 and 2015 for helping his company obtain tax refunds for invented expenses.

He was also reported to have admitted to submitting fake tax bills and offering bribes to win public contracts. The city countered it has verified Atmosphäre’s bid and all is in order.

Since then, municipal authorities and involved parties have been markedly hesitant to discuss the issue.

The Montreal Gazette asked to interview Atmosphäre about the challenges involved in installing public toilets in an urban centre, but company director Pierre Moulin denied the request and suggested a reporter speak to the civil servant in charge of the dossier.

Requests with the Ville-Marie borough to speak to the civil servant were denied as well. A city spokesperson responded to questions via email.

Requests to speak to an elected official with the city about the project were also denied.

The installation of the first public toilet, which was to be ready by August, is already behind schedule. The latest forecast is for “the fall.”

The choice of where to place the toilets is still “under analysis,” the city said.

Images of what they will look like are not available, the city said.

Atmosphäre’s marketing director also declined requests for photos, because “we don’t have a showroom at our Mirabel plant that would allow you to take nice photos to go with your article.”

Long a staple in European cities like Paris, which has 400 self-cleaning “sanisettes,” public toilets are relatively scarce in North America, primarily for reasons of cost and upkeep. But the need is still compelling.

For the elderly or people with medical conditions like irritable bowel syndrome or diabetes or Crohn’s disease, easy access to a public restroom without the cost or embarrassment of having to ask to use restaurant facilities is a major factor influencing whether they will leave their home.

In Montreal, shopkeepers and merchants have been calling for them to entice tourists and shoppers, and to help keep the neighbourhood clean, while social workers raise the question of basic human dignity for the homeless population.

“The city of Montreal, like other large cities, wants to offer its citizens as well as its many visitors facilities that are clean, accessible and safe,” Ville-Marie spokesperson Anik de Repentigny said in an email.

Maintaining clean, safe facilities is not an easy task, however. Urban public toilets located in a climate zone like Montreal’s — that ranges between freezing and sweltering — must be heated and air-conditioned.

They must also be connected to the city’s water, sewage and electrical systems, and be sturdy enough to resist vandalism.

Even high-end, self-cleaning loos can fall victim to grime and crime. Montreal intends to install models that resemble Seattle’s pricey automatic toilets, which included a self-cleaning system to disinfect the toilets and floors after every use. But those still became refuges for drug addicts and illicit sex. And they got filthy.

“I’m not going to lie: I used to smoke crack in there,” a homeless woman told the New York Times, referring to the public toilet behind Pike Place Market on the eve of its removal in 2008. “But I won’t even go inside that thing now. It’s disgusting.”

Such was the mess that Seattle had to pay an extra $540,000 fee to end its maintenance contract five years early with the company, Northwest Cascade, a local firm with no prior experience in providing public restrooms.

“Free restrooms in gas stations and coffee shops are going extinct because people are worse than animals,” wrote one commenter on the Montreal City weblog. Two of his clients run more than 7,000 gas stations and convenience stores in the U.S., he said, and half of those properties don’t offer public restrooms anymore because “employees often quit on the spot rather than deal with whatever fresh nightmare has been discovered in the bathroom.”

Success in Vancouver
Can cities make money off public toilets? Some municipalities offset the cost of public toilets by setting up advertising deals.

Established companies like French firm JCDecaux provide and service self-cleaning public toilets to municipalities worldwide for free in exchange for the right to post advertising on benches, kiosks and other street furniture.

Vancouver opted to go with JCDecaux in 2007, signing a contract to install and maintain eight self-cleaning public toilets downtown.

They included two toilets in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood — an area long plagued by the ills of drug addiction, mental illness and homelessness. Laneways there had to be flushed nightly to remove the filth of human excrement and urine and its odours, which helped to spur the quest for public toilets.

In exchange for installing and servicing the toilets, JCDecaux sells advertisements on the sides of street furniture it supplies, and pays a portion of its profits back to Vancouver.

The city is up to nine public toilets now, with three more coming in the next two years, and pays about $400,000 annually to maintain them, the Vancouver Sun reported.

City councillors are pushing for more so older residents and those with medical issues will feel more comfortable “going out to run errands, exercise and socialize, thus encouraging healthy, active aging,” Vancouver’s senior advisory committee said.

Vancouver also has 94 public toilets in its city parks, but most are locked by dusk.

Vancouver, like Montreal, lacks public facilities in its public transit systems, another barrier to mobility for people with urinary issues.

“We have found (the automated toilets) to be successful,” Amanda McCuaig, communications manager for the engineering division of the city of Vancouver, wrote in an email.“The units are available 24 hours per day, seven days per week, at no cost in the downtown area.”

Montreal, like Seattle (where city ordinances prohibit public advertising), is opting not to go with advertising-funded toilets “at this point,” de Repentigny wrote, presumably to limit the amount of advertising in the downtown core.

Those that have opted for the advertising-funded route have hadissues, including in Los Angeles and New York, where neighbourhood groups protested building new structures on which to place ads, cutting the revenue needed to install new toilets.

Los Angeles and Vancouver officials reported few problems with crime or drugs in their facilities, although Vancouver residents have complained they can be dirty and smelly.

Still, as one person commented, they’re better than nothing in an emergency.

Sex and drugs
Montreal’s toilets will need to be strong enough to withstand the hardships of winter, large enough to allow wheelchair access, and hardy enough to accommodate thousands people a year, de Repentigny said.

One of Toronto’s public toilets — at Rees St. and Queens Quay W. on Toronto’s harbourfront — sees more than 10,000 users a year.

The upscale Bryant Park public washroom in New York City, which just received a $300,000 upgrade — including framed art on the walls and imported tile — has more than $1.2 million visitors a year. It also has a full-time paid attendant to keep an eye on things.

Montreal’s toilets will not have any attendants, but the contractor is mandated to keep it stocked with disinfectant and toilet paper and ensure it’s in running order.

As well, Montreal’s contract calls for structures that blend in with the existing architecture. In a city that takes pride in its appearance, they must also aspire to a higher aesthetic than the functional steel and brick prison-like facilities on offer in some areas.

The city is also holding the supplier responsible for ensuring the structures remain vandalism- and graffiti-free, which is why potential bidders like Urben Blu of Boisbriand bowed out, telling the Canoe.ca news outlet it felt the maintenance costs would add up to a loss.

Atmosphäre, which won the Montreal contract, is importing its toilets from Toilitech, an Italian-based firm that produces a wide variety washrooms, mostly sold on the European market. Their website lists one outdoor toilet in North America, situated in Bromont.

Because the toilets will be located in high-traffic, well-lit areas, and the doors are programmed to open automatically after 15-20 minutes, Montreal authorities are hoping drug use and illicit sex won’t be a problem.

A sensor can also be placed in the floor to stop the door from closing if two adults are inside, de Repentigny said.

Seattle tries again
After conceding defeat with its toilets in 2008, Seattle decided to try again this year, this time opting for a simplified model.

It is planning to install a Portland Loo-style model in its historic Pioneer Square downtown neighbourhood where tourists, sports fans and the homeless congregate.

The cost is $230,000 U.S.,the Seattle Times reported, which includes $100,000 for the toilet itself and another $100,000 or more for installation, transportation and other contingencies.

Named for the Oregon city in which it was designed, the Portland Loo is made from heavy-gauge stainless steel with a graffiti-resistant finish and has angled steel slats at the top and bottom that allow police and others to see how many people are inside, while still providing privacy.

It also has a sink for hand-washing on the outside to discourage bathing and laundry-washing, and a concrete floor and a back door so workers can use a pressure washer several times a day to hose it down.

While those features make it cheaper and easier to clean and service, they would not work in a Montreal winter.

Victoria, with its milder climate, has a Portland Loo. In 2012, it won an award for Canada’s best public toilet.

In Seattle, locals applauded the city’s second attempt.

“This is about a basic human right,” Phil Bevis, the owner of Arundel Books in Pioneer Square, told the Times.

“This is a long time coming.”

How do self-cleaning toilets work?

Automatic, self-cleaning toilets like the ones Montreal plans to install are common in Europe.

According to the technical specifications of the TMAX toilet designed by Toilitech, the Italian firm supplying Montreal’s new loos, their system guarantees a “perfect wash, disinfection and drying of the toilet” when the user is not in the cubicle.

A moving arm that emerges from a slot in the wall slowly passes over the toilet, spraying water and disinfectant to clean it and then pressurized air to dry it.

At the same time, a horizontal bar comes out from the bottom of one wall and pushes any debris across the floor and into a slot that opens on the opposite wall.

The bar, which runs the width of the cubicle, has eight nozzles that spray a disinfectant wash on the floor, which drains through slats.

Then the bar reverses, drying the floor with squeegees similar to windshield washers.

The walls around the toilet and washbasin are also washed, up to a height of just under a metre. The whole process takes about a minute.

There is a self-cleaning stainless steel washbasin, and an emergency button to call for assistance.

The entire structure measures roughly two metres wide by three metres long and can accommodate a wheelchair.

The interior walls are made of a high-pressure laminate impregnated with resins designed to be fireproof and resistant to graffiti and vandalism.

The doors will still work in the case of a power outage, and will open automatically after 15 minutes to deter people from using the space for prostitution or drug-taking.

A weight-detecting sensor can be installed in the floor to detect if there are more than two adults inside and won’t allow the door to close.

The prefabricated toilet structure is lowered onto a prefabricated concrete foundation from a truck outfitted with a crane. Connections to electrical, sewage and water outlets are carried out by the city, and the firm takes care of maintaining the facility and supplying soap and toilet paper.

The washbasin and garbage chute are “anti-syringe” and the mirror is stainless steel.

“Vandal-proof” is a running theme in the technical descriptions.

If the toilet is blocked, it is programmed to shut and post an “out of order” sign automatically until a technician comes to fix it.

The ‘camilliennes’

Public toilets were once relatively commonplace, and treated as a basic public service for thousands of years.

Romans used them as far back as the second century B.C., with rows of holes cut into a bench where people would sit side by side. Even then, they weren’t very clean, archeologists have found.

In medieval London, many public toilets were situated over rivers, and there was even an 84-seater called Whittington’s Longhouse, named “after Dick Whittington, Mayor of London, who apparently frequented this establishment in 1480,” notes Clara Greed in Inclusive Urban Design: Public Toilets.

The Industrial Revolution, with its mass migration of people into urban settings to work in the factories, necessitated the creation of better sewage systems to ward off disease.

In Montreal, public toilets were scant until then-mayor Camillien Houde decided they should be built as a make-work Depression-era project in the 1930s.

Octagonal and ornate, with stone walls, large windows, elegant ironwork and copper roofs, the buildings masked their function and were so attractive that some models have been converted — like the one in Dorchester Square downtown that is now a a café-bar serving sandwiches and ice cream.

They were also criticized when they were first built for being too expensive.

The “camilliennes,” as they came to be known — a play on the French term, vespasiennes — lasted until the mid-1970s, when then-mayor Jean Drapeau decided they had to be shut because they were too costly to clean and maintain.

Critics have surmised the closures may also have been due to Drapeau’s more puritanical sensibilities, amid fears the toilets were being used for illicit gambling and sex, in the same way he had thousands of trees razed on Mount Royal in 1954 because Montrealers were thought to be using the coverage of greenery to engage in hanky-panky.